This is likely my last post of the year, unless I absolutely tear my hair out over Hall of Fame voting. No, I’d like to end the year on a high note and talk about the Mariner player who made the team so much more watchable during what can only be termed a crappy year. That player is Nelson Cruz.
When Nellie was signed by Jack Zdurencik in 2014, I was at best ambiguous. Cruz was an aging slugger, one year removed from the Biogenesis scandal. He’d hit 40 homers in Baltimore’s bandbox of a ballpark (sorry, I say this with all the admiration I can possibly muster,) but he also struck out 140 times. He had the 9% walk rate and the 20.7% K rate, but there was something about the righthanded wRC+ of 137 that just grabbed my eye. And, of course, he was Zdurencik’s wet dream. Right handed hitter with power. But he was also on the wrong side of 34, and how long might the good times last?
I was wrong, wrong as I could be. There is no player I’ve enjoyed watching more than Nelson Cruz the past three years. Yes, he still strikes out too much. But if chicks dig the long ball, they must be in ecstasy when the Boomstick is hot. In 2017 Cruz was shy one homer from hitting forty in each of his first three season as a Mariner.
One thing I clearly overlooked was how tough the man is. First, he is just a huge dude. Baseball Reference has him listed at 6’2″ 230 lbs, but he seems so much bigger. Maybe not Aaron Judge big, but he’s a freak, no Cruz seems maybe two inches taller. I loved his effort in the outfield his first couple of years, even though he was a pulled hamstring or a disastrous collision away from being out of the lineup. I also loved his effort on the bases, with all the previous conditions applied. But even as a DH, it is clear Cruz plays hurt. Remember the September series in Minnesota 2016, with the M’s barely hanging on to Wild Card contention, and Cruz screaming in pain with a wrist injury after every swing? Boomstick tallied four homers in that series and the M’s took two out of three. It’s clear Cruz had times when he was struggling with injuries during the 2017 season. Hell, every Mariner player did, but Nellie played in 155 games, just as he did in 2016.
In 2017 Nelson Cruz won the Edgar Marinez Award for best DH. In each of his three years as a Mariner he’s gotten MVP votes. This year, his home runs were down, his average was about the median for his three Seattle years, but he led the league in RBI’s with 119, a career high, by settling for singles sacrifice flies to drive in runs, and raising his walk rate to highest for a full season at 10.9 percent.
But most of all I was impressed with Nelson Cruz the teammate, and Nelson Cruz the person. Every new Mariner talks about the clubhouse and how positive their experience is, and frequently mentions Cruz and his co-agitator Robinson Cano and their role in keeping things light but accountable. Cruz also gave a pair or wonderful interviews to ESPN’s Marly Rivera about his experience as a Domincan player making the change to the United States. I’ll never forget how much the stories on May 9th and June 24th humanized him. And then his antics at the All-Star game, the selfie with umpire Joe West. It just doesn’t get any better.
I may be just a sentimental old fool, but I am impressed with players who not only play great on the field, but do something more. Cruz’s contribution to baseball academies in the Dominican Republic are legendary. It is no surprise to me that he organized pre-spring practice in Florida during the Winter Meetings and that he singled out new centerfielder Dee Gordon to take part.
There hasn’t been a lot of Mariner team success to celebrate the past three years. But what little we’ve enjoyed, Nelson Cruz has been a big part of. This is the final year of his four year deal. He’ll be 38 on July 1st. Despite the fact that he seems ageless, it’s hard to imagine the M’s bringing the Boomstick back. It’s just as hard to imagine the Mariners without him, but 2018 is probably the end.
Happy new year Nelson, and new year M’s fans. My fingers are crossed for 2018, as always.