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Larry Stone: The Mariners need to keep top slugger Nelson Cruz in Seattle

UPDATED: Tue., July 10, 2018

By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – General manager Jerry Dipoto is wrapped up in a new long-term deal, and he all but telegraphed that an extension for manager Scott Servais is imminent. So one last Mariners personnel issue now rises to the forefront.

Namely, what do they do about designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who turned 38 last week and is in the final year of the best free-agent contract in franchise history?

As Cruz prepares for his third All-Star appearance in the four years of the deal (and he was deserving of the honor in 2016), the answer seems clear: The Mariners should make it a clean sweep and move to bring Cruz back for 2019, and perhaps even 2020.

It doesn’t quite fall into the category of “no-brainer,” for a couple of reasons. The first is obvious: Cruz’s age is a red flag that a performance decline could be on the horizon. And it’s almost inevitable that a player’s body starts to break down with increasing frequency once he hits his late 30s.

But Cruz’s production belies those concerns. Since 2014 – the year following his 50-game suspension for violating MLB’s drug policy after being connected to the Biogenesis PED scandal – he has been one of baseball’s top sluggers.

In his first three years in Seattle, Cruz averaged 42 homers, 105 RBIs and a .925 OPS. And this year, even with a stint on the disabled list, he is on pace for 39 homers, 91 RBIs and a .909 OPS. Cruz’s slugging percentage of .549 – identical to last year’s – is eighth best in the American League.

In other words, Cruz could suffer a modest decline in performance and still be among the most productive designated hitters in the American League. The injuries he suffered this year were more of a fluky variety – spraining his ankle falling down the dugout stairs and getting hit by a pitch – than signs of a deteriorating body. The Mariners could take some encouragement from their batting coach, Edgar Martinez, who put up a .966 OPS as a 38-year-old DH in 2001 (with 23 homers and 116 RBIs) – and .895 at age 40.

The other complicating factor for Cruz is the suddenly uncertain future of second baseman Robinson Cano, who is serving an 80-game suspension for violating MLB’s drug policy. When Cruz signed his four-year, $57 million deal with the Mariners before the 2015 season, he cited the presence of close friend Cano as one of the prime reasons he chose Seattle. But now the Mariners must figure out what to do with Cano for the final five years of his massive contract, and Cruz’s future could be linked to the decision.

Everyone knows, and has known, that Cano almost certainly will wind up as a DH before the contract is through. The question is how quickly it will happen – and whether his suspension hastens that transition.

Cano’s removal has provided an unexpected showcase for Dee Gordon at second base, and Gordon has played so well on defense it’s hard not to conclude that the Mariners would be better off keeping him there, even beyond this season. Gordon gave center field a valiant try, and might eventually become a plus defender there, but he is an instinctive, quality second baseman right now, superior to Cano in range at this stage of their careers.

If Dipoto and Servais have the same judgment, then the Mariners have two options with Cano – first base or DH. No, trading him is not an option, with more than $100 million left on his contract, so get that notion out of your mind.

First base makes the most sense, given that Cano is still an asset with the glove. The Mariners, of course, already have a 26-year-old, potential-laden (and inexpensive) first baseman in Ryon Healy, who is on pace to hit 32 home runs. Healy, however, has a negative WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in both the Fangraphs and Baseball Reference rankings.

It’s likely that Cano, who turns 36 in October, is not ready to accept a full-time DH role. But his bargaining power in that regard diminished greatly when he was suspended. The beauty of Cruz, however, is that he has fully embraced the DH position, and has learned the nuances from the best, Martinez.

Dipoto and Servais will have to untangle all this. But for now these are heady days for the Mariners, who are on a 100-win pace and poised for their first playoff berth since 2001. Cruz is not only the heartbeat of the Mariners’ clubhouse, the quiet leader through whom all business flows, he has found a home here, with a vested interest in the city of Seattle.

The key for the Mariners is to make sure that this is not just a brief flash of success, followed by regression to the old days of mediocrity. The entire team returns next year with two possible exceptions – Andrew Romine and Cruz, both set to become free agents.

Romine is an expendable utility man, but Cruz has become the engine of what appears to be the best Seattle ballclub in more than a decade. The Mariners should work to ensure it remains that way.

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