SARASOTA, FLA. — While Nelson Cruz's one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles was being finalized, players spent the past few days answering questions about how Cruz would be accepted inside the Orioles clubhouse.
The 33-year-old gives the Orioles the middle-of-the-order power bat the club had been searching for this offseason, but served a 50-game suspension last season as part of the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drug scandal.
But before Cruz was introduced to the media on Tuesday morning at the Ed Smith Stadium complex, his new teammates made a statement of solidarity that spoke volumes without saying a word.
A group of eight core Orioles players — Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy, Manny Machado, Nick Markakis, Darren O'Day and Tommy Hunter — along with hitting coach Jim Presley, filed into the room before Tuesday's press conference and watched from behind the row of cameras in support of their new slugger.
"That means they care about their teammates," Cruz said during the press conference. "From experience, I know the closer you are to your teammates, the better you're going to perform on the field. We are now a family, and we're going to stick together the whole time."
The Orioles officially introduced their third free-agent acquisition in a frenzy of moves made since arriving in Sarasota that includes the acquisitions of Cruz, frontline right-handed starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez and South Korean right-hander Suk-min Yoon. Three three pushed the club's projected Opening Day payroll to a franchise-record $105 million.
"I'm glad we could make this a habit," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said about the team's third press conference in the past eight days. "[Cruz] presents a good presence in the middle of the lineup, which will extend our lineup and make our team more formidable."
Cruz has averaged 26 homers over the past five seasons with the Texas Rangers, has hit 14 home runs in 34 postseason games — he was the 2011 American League Championship Series MVP — and is a .333 hitter in 21 career games at Camden Yards.
Add his bat into a lineup that led the majors with 212 homers, and the Orioles in 2014 will field one of baseball's most power-packed batting orders.
"Every time you play the Orioles, the presence of the hitters, that always sticks out in your mind," Cruz said. "Hopefully, I come in and do my job. I'm excited about this opportunity. I'm going to be in a great ballpark in a great division. I like the challenge and I like to compete, so this is the best atmosphere I [can be] in."
The Orioles clubhouse has two players — Markakis and Davis — who have been vocal about PED offenders. After he was slapped with a 50-game suspension last August, Cruz quickly apologized, saying that a gastrointestinal infection that went undiagnosed and made him lose 40 pounds led him to use PEDs.
Cruz responded to PED-related questions Tuesday with quick answers.
"Whatever happened in the past, I look to move forward and have a great year with the Baltimore Orioles," Cruz said.
His teammates apparently didn't need to hear that. Cruz has the reputation of being a solid teammate and players such as Davis, O'Day, Hunter and Hardy have played with him in the past.
"Just kind of giving him a little bit of support," Hardy said. "We all know him from playing against him or playing with him. I played with him in Milwaukee, half of this clubhouse played with him in Texas. He's a good guy. He's a friend of all of ours. So, it was just kind of a way, I guess, to show him that we want to welcome him here with open arms."
Jones, the Orioles' center fielder, echoed that sentiment.
"It was a lot of position players that showed up," Jones said. "He's going to be formidable in our lineup and we want to show our support. The guys in there, we've been around a little bit and so we kind of understand what's going on and we wanted him to feel welcome and he's welcome in this clubhouse."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he wasn't surprised to see his players lined up in the back of the complex's media room when he entered for the press conference.
"It was their choice to be there ," Showalter said. "I feel really good about the welcoming nature of our clubhouse and the way these guys feel about these things. They know that all of this is going to pass and you're going to end up with 25 people getting on a plane."
In Baltimore, Cruz will also be reunited with Showalter, who managed the slugger in 2006, when Cruz received his first extended playing time in the majors.
"The one common denominator when you talk to people about Nelson is about his relationship with his teammates and his city," Showalter said. "This is one of the most popular players in Texas. He's a real sincere guy. It's one of those things where he'll show you, not talk about it. That part of the equation we felt real good about.
"And any time you've got first-hand knowledge of a guy, the way he conducts himself, you feel real good about that part. The only thing you want to have challenge guys is the game itself, and he has a way of making his teammates better by the way he treats them."
Those connections might have made Baltimore the best fit for Cruz in looking for a fresh start. After Cruz declined a qualifying offer for $14.1 million in November, the Orioles had varied levels of interest. But as free-agents tied to draft-pick compensation like Cruz remained unsigned as spring training got underway, the Orioles were able to lock him up on a below-market deal.
"Just like any decision any of us make, there are points in time and in our lives and this was the best fit at that moment," said Adam Katz, Cruz's agent. "It was a decision and a judgment that we made. All things were considered — the park, the management, the manager, the quality of the team, Dan Duquette. Lots of things came into play. Four or five days ago when this became real, it became clear that this was the exact right thing to do and we're very pleased with it."
Cruz, who has primarily played right field during his career, will likely see most of his at bats as a designated hitter in the fifth spot in the Orioles' batting order. But Showalter said Cruz's addition will allow him to rotate the DH spot to keep other players fresh.
"I have a lot of respect for what he's accomplished on both sides of the baseball and we'd be foolish not to take advantage of that," Showalter said of Cruz. "So, we're going to keep everybody in the flow and see how the club shakes out. … Sometimes, you don't know exactly how it's going to work out. His acquisition helps me keep everybody healthy as we go forward."
After brining in Cruz — who was a full participant in his first Orioles workout immediately following the press conference Tuesday — Duquette indicated he's done completing his big-ticket free agent shopping list.
"I don't anticipate any players of this caliber soon, but we're always looking around," Duquette said. "We're glad to have Nelson. Nelson is a proven slugger. He's one of the few guys who has hit over 20 home runs over the last five years, and you heard from his former team [about] what a great teammate he is. He's a real solid addition to our team, both personally and by what he brings on the field."
Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun