Orioles have every reason to bring back Nelson Cruz, but they might not be able to

Peter Schmuck
Contact ReporterThe Schmuck Stops Here
The Orioles should bring back Nelson Cruz next year. The question is, can they?

Here's a happy thought while everyone tries to look into the future and figure out how the Orioles roster will look when spring training begins in February:

Next year's starting lineup is going to look a lot like what this year's starting lineup looked like when the Orioles still had two of baseball's best players at their respective positions healthy and available.

It should be comforting to know that, with the re-signing of shortstop J.J. Hardy, the Orioles already have their entire starting infield and All-Star center fielder under club control. Matt Wieters should be back behind the plate, and nobody seems to think right fielder Nick Markakis is going anywhere.

Which means Orioles manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette ought to have plenty of time to convince owner Peter Angelos of the importance of signing Nelson Cruz to a multiyear contract.

Cruz isn't going to come cheap. He has been there and done that for the Orioles, leading the major leagues in home runs on a one-year, $8 million contract that was the baseball equivalent of buying him at a swap meet.

The club almost certainly will make him a qualifying offer, which means he can come back for one year at a salary of about $15 million, but he's not going to be wandering around the free-agent market for three months with his hat in his hand, as he did last year. If the Orioles want to keep him, they'll probably have to offer him a multiyear deal that pays him as much or more per year than that qualifying-offer price.

The good news on this front is that Cruz has made it pretty clear that he enjoyed his Baltimore experience and would like to stick around for a few more years. On the flip side, the Orioles payroll is a fast-rising tide, with a large number of players due significant raises in arbitration, so it remains to be seen whether the 2015 budget will allow the club to make Cruz a competitive offer.

If it comes down to whether Cruz is willing to stay for less, that could be problematic, since he has to feel the Orioles already got plenty of added value on the way to their first American League East title since 1997.

Club officials recognize the impact Cruz had on that outcome, but they also need to factor in the positive effect he had on other players in the lineup. Adam Jones spoke glowingly at the end of the season about the confidence he derived from Cruz's presence behind him in the batting order, and it was obvious Cruz created a comfort zone for the younger Latino players on the roster, most notably rookie second baseman Jonathan Schoop.

Duquette acknowledged all of that when he met with the media Friday afternoon, but he was decidedly noncommittal when asked how the team is approaching the negotiations with Cruz, which already are in a preliminary stage.

"He's an excellent leader, he's a very good role model, he led the league in home runs and he had a great year,'' Duquette said. "I really appreciate the veteran leadership that he gave the team. Having said that, he came here to have a platform year to get himself re-established to get him a long-term deal, and that's something we will have to consider."

Since Cruz is 34, we're not talking about a six-year, $100 million contract. The Orioles likely would prefer to offer him a two-year deal with an option worth about $30 million guaranteed. He could get more than that on the open market, but some of the big-market teams might not be in play this year.

The New York Yankees have to find a place to hide Alex Rodriguez, and they don't have an opening in left field. The Boston Red Sox still have designated hitter David Ortiz for one more guaranteed year. The best fit, other than the Orioles, might be the Seattle Mariners, who could use Cruz's pop and have a couple places to put him.

Hopefully, the Orioles won't slow-play the situation. They need to make their best offer early enough that Cruz still has a nice, warm feeling about the organization, but Duquette seemed to hedge a bit when he was pressed on the subject Friday.

"We're going to put together the strongest team we can put together with the resources we have, but we have really good pieces already in place,'' he said. "We have the opportunity for a lot of those people to return for next year."

That's true, but the chances of the Orioles getting to the World Series next year will be a lot better if Cruz is one of them.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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