Orioles beat reporter Eduardo A. Encina talks about Nelson Cruz agreeing to a four-year deal with the Seattle Mariners and what that means for the Orioles. (Kevin Richardson)
From the moment the Orioles signed Nelson Cruz to a club-friendly, one-year contract in February, both sides knew the slugger would be able to test the free-agent market again this offseason, seeking the lucrative deal he didn't receive then.
The Orioles still saw re-signing Cruz as one of their current offseason priorities, but the major leagues' reigning home run champion received the deal Monday that he was seeking elsewhere.
Cruz agreed to terms Monday with the Seattle Mariners on a four-year, $57 million deal plus a $1 million signing bonus. The deal is pending a physical, which Cruz is expected to take this week.
Although somewhat expected, Cruz's departure leaves a huge hole in the middle of the Orioles' lineup. He hit 40 home runs, drove in 108 runs — at times carrying the offense on his broad shoulders — and was voted this year's Most Valuable Oriole.
Both Cruz and the Orioles had publicly postured for him to remain in Baltimore since the season ended, but the fourth year offered by the Mariners appeared to be the difference in the veteran slugger's heading west.
"Cruz had a great year," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "And he helped us accomplish a few things like making the playoffs and winning a series to advance us to the [American League Championship Series].
"He did a good job here. At the same time, you try to balance the long-term and short-term and just do the best we can between the options we have."
The Orioles were informed Monday that Cruz had received a four-year offer totaling $58 million from another team, multiple sources said.
The Orioles offered Cruz a three-year contract extension after he hit 28 home runs in the first half, but he was looking for a five-year deal, according to industry sources.
In a recent radio interview, Cruz reiterated that he wanted to remain in Baltimore and that the Orioles were still his first choice.
The Orioles' three-year offer to Cruz remained on the table after this past season, according to an industry source, but the club was wary of extending him for a fourth year through 2018, when he will turn 38.
But before his deal with the Mariners, the Orioles believed that they might still be the best situation for Cruz.
This past season, Cruz made a career-high 89 starts at designated hitter, which helped keep him healthy throughout the year (Cruz has a history of left hamstring and quadriceps injuries in the second half of seasons). But that also seemingly took him off of the market for most National League teams.
The Orioles seemed more optimistic about re-signing Cruz in recent days, but the club's brass always realized it would only take one team to make a four-year offer. And the Mariners — a team that courted Cruz last offseason and desperately needed a right-handed power hitter — always seemed to be the most likely fit.
The Orioles will receive a compensation pick — between the first and second rounds — in next year's draft because Cruz was made a qualifying offer for a one-year, $15.3 million deal that he declined. The Mariners will forfeit their first-round pick, currently No. 19 overall, as part of the process.
Duquette signed Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal in February after Cruz was unable to get a multiyear deal. Cruz also was tied to draft pick compensation after declining a qualifying offer from the Texas Rangers, and he was coming off a 50-game suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drugs scandal.
The signing turned out to be one of baseball's best bargains in 2014. Cruz enjoyed a career year while hitting in the middle of a quality Orioles lineup and playing in hitter-friendly Camden Yards, even though he hit more home runs on the road (25) than at home (15).
The effect that Cruz's departure will have on potentially re-signing right fielder Nick Markakis is unclear. The Orioles and Markakis appeared to be fairly close last month to a four-year deal worth between $10 million and $12 million annually. But those negotiations have stalled, and multiple sources said late Monday that there looks to be less than a 50-50 chance that Markakis returns to the Orioles.
Other teams appear to be interested, and it's possible that he could get a four-year deal — and perhaps more money — elsewhere. Markakis, however, has spoken publicly several times in the past about wanting to remain with the Orioles.
If Markakis leaves, the Orioles' starting outfield — at this moment — would be center fielder Adam Jones flanked by Alejandro De Aza in left field and Steve Pearce in right field. Meanwhile, the Orioles were linked to free-agent outfielder Torii Hunter and reportedly inquired about Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp.
"We also have some resources we can re-invest in the 2015 team," Duquette said. "I'm sure we'll get some quality players to help the team."
NOTES: The Orioles are expected to tender contracts to all 11 of their arbitration-eligible players by today's deadline: Zach Britton, Chris Davis, De Aza, Ryan Flaherty, Miguel Gonzalez, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, Bud Norris, Pearce, Chris Tillman and Matt Wieters. … Double-A Bowie field coach Butch Davis, who spent the past two decades as a coach in the Orioles minor league system, was announced Monday as the new Minnesota Twins first base coach under manager Paul Molitor.