Four years after helping the Orioles to their only division title in nearly two decades, Seattle Mariners slugger Nelson Cruz returned to Camden Yards this week as very much the same hitter he was during his one spectacular season in Baltimore in 2014.
The Orioles wanted to keep Cruz after he hit a majors-leading 40 homers in a season in which he carried the offense at times on his broad shoulders, but their offer to retain him didn’t include a fourth year that would carry through his age-38 season. The Mariners were the only team to make an offer that included that additional year, and he signed a four-year, $57 million deal with Seattle.
This year, Cruz has shown he was worth the risk.
Cruz turns 38 on Sunday, and his 146 homers since the beginning of the 2015 season are the most of any major league player over that span. He is one of just seven players to post an offensive wins above replacement of 17 or more over that stretch, and the only one in that group to do so through his mid-30s.
This season, Cruz — who was scratched from Tuesday’s game with lower back tightness — has 20 homers, is tied for second-most in the American League, a .566 slugging percentage that ranks sixth in the AL and is likely heading for his second straight All-Star Game this month.
“He still can hit,” said Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop when told that Cruz will turn 38 on Sunday. “I think he can still play another 10 years with the way he looks.”
If the Orioles were concerned that Cruz wouldn’t hold up through a fourth year, they weren’t the only ones. Cruz received several three-year offers — including some that held a higher average annual value than the $14.25 million a year he received from the Mariners — but Seattle was the only team that had faith that he would hold up through the fourth season.
“It feels like it was just yesterday that I was here, and I feel like it was just yesterday that I played my first game in the big leagues,” Cruz said Tuesday. “Definitely time goes quick, you know. You learn a lot. I guess you fail a lot, too, more than you have success. It’s a process and you have to trust in what you got and the ability God gave you and trust the work you put in every day.
“I know more tips [now] maybe. I keep preparing the same way that I did when I was here. Working out, take my naps, get my rest, watch videos. I think maybe you learn more about your body and also to prepare for the games better. Besides that, it’s not really that different.”
At the time the Orioles attempted to retain Cruz after the 2014 season, they had just signed shortstop J.J. Hardy to a three-year, $39 million extension. After advancing to the American League Championship Series — their deepest postseason run since 1997 — they wanted to prioritize retaining Cruz and longtime Oriole Nick Markakis.
The Orioles gave Markakis a four-year, $40 million offer early in the offseason, but that deal came off the table when an MRI showed a bulging disk in his neck. At the same time, they had a three-year offer to Cruz on the table, but the Mariners extended a fourth year. The Orioles were left in the cold on both players when Atlanta came forward with a four-year offer that Markakis took. In part because of the club’s indecisiveness, both players went from targets to wearing new uniforms within 72 hours.
Cruz said Tuesday that he’s thought about what would have happened had he remained in Baltimore, and Monday’s series opener conjured up those thoughts again. But his Mariners team is contending for their first postseason berth since Cruz has been there, and Markakis’ Braves are leading the NL East.
“Yeah, I think that year [in 2014] was special,” Cruz said. “You have to think that Nick Markakis was there, too. We were in the same boat, we both signed for four years and we were in the same boat and now we’re both going to be free agents again. I was thinking about it yesterday. Time goes quick and you think about what it would be like to be together, but you cannot change what ends up happening. It is what it is.
“When I left, [the Orioles] still went to the playoffs [in 2016], so it wasn’t too bad for them. In my case, after a few years, it might be the time for us.”
Would the Orioles have set up their fate better had they retained Cruz? That much can’t be guaranteed. There’s no question his clubhouse presence — as well as Markakis’ — was missed. And Cruz served as a mentor for budding superstars Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop.
“He would have helped the team a lot,” Schoop said. “We don’t think about it a lot, but if he was here we would have been better, especially with me because he was a good mentor since I got called up. He was here he helped me and helped my game. He still helps me if he can, gives me advice.”
Even though Cruz was with the Orioles for just one season, Schoop said he brought credibility to the clubhouse, especially because he overcame a slow climb — it took Cruz until he was 28 to establish himself as a big leaguer — to become one of the top sluggers in the game.
“His way to the big leagues wasn’t easy, so he worked hard and he taught us, if you work hard, this is what you can do,” Schoop said. “You work hard and go 0-for-4, you can still sleep because you know you worked hard. That’s the thing he tells me all the time. Baseball is tough. You might feel good and the next day you could go 0-for-20, but you keep trying to work hard and enjoy the game.”
Before Monday’s series opener, Cruz impressed the same advice on Schoop, who is batting just .205 this season coming off his first All-Star nod.
“Yesterday,” Schoop said, “he told me, ‘Hey, I was in the same shoes at you. I’ve been there a lot of times, so I know how you’re feeling, so keep grinding, keep working hard, and good things are going to come your way. Don’t give in.’ ”
For Cruz, time’s gone quickly. He doesn’t feel as if he’s reaching 38. And his time in Baltimore doesn’t seem as long ago as it’s been. But times have changed. The Orioles entered Tuesday 31 games under .500 and longtime fixtures such as Manny Machado and Adam Jones, both pending free agents, might be in their final weeks and months with the Orioles.
“It feels like yesterday,” Cruz said. “Even from then, the time went quick. And now Manny’s going to be a free agent, and Jonesy, too. There’s a lot of pieces moving around. Who knows what’s going to happen, right?”