It doesn’t seem too long ago when it was January of this year and rumors began to swirl that the Detroit Tigers could potentially be a fit for then-unemployed Nelson Cruz. For a good portion of the winter, Tigers fans debated the pros and cons of signing the free-agent slugger, but the saga was finally brought to an end when the Baltimore Orioles inked Cruz to a one-year, $8 million contract on Feb. 24.
Cruz, of course, is now in the midst of a career year, currently hitting .288/.353/.575 with a league-leading 28 home runs and 74 RBIs. It is hard to credit his success to playing his home games in the hitter-friendly confines of Camden Yards as well, given the fact that 18 of his 28 homers have come on the road. That being said, however, the Tigers still made the right move by avoiding him.
For starters, the risk factor was simply too high. Cruz was 33 years old, and he was coming off of a 50-game PED suspension. Signing him would have also required the Tigers to surrender their first-round draft pick. Furthermore, even if the Tigers could have foreseen that Cruz would put together a season like this, did they really need a one-dimensional, right-handed hitting outfielder who had a reputation for playing poor defense? The answer to that should be a resounding no. This is a team that has been starved for left-handed bats and quality defense in the outfield for the entire season.
Offense, especially from the right side of the plate, has not been the Tigers’ problem this season. As of Saturday morning, the Tigers rank second in MLB in batting average (.279), second in OPS (.779), fourth in RBIs (419) and seventh in home runs (95). While having Cruz certainly may have added to those totals, the Tigers already have enough right-handed hitting. If the team could use another bat right now, it would be of the left-handed variety. Switch-hitting Victor Martinez, who is currently out with a day-to-day injury, has been their only truly consistent threat from the left-side of the plate.
Furthermore, the Tigers neglecting to sign Cruz also helped pave the way for the emergence of J.D. Martinez, who is becoming one of the best stories of 2014. Rajai Davis, it should be noted, is also having one of his better seasons and Cruz would have likely stripped playing time from him as well.
If the Tigers fall short of their ultimate goal this year, it seems unlikely that Cruz will be looked back upon as the missing link. Over the past few years, the big issue has been the bullpen and the Tigers were right to try and fix that over the winter by bringing in Joe Nathan and Joba Chamberlain.
The bullpen, however, has remained an issue in 2014 as Tigers relievers still have an inflated ERA of 4.28. If the Tigers stub their toe down the stretch or in the playoffs, relief pitching, not hitting, will likely be the culprit.