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December 1, 2014 at 8:28 AM

Mariners add their big bat: Nelson Cruz heading to Seattle

Nelson Cruz grounds out in the sixth inning against the Kansas City Royals during Game Four of the American League Championship Series at Kauffman Stadium on October 15, 2014 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

Nelson Cruz grounds out in the sixth inning against the Kansas City Royals during Game Four of the American League Championship Series at Kauffman Stadium on October 15, 2014 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

After years of searching and failed efforts to develop one of their own, the Mariners appear to have secured the right-handed middle-of-the-order hitter they’ve coveted and needed for so long.

Could it be enough to push them into the postseason?

Reports early Monday from Dominican Republic newspaper “El Caribe” and later from ESPN had Seattle on the verge of agreeing to a 4-year, $57 million contract with free-agent slugger Nelson Cruz. He will also reportedly earn a $1 million signing bonus, pushing the total to $58 million.

A baseball source with knowledge of the situation confirmed those reports.

The Mariners had no official comment and won’t until the contract is officially signed. The agreement is based on Cruz passing an extensive physical, which could take place sometime later this week.

Because Cruz turned down a qualifying-offer from the Orioles, the Mariners will also forfeit their first-round draft pick (No. 19 overall) for the 2015 draft as compensation for the signing.

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It’s a price, along with the large amount of money, that the organization was willing to pay to have Cruz in the middle of its batting order.
The 34-year-old outfielder/designated hitter had a bounce-back season in 2014 for Baltimore, leading all of baseball in home runs with 40. He hit .271 with an .859 on-base plus slugging percentage and drove in 108 runs – fourth most in baseball. He was the only player in the league to hit 40 homers and drive in 100 runs.

That production was key for Cruz, who signed a one-year $8 million contract with Baltimore last offseason, and was trying to land a multi-year deal this offseason. Cruz had turned down a one-year, $13.2 million offer from the Rangers after the 2013 season and opted for free
agency in search of a multi-year deal. He never found one. The combination of his age, injury history and suspension for being linked to the BioGenesis performance-enhancing-drug scandal in Miami scared teams off.

The Mariners showed some interest in Cruz and were looking at a one-year contract, but reports have said that the ownership nixed a possible deal because of his links to the PED scandal. Instead, Cruz made the wise choice of signing with the Orioles. He helped lead
Baltimore to the American League East title while benefiting from hitter-friendly Camden Yards and other AL East parks, posting a .298 batting average (125 for 453) with 25 doubles, two triples, 25 homers and 77 runs batted in in 116 games at those fields.

Hitting at the pitchers’ paradise that is Safeco Field will be different, but Cruz spent the bulk of his career with the Rangers.

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He has played 52 games at Safeco, hitting .234 (43 for 184) with 11 doubles, nine homers and 19 RBI with a .749 OPS. To be fair, the majority of those at-bats came before the changes to the outfield-wall dimensions at Safeco. Though those changes were perceived to make a more dramatic impact for right-handed hitters, they may have only marginally benefited Cruz in the past.

Still, Cruz should provide punch to an offense in desperate need of it. He’ll likely bat in between Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager. While he is capable of playing outfield, he isn’t great defensively.

They received the least production at designated hitter in the American League. The combination of Corey Hart, Kendrys Morales and others combined to post a .191/.266/.301 line.

Cruz on his worst day should provide more than that.

With Seager expected to finalize his 7-year, $100 million contract this week, the Mariners will pay $547 million guaranteed contracts to Cano ($214 million), Felix Hernandez ($175 million), Seager ($100 million) and Cruz ($58 million). Team president Kevin Mather said the payroll would increase for 2015. Conservative projections could push
the Mariners over $125 million in payroll for 2015.

And the team isn’t done.

They are likely to remain active in the search for a right fielder and possibly a starting pitcher. The right could come via the trade market as the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp, Boston’s Yoenis Cespedes and Atlanta’s Justin Upton have been rumored targets. Seattle has long valued Kemp and is leery of giving up too much for Upton and Cespedes, who will be free agents next season.

The real issue is whether the team is willing to depart with top pitching prospect Taijuan Walker. It’s something the Mariners would prefer to avoid.  Teams have coveted Walker and left-hander James Paxton. The Mariners would prefer not to deal either, but Paxton has been considered by some in the organization untouchable in trade
discussions.

Seattle could also look at the free-agent market. The Mariners have had preliminary discussions with veteran Torii Hunter and have been linked to Alexis Rios. Melky Cabrera could be a higher-priced option.

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