February 14, 2013
Painting the Black
Where the Dodgers Skimped
Over the past year the Dodgers have become baseball's most eager spender, absorbing and offering rich contracts. While the Yankees are tightening their belt buckle to get around the luxury tax, the Dodgers are making pithy comments, such as "What budget?" Yet one anachronism remains in LA during these lavish times. Luis Cruz, earner of the big-league minimum, sticks out like a sore thumb in a lineup featuring three players earning $20 million, two more earning $10 million, and two others making more than $2 million. Cruz is the lone non-millionaire, and, it just so happens, the team's weakest link.
Prior to last season Cruz's big-league experience entailed 169 plate appearances with a sub-.190 True Average. With his reputation as an all-glove, no-hit infielder intact he bounced around the minors. Cruz even spent part of his 2011 season playing in Mexico, alongside the likes of Jose Castillo, Geronimo Gil, and Luis Terrero. Last July, minutes before the Dodgers promoted him to the majors, he decided to embark on a career in Japan. Even circumstances surrounding the promotion were less Disney and more pragmatic: the Dodgers needed an extra body to survive a rough patch of injuries, and Cruz embodies the idea of an extra body. But the now-29-year-old provided spark and finished the season with a .272 TAv—a mark that placed him 18th among third basemen with at least 250 plate appearances.
Odder than Cruz's career arc is the the Dodgers' decision to forgo an upgrade. The regular season's drunken sailors sobered up when it came time to add a new third baseman. They passed on paying a gimpy Kevin Youkilis, a bound-to-regress Jeff Keppinger, or a gimpy and bound-to-regress Eric Chavez. Jack Hannahan came and went without Ned Colletti shaking his hand. Even now the only third baseman attached to the Dodgers in rumors seems to be Scott Rolen—whose body and bat cannot be counted on for long. Who or what the Dodgers were waiting on remains unclear; perhaps they made clandestine runs at Chase Headley or wanted to see how the David Wright situation played out before adding a multi-year deal. Or perhaps Cruz's cameo caused them to pump the breaks and give the Mexico native an opportunity.
Cruz's start with the Dodgers has the makings of a great story. Unfortunately the good vibes may soon end. PECOTA is bearish on Cruz to the point where, were he to match last season's production, he would be hitting at his projection's 90th percentile. The only batters expected to receive 400-plus plate appearances and post lower TAv than Cruz are a trio of no-hit shortstops: Adeiny Hechevarria, Brendan Ryan, and Clint Barmes. Among third basemen, only the Marlins' pair of Greg Dobbs and Placido Polanco project within 15 TAv points. Of course, earning a PECOTA projection is a win within itself for a player who could be overseas right now, and Cruz's perseverance begs you to consider the possibility that he's the new Ben Zobrist or Jose Bautista: a guy who took advantage of one more shot.
If Cruz is that guy his skills don't suggest it. The most memorable aspect of Cruz's game is his batting stance, which marries Jose Bautista's arm movements with Tony Batista's wide set-up (at times Cruz's front heel hovers over the outermost portion of the batter's box). Cruz's stride closes the daylight before he swings, and he swings often: the 13th-most often last season among hitters that saw at least 800 pitches. There is no prejudice in what Cruz will offer at, particularly down in counts, but he avoids strikeouts thanks to decent contact skills and an eagerness to end at-bats in the early stages. Although Cruz is taller than his glove-first reputation suggests (he stands 6-foot-2, not 5-foot-nothing), power isn't a big part of his game and when he does leave the yard it's usually a pull job on junk up in the zone. Walking isn't a part of his game, either: He finished the season on a streak of 120 straight plate appearances without accepting a free pass.
Cruz isn't fast and the Dodgers didn't ask him to run often. He did, however, show some chops at advancing during the run of play. Cruz's defense remains solid-to-good at various infield positions as well. The trick with Cruz is that his offensive limitations put added weight on his glove and ability to hit for average. A good approach at the plate could overcome the burden, but Cruz's aggressive style, noticeably on offspeed offerings, causes him to hit too many easy-to-field balls to maintain any semblance of good offensive production. Though Cruz could fit on a roster as a versatile defender with contact chops, he feels overstretched in a starting capacity.
The easiest explanation—the Dodgers believe in Cruz—doesn't add up, either. Don Mattingly recently said he has "a little concern" about Cruz continuing last season's production, and Colletti's interest in Rolen sings the same tune. The potential offensive hole at third base won't be enough to derail the Dodgers' playoff hopes—the A's, as a recent example, reached the tournament in 2012 despite poor offensive production at the hot corner—but it does raise a question: Why did the Dodgers abstain from flexing their financial might one more time? Even if it meant overpaying a mediocrity, the team without a budget could have withstood the hit while gifting their manager peace of mind. It's a question with an answer of which we cannot be sure, and possibly a question the Dodgers will ask themselves in the coming months.