The Seattle Mariners, in desperate need of right-handed power, appear in many ways to be a perfect fit for free-agent outfielder Nelson Cruz.
Cruz led the majors with 40 home runs this year. The Mariners hit only 28 homers against left-handed pitching, the fewest of any American League team. And yet there has been doubt within the industry as to whether Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik is free to strike a deal with Cruz’s representatives.
The reason? Cruz served a suspension in 2013 for violating baseball’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Last month, the highly respected Bob Dutton of The Tacoma News Tribune reported that Mariners ownership “backed away” from an agreed-upon deal with Cruz last offseason because of concerns relating to the suspension.
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Additionally, sources told FOX Sports that Mariners chairman Howard Lincoln withheld his approval for a Cruz deal because he didn’t want the team’s public image associated with a high-profile player who had used PEDs. But when asked, a Mariners official said the team and Cruz never reached agreement on a contract last winter, before Cruz joined the Baltimore Orioles on a one-year deal and enjoyed an All-Star season.
The question of whether the Mariners have a team policy on free agents linked to PEDs is perhaps even more relevant now. The Mariners fell one victory shy of forcing a wild-card playoff this year and are coming off their best season since 2007. With another impact hitter (or two) to merge with Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, it’s easy to envision the Mariners becoming next year’s version of the Kansas City Royals.
As fate would have it, the best place for the Mariners to upgrade is in the outfield or at designated hitter, and two top free agents at those positions have served PED suspensions: Cruz, 34, and Melky Cabrera, 30.
When asked about the team’s stance, a Mariners official said the team does not have a prohibition against signing players who have been suspended for performance-enhancing drug use. Moreover, the team official added that the Mariners have, in fact, had conversations with Cruz’s agent and Cruz himself this offseason. (The official declined to say whether the team has contacted Cabrera or his representative.)
If there was animus regarding what transpired last winter, clearly it has faded enough that the Mariners and Cruz are talking again. For one thing, Cruz has a different agency representing him in this negotiation: Relativity Baseball, after he employed Wasserman Media Group last winter.
In several ways, the environment in which to consummate a deal is better than it was one year ago. The Mariners’ credibility is on the rise, because of Cano’s presence, the team’s performance in 2014, and the strong reputation of manager Lloyd McClendon. Cruz answered many skeptics with his performance this year: an .859 OPS, the league-leading 40 home runs, 108 RBI, and 159 games played, which tied a career high.
Also, Cano thrived in Seattle this year and can make a compelling sales pitch about the team and city to Cruz; both Cano and Cruz are from the Dominican Republic, and they played together on the title-winning Dominican team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Of course, Cruz and Cabrera are two of many options for the Mariners at this early stage of the offseason. The Mariners offered a contract to Victor Martinez before he re-signed with the Tigers and also are pursuing free-agent infielder Hanley Ramirez, according to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports. The trade market for outfielders also could prove robust, with Justin Upton and Matt Kemp among the possibilities.