Buyer Beware on Nelson Cruz

What a difference a year makes. Last winter, Nelson Cruz stumbled into free agency "fresh" off a 50-game PED suspension. Everything—his numbers, his future, his character—was in doubt.

And Cruz paid the price, literally: While guys like Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo landed nine-figure mega-deals, Cruz rejected a $14.1 million qualifying offer from the Texas Rangers and ultimately settled for a one-year, $8 million show-me contract with the Baltimore Orioles.

Show them he did.

Cruz vaulted past all expectations and wound up clubbing a major league-leading 40 home runs to go along with an .859 OPS and a career-high 108 RBI. Oh, and he helped the Orioles win their first division title in 17 years. Clearly, he was last season's biggest bargain.

Now, CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman reports, he wants four years and "big bucks."

He could get it, too. Cruz is one of the few legitimate boppers on the market, guaranteed to interest any power-hungry contender.

Scratch beneath the surface, however, and this is a serious case of buyer beware.

Yes, Cruz's 2014 numbers are impressive. But they were skewed by a scalding May, when he hit .339 with 13 home runs. In June, July and August combined, Cruz managed just 15 home runs while hitting an anemic .214.

To be fair, he rebounded in September as Baltimore ran away with the American League East, and he hit a pair of home runs in the Orioles' division series sweep of the Detroit Tigers.

Still, Cruz's 2014 was essentially a couple of hot months sandwiched around a protracted midseason slump. He'll turn 35 next summer. He's already a liability in the outfield—where he started just 70 games—and may soon be a full-time designated hitter. Any team that signs him will forfeit a draft pick, assuming he turns down Baltimore's qualifying offer.

As Eduardo A. Encina of The Baltimore Sun wonders:

"If teams believe that giving Cruz time at designated hitter is critical, will that scare off National League clubs from giving him a long-term contract? That would take half the teams off the board for Cruz, and several more could drop because they don’t have the financial means to sign him or are scared off by the draft pick compensation."

And let's not forget the bulked-up elephant in the room. Yes, Cruz is a stellar season removed from his suspension.

"Whatever happened in the past," he told The Associated Press (via ESPN.com) in February, "I look to move forward."

But that "whatever" isn't going away. Cruz can't shed his connection to Biogenesis of America, a Florida-based anti-aging clinic that dealt in everything from human growth hormone to anabolic steroids, according to a scathing expose published in the Miami New Times that sparked an MLB investigation.

Cruz was one of 13 players suspended; Alex Rodriguez was another. The disgraced New York Yankees star is eligible to return from his year-long absence next season, and four men who worked for Biogenesis—including Rodriguez's cousin, Yuri Sucart—are set to go on trial in February, per the Associated Press (via FoxSports.com).

Bottom line: Even as Cruz tries to distance himself from his PED past, Biogenesis will be back in the headlines. Maybe it'll be a distraction, maybe it won't. It should certainly give prospective suitors pause.

Someone's going to pay Cruz, and he'll almost certainly get a multi-year deal. As Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today put it, "40 home runs plays anywhere." Or at least anywhere in the American League.

This is one free-agent slugger, though, who carries some baggage. A year can make a big difference—but it can't erase all doubt.


All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.