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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Fantastic Questions: "Will the real Nelson Cruz please stand up?"

We've survived the Ides of March and, although your draft and auction season is probably just beginning, mine is already wrapping up.  Most blogger and fantasy analyst leagues and mocks happen well in advance of the season, so that there is a chance for commentary.  As such, I've already done 8 drafts/auction in a variety of different formats and I'm beginning to feel like I've got a pretty good sense of the trends this March and some of the questions you need to ask yourself during your draft prep, like...

How much are you willing to pay for Nelson Cruz?

RotoProfessor provides a pretty solid answer to this question and I concur.  I will err on the side of caution with Cruz this year, rather than expecting him to build upon his 33 HR performance in 2009.  Don't get me wrong, I think the power - so evidently on display during the Home Run Derby - is real.  I expect Cruz will once again be good or 20-30 HR, thanks in part to the friendly confines of the Ballpark at Arlington, and 15-20 SB, with an unremarkable average (.260 in '09).  I'd be willing to pay the going rate for such a player, which is probably $15-$18 in most leagues.  However, in my experience, there has been somebody in every league willing to pay considerably more than that, operating with the expectation that Cruz might actually have 30/30, 35/25, or even 40/30 potential.  However, I don't think that's a reasonable expectation.

What worries me most is his plate discipline and a rather alarming strikeout rate.  In the minor league he struck out 724 time in 725 games.  Last year he struck out 118 time in 128 games.  His strikout rate actually climbed over the course of the season, as the league adjusted to him, so that he had more strikeouts than games played in the second half, which is a 1/1 ratio I never like to see.

There are, of course, players who can perform quite well, even with all those whiffs.  Adam Dunn being the most obvious example.  The difference between Cruz and Dunn, however, comes down to OBP.  Adam Dunn has been averaging 115 walks a season since 2002.  Cruz picked up just 49 free passes in 2009.  He didn't just swing and miss a lot.  He swung and missed on a lot of pitches he had no chance of hitting squarely.  Until he proves himself capable of laying off pitches that are nowhere near the zone, big-league pitchers are going to find it easier and easier to get him out.  Ask Alfonso Soriano.

The good news for Cruz's fans is that Vladimir Guerrero could be quite helpful in this department.  A fellow Dominican, Guerrero is famous for his nose to toes approach, but those who have watched Guerrero consistently over the past couple years realize that he has adjusted a bit with age.  He still hates the free pass, but he realizes he can no longer go yard on pitches that bounce before they hit the plate.  If he can help to teach Cruz a modicum of plate discipline, his 2010 owners might get what they paid for.

The other big question with Nelson Cruz is for how long and how often will he continue to run.  He swiped 20 bags in 24 attempts in '09, but he only had 20+ steals in once (in 2008) in seven seasons in the minors, and he never ran with that high a success rate.  Perhaps, with the help of Ron Washington and the Texas coaches, he has become a better basestealer.  Or, perhaps, he was just particularly fortunate last year.  Not only will he slow down if he starts getting caught more often, he will slow down in a hurry if he continues to be hampered by injuries.  The Rangers definitely need him at the plate more than on the bases, so he could earn himself a red light with another spate of injuries.

Nelson Cruz isn't the worst high-risk/high-reward play for 2010, but I would much prefer one of the following players, who are younger, hit for a higher average, and also offer both power and speed, but at a lower price.

Carlos Gonzalez (Rockies)
Adam Jones (Orioles)
Andrew McCutchen (Pirates)
Alex Rios (White Sox)
Chris Young (D-Backs)  

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