How the Nelson Cruz Signing Might Help Shape the Bench

Henry Urrutia's odds of making the club on Opening Day might have taken a hit with the signing of Nelson Cruz to a one-year deal.

Henry Urrutia's odds of making the club on Opening Day might have taken a hit with the signing of Nelson Cruz to a one-year deal.

The acquisition of Nelson Cruz – when/if it becomes official today – will impact the chances some other players have t fmake the club out of spring training.  The players this signing impacts and the nature of that impact might be a little different than it would appear at first glance.

Nelson Cruz will give the Orioles an everyday designated hitter, thereby replacing the prior plan of a designated hitter platoon.  That hypothetical platoon was likely to include one of Nolan Reimold, Steve Pearce, Delmon Young, or Francisco Peguero from the right side.  The left-handed portion of the platoon was likely going to be a lot more straightforward.  Henry Urrutia was the only legitimate option for that particular spot.

While Cruz has exhibited platoon splits during his career (.912 OPS vs. LHP, .734 OPS vs. RHP), he will likely play nearly everyday for Baltimore.  His .734 OPS versus right-handed pitching is not a deal breaker and Cruz did produce a strong .837 OPS versus like-handed pitchers in 2013.  His existence on the 25-man roster renders any sort of platoon at designated hitter useless.  Whereas before Urrutia appeared to be a shoe-in because of the need for a left-handed DH, with that role more or less gone, his spot on the team is no longer ensured.

There are essentially two bench spots left on the club.  There will be a backup catcher and there will be a backup middle infielder.  The final two bench spots have a little more flexibility to them now.  At this point, it is basically a battle between the following players for the pair of roster spots:

·         Delmon Young
·         Nolan Reimold
·         Steve Pearce
·         Henry Urrutia
·         Francisco Peguero
·         Michael Almanzar

Some of those players are more greatly impacted by the Cruz signing than others.

Delmon Young is likely the most impacted.  Like Cruz, Young is a right-handed power hitter who is not a good defensive corner outfielder and is better suited for a full time DH role.  With Cruz on the team, Young appears to be redundant.  Given how much Buck Showalter values defense and versatility, it is hard to imagine he would carry two very similar and limited players in Cruz and Young when he has other options.  Young is on a minor league contract so assuming he does not have an opt-out clause (there has been no indication that he does), he can be reassigned to the minors rather painlessly as well.  Young – unfortunately for him – is likely displaced by the Cruz signing.

The second most impacted player might be a bit more surprising at first glance.  While Young is pushed aside by Cruz because of their similarities, Henry Urrutia shares little in common with the newest Oriole.  Urrutia is left-handed so Cruz’s presence on the 25-man roster would not seem to affect him all that much.  However, Urrutia was once a virtual lock for the roster because he was the only logical candidate to be the left-handed part of a DH platoon.  With that platoon no longer needed, Urrutia’s services are less essential.  Hank has minor league options which might make it easier for the Orioles to leave him off the opening day roster now that he does not fill a vital need on the roster.

In terms of players that might benefit from the Cruz signing, Almanzar might have gained the most.  Without Cruz, the Orioles had three “open” spots (RH DH, LH DH, and bench player) but only one was a true bench position.  Given the competition Almanzar had for right-handed DH it was unlikely he was going to win that job.  It was also unlikely that the organization would give the final bench spot to someone with questionable offensive value who can only play the corner IF positions.

In Nelson Cruz the Orioles are not only getting an upgrade at designated hitter for a low-cost, but the organization is also gaining flexibility in how they assemble their bench.

In Nelson Cruz the Orioles are not only getting an upgrade at designated hitter for a low-cost, but the organization is also gaining flexibility in how they assemble their bench.

With Cruz manning the DH spot full time, however, Almanzar’s chances of making the team have improved, if only slightly.  There are now two open bench spots since the DH platoon is out the window.  It now at least seems feasible that the O’s could take a more versatile player for the 3rd bench spot which would make carrying Almanzar a bit more doable.  I still think the Rule 5 pick has his work cut out for him in order to stick, but his odds are definitely improved with Cruz in the fold.

Peguero, Reimold, and Pearce are not impacted much either way by the Cruz signing in terms of their chances of making the team.  Their potential playing time once on the team might have taken a hit however with the DH spot no longer an option for them. Peguero’s advantage is that he can play CF which might be important if the team is not completely comfortable with Lough as the backup centerfielder. Pearce’s advantage is that he can back up at 1B and with the exception of Almanzar and Flaherty, nobody else really can.  Reimold is likely the most well rounded of this group given his lack of platoon splits and ability to play acceptable defense at the corner OF positions.  The question – as it has been recently with Nolan – is whether or not he is healthy.

In general, we can reasonably conclude that the Cruz signing makes Urrutia’s presence on the opening day roster less of a necessity and makes Delmon Young redundant.  Almanzar’s odds of sticking as a Rule 5 pick improve with the addition of a second pure bench spot.  Reimold, Peguero, and Pearce’s odds remain relatively unchanged, although their playing time (and the playing time of all of these guys for that matter) would likely be diminished with Cruz cemented full time at DH.

This is all a good thing for the Orioles.  Beyond whatever actual value Cruz adds on the field, his signing also allows the Orioles to be more flexible and imaginative in how they set their bench.  It is far too early in camp to get a read on how they might go about it, but at the very least having one DH over a platoon gives the organization more room to maneuver and construct the roster.

It is also a good thing for depth.  Say for instance that Young and Urrutia do not in fact make the team out of spring training.  Assuming that Young does not have an opt-out in his contract, those two will be in Norfolk as OF and/or DH depth.  If Pearce, Reimold, or Peguero makes it through waivers and is assigned to Norfolk, than that would really be a lot of quality depth.  Like with the Jimenez signing, Cruz allows everyone else to move back a spot in the pecking order.  That is rarely a bad thing, unless some of those players being moved back are better than the player that is moving them back which doesn’t seem to be the case here.

With Cruz in the fold, the Orioles now have more options and that is almost always a very good situation to be in.