If Cruz has to be replaced, there’s a big fish out there

Posted Wednesday, Jun. 26, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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lebreton Amid the stories and the worries, right fielder Nelson Cruz has somehow soldiered on. And the Texas Rangers have to be overjoyed with that.

In January, Cruz’s name surfaced in the Biogenesis scandal. Yet, as July nears, he leads the Rangers in home runs and runs batted in.

Yes, he can be streaky. But in a lineup that no longer boasts the long-ball prowess of Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli — a combined 67 homers, 184 RBI last season — Cruz’s contribution has been essential.

The Rangers didn’t need to be reminded of it, but the New York Yankees reminded them anyway Tuesday night:

Small ball can produce a run, here and there. But home runs tend to produce exclamation points, especially in a place such as Yankee Stadium. And, for that matter, Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

Cruz’s maturity throughout the season’s first three months has been disarming. He has always been a class act in the clubhouse and around his teammates. He has politely deferred all questions about the Biogenesis reports, saying that he will speak to the accusations when and if Major League Baseball summons him.

If the end result of the MLB investigation is a suspension for Cruz, he likely will survive locally the reproaches that will ensue. I like the guy, and Bud Selig’s investigators won’t change that.

Fans are fickle. When an opposing player gets suspended for using performance-enhancing substances, he’s labeled a cheat and tarnished irrevocably. Unless the player happens to play for your team, in which case the only question is, “When is he going to be back?”

Know this much: The commissioner’s office has 15 full-time investigators working on the Biogenesis case. There is also a new executive director of the players union, Michael Weiner, who seems to realize that he must work in the best interests of the “clean” players in baseball, not just the accused.

Lastly, but not insignificantly, the game’s new arbitrator was agreed upon jointly by Selig and Weiner.

Selig doesn’t want another 2012, where suspended players — notably Oakland’s Bartolo Colon and San Francisco’s Melky Cabrera — affected the outcomes of pennant races. Cabrera was the All-Star Game MVP.

So there’s that. And what would the Rangers do if they eventually didn’t have the services this season of Nelson Cruz?

The ultimate replacement would be young Giancarlo Stanton of the wayward Miami Marlins. He’s 23 years old and has averaged 31 homers, 77 RBI and a .903 on-base-plus-slugging percentage over his first three seasons.

Stanton was unhappy when ownership dismantled the Marlins during the off-season. The price would be high for the team that trades for him, but the Rangers have the right currency — young, promising prospects.

Of all the possible Cruz replacements, Stanton is the only one that would seem to justify throwing No. 1 prospect Jurickson Profar into the trade talks.

Alex Rios of the Chicago White Sox, meanwhile, is 32 and would be a relatively inexpensive short-term option in right field. He is scheduled to earn $12.5 million next season with a club option for 2015. But to get Rios, the Rangers probably would have to outbid (in prospects) the Giants and Pirates, among others.

Minnesota’s Josh Willingham has been mentioned as a trade possibility, but though he’s cheap ($7 million), he hasn’t had nearly the kind of season that he posted in 2012.

The other option is an intriguing one. The Dodgers’ Andre Ethier is the only left-hander of the group, and he would come with a breathtakingly inappropriate contract. After this season, Ethier will still be owed $70 million through 2017.

But do the math. Now in his eighth season in Los Angeles, Ethier has a career .288 batting average, a .360 on-base percentage (not a Cruz strength) and an .830 OPS. He has toiled in a historically pitcher’s park. In Arlington, Ethier would be a 25-homer-a-year guy with a high on-base potential.

Cruz, an impending free agent, will earn $10.75 million this season and likely command more next year, even after a possible suspension.

Ethier’s trade price doesn’t have to be costly. The Dodgers, who already have $163 million committed for next season, would likely be glad just to be relieved of Ethier’s salary.

Despite what the Rangers are saying, it would be prudent for somebody in Arlington to be thinking about a Cruz replacement.

The big fish, all puns intended, would obviously be Stanton.

Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697 Twitter: @gilebreton

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