Nelson Cruz has been, without question, the kind of hitter the Seattle Mariners had hoped he would be when they threw $57 million his way in the off-season.
That’s not accurate. He’s been better than the Mariners had hoped.
Cruz is also soaring toward a career-best batting average, showing the Mariners that he’s not just a one-trick pony. Bolstering the .323 average he had entering a three-game weekend series with the Texas Rangers, Cruz was leading his team with 15 infield hits.
The lofty average is unexpected, though not unprecedented. Cruz batted .318 in 2010 for the Rangers, but hasn’t finished a season above .271 since.
Add it up, and Cruz is having the best season of his career at age 35. Jon Daniels always said that Cruz was a late bloomer.
But instead of doing it for a playoff contender, as was the plan when he signed after a near-miss in 2014, Cruz is doing it for a Mariners team that instead is in the hunt for the biggest disappointment of 2015.
But that might not be completely unexpected either. The Mariners were betting on the offense being better (it hasn’t been), and they were counting on the pitching staff repeating its 2014 season even though it was fraught with questions.
Beyond Felix Hernandez, who hasn’t been as good as he was last season as the Cy Young runner-up but is still one of the top pitchers in the American League, the Mariners have had rotation problems.
Hisashi Iwakuma declined in 2014 from a remarkable 2013 season, and then was injured during spring training and didn’t return until June. Those things happen.
The other three in the rotation to start the season were J.A. Happ, a left-hander who has never lived up to expectations; James Paxton, a young lefty full of expectations; and Taijuan Walker, a young hard-throwing righty.
Happ is gone, traded at the deadline after posting a 4.64 ERA in 20 starts. Paxton is on the disabled list, where he has been since May 29 with a finger injury. Walker was lousy early on, when the Mariners’ contender status took its first hit, but has been better than his 4.67 ERA would suggest.
Rookie lefty Mike Montgomery is making a nice contribution, but the rotation is what has sunk the Mariners. They put their postseason faith in the hands of a pitcher who has achieved squat and two inexperienced pitchers still learning the big-league ropes.
And don’t forget that Fernando Rodney was a disaster at closer, too. No shocker there.
The Mariners’ lineup, outside of Cruz, shouldn’t get a free pass in all of this. Things were so bad in the first half that they actually traded for Mark Trumbo, who hit 95 homers in his first three seasons but has 27 in the 1 1/2 seasons since.
He’s been productive of late, but he’ll end up being more like the .248 career hitter he is and his terrible defense will cost the Mariners.
Their regular catcher, Mike Zunino, entered the weekend batting .175. The Mariners’ .243 batting average was 14th in the 15-team American League, and their .304 on-base percentage was 13th. Only five teams in the majors had scored fewer runs.
But Robinson Cano is the most culpable for the Mariners’ shortcomings.
Sure, he’s hot now. Entering Saturday, the second baseman was batting .347 with half of his 12 homers in the 18 games since the All-Star break. But he was just average, barely average, in the first half.
Cano entered the break with a .251 average and a .370 slugging percentage. Delino DeShields, the Rangers rookie who has zero career homers, slugged at .394.
Cano, remember, was lured away from the New York Yankees before the 2014 season with a 10-year, $240 million deal. Only eight more years to go on that one.
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who negotiated the Cano deal, will be long gone by then. If Las Vegas took odds on such things, and maybe somewhere some sportsbook does, Jack Z would be the heavy favorite to be the next GM fired.
Seattle’s down year isn’t just some abnormality. The Mariners had the sixth-worst record in baseball over the past five seasons entering the weekend, and Zduriencik has orchestrated such memorable trades as sending Adam Jones and Chris Tillman to Baltimore for Erik Bedard and Cliff Lee to the Rangers for, as it turned out, a big bag of nothing (sorry, Justin Smoak and Blake Beavan) and some controversy (Josh Lueke).
There’s also the free-agent signing of Chone Figgins (four years, $36 million) that is still a black mark on Zduriencik’s resume.
This season isn’t exactly a highlight, either. But the Mariners’ disappointing fall from preseason darling to midseason disappointment shouldn’t be completely unexpected.
Just don’t blame Nelson Cruz.
Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760
Cardinals: 2.63 ERA leads MLB by more than half a run.
Royals: Ordinary past 10 games, but coasting to playoffs.
Pirates: 3.19 ERA would lead MLB if not for St. Louis.
Dodgers: Lack of road success might rear its head.
Blue Jays: July 31 winners actually winning on field.
Marlins: MLB’s worst owner nears MLB’s worst record.
Phillies: Second-half surge could cost them No. 1 pick.
Rockies: Will be Rangers’ “natural rival” in 2016. Nice.
Brewers: 23 games back is largest deficit in MLB.
A’s: AL’s worst record despite having best ERA.