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Cruz's consistent bat anchors Mariners' lineup

February 8, 2018

With Spring Training rapidly approaching, we're taking an in-depth look at the Mariners' roster. This is the seventh part of an Around the Horn series looking at each position on the team. Next up is the designated hitter.The big question: Can the big man keep bombing?How big a role does

With Spring Training rapidly approaching, we're taking an in-depth look at the Mariners' roster. This is the seventh part of an Around the Horn series looking at each position on the team. Next up is the designated hitter.
The big question: Can the big man keep bombing?
How big a role does Nelson Cruz play for the Mariners? Consider this: Even though he was the oldest player on the Mariners' roster last year at 37, Cruz was selected as the team's Player of the Year by the Seattle chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. He won the Edgar Martinez Designated Hitter of the Year Award as the best DH, was the Mariners' Hank Aaron Award nominee, their Heart and Hustle Award nominee and their Marvin Miller Man of the Year finalist.
And, oh yeah, he led the American League with a career-best 119 RBIs, becoming the third-oldest player ever to pull that off.
Cruz has shown no signs of slowing, unless you consider his 39 home runs a significant drop. He hit 40, 44 and 43, respectively, over the previous three seasons, and fell one home run shy of becoming just the 14th player in MLB history to hit 40-plus for four straight years.
The starter: Cruz
Cruz is far more than just a slugger. He hit .288 last season, while racking up a .375 on-base percentage that was his highest since becoming a full-time starter for the Rangers in 2009. He had the highest bWAR of any Mariner at 4.1.
A lot of teams use the DH spot to rotate and rest their position players. Only seven of the American League's 15 teams used one DH for more than 400 at-bats last year. But as long as Cruz is healthy, he'll get the vast majority of DH duties for Seattle.
Had Seattle succeeded in landing Shohei Ohtani, that would have created an interesting situation, as Cruz likely would have played several games a week in the outfield while Ohtani got DH at-bats. But that didn't happen, which means Cruz doesn't figure to play in the outfield outside of a few starts in Interleague games at National League parks.
He's gone from 80 games in right field for Seattle in 2015 to 48 in '16 to just five last year. Manager Scott Servais would just as soon limit that number again in order to keep Cruz's hamstrings healthy and his bat in the lineup.
Backing up:Robinson Cano
Cruz started all but six of Seattle's games at DH last year. Backup outfielder Boog Powell started three times and Guillermo Heredia, Carlos Ruiz and Daniel Vogelbach each got one outing at DH. It's possible that the Mariners could give Cano a few games at DH this year in order to allow his legs a break in the field, but Cruz figures again to get the vast majority of time.
Depth:Mike Ford, Vogelbach
Should Cruz get hurt this spring, Ford would figure to get a good look after being selected from the Yankees in the Rule 5 Draft. The 25-year-old is an intriguing prospect, but has played just 25 games at the Triple-A level and will need to be offered back to the Yankees if he doesn't make the 25-man roster. Vogelbach is a more advanced prospect who has been a Triple-A Pacific Coast League All-Star the past two years, but has yet to get a consistent chance to show what he can do at the Major League level.
In the Pipeline
Teams don't generally develop players specifically as designated hitters, though Vogelbach is Seattle's No. 7 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, and Ford is No. 22, with both listed as first basemen. Eric Filia (No. 21) is another offensive-minded prospect who hit .326 for Class A Advanced Modesto and then led the Arizona Fall League with a .406 average, but he will open the season with an 80-game suspension after failing a drug test.
By the numbers
Cruz's 166 home runs are the most in the Majors over the last four seasons. Edwin Encarnacion is second with 153, Giancarlo Stanton has 150 and Josh Donaldson is at 140. He's third in RBIs in that span at 425, trailing only Nolan Arenado (454) and Encarnacion (443).

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.