After long winter, slugger happy to have fresh start with contender
NEW YORK -- The last time Nelson Cruz found himself eliminated from the postseason was in 2012, when the Orioles defeated his Texas Rangers in the first American League Wild Card playoff game. The loss put an abrupt end to Cruz's goal of reaching the World Series for a third consecutive season.
Fast-forward to 2014, and now Cruz hopes the Orioles are the team that will help him return to October baseball.
For Cruz, who served a 50-game suspension in 2013 for his involvement with the Biogenesis scandal, the offseason was a test of patience. The 33-year-old slugger inked a one-year, $8 million dollar deal with Baltimore, but not until Feb. 24. His signing was delayed in part by the $14.1 million qualifying offer he received from the Rangers in November, which obligated the team that gave him a contract to give up a Draft pick -- the 55th overall pick, in the Orioles' case -- as compensation.
"I focused on my family and on keeping busy so I wouldn't focus on what was going on," Cruz said. "It was a really difficult situation, signing so late and all, but in the end, I think I made the right decision."
By the time they added Cruz, the Orioles had already given up their first-round pick in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft to sign pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, who'd received a qualifying offer from the Indians. Their willingness to part with their first two picks is indicative of a win-now attitude.
The Orioles made the postseason in 2012 for the first time since 1997. Cruz, who reached the World Series in '10 and '11 with Texas but has no ring to show for it, believes he has a good shot at returning to the playoffs with Baltimore.
"You try to weigh all the options," said Cruz, the 2011 ALCS Most Valuable Player. "As a player, having had the opportunity to be in the playoffs and experience that, you always try to find a way to return."
For a player in Cruz's shoes -- he averaged 27 home runs from 2009-13 -- a one-year contract can serve as a bridge to a longer, more lucrative deal. The veteran batted .266 with 27 home runs and 76 RBIs in 109 games for the Rangers last year before his suspension. A solid season in Baltimore could put him in position to cash in, but Cruz insists he's not thinking beyond 2014.
"You try to focus on first things first, try to play baseball one day at a time and not think about what's going to happen tomorrow," he said.
Manager Buck Showalter, who was the Rangers' skipper in 2006 when Cruz made his debut with the club, is thrilled to be reunited with the veteran.
"We like to think it's the right place and the right time with Nelson," said Showalter, who noted that Cruz "was a little concerned about DH-ing a lot," but emphasized that the team has no intention of wasting the outfielder's defensive abilities.
Cruz, said Showalter, will see time in the outfield when the team wants to give Nick Markakis or Adam Jones a day off. He'll also be in left field against left-handed pitching, as was the case with the Opening Day match-up against Boston's Jon Lester and in the final game of that set with Felix Doubront.
"One of the things we really wanted to do a better job with was getting some of the guys off the field now and then and be able to keep that DH spot freed up," said Showalter. "So Nellie's versatility helps us, and I think it also keeps him engaged in the game."
For Cruz, having a chance to play defense, even if it wasn't on a daily basis, was a factor in his decision to sign with Baltimore.
"They were straightforward about it," said Cruz. "I knew I was going to serve as the DH, but that I was also going to see time in the outfield, which for me was one of the most important things."
While the Orioles have not had an auspicious start -- they are 3-5 after Tuesday's 14-5 win over the Yankees -- Cruz has already had some key hits for his new team. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Dominican native is just the fifth player in Orioles history to homer in his first two games with the team.
Cruz's Opening Day dinger against Lester at Camden Yards was the difference in Baltimore's 2-1 victory.
"It's very obvious that he loves to play," said Showalter.
Nathalie Alonso is a reporter and editorial producer for LasMayores.com, the official Spanish-language site for MLB.com.