By Tommy Rancel //
Following the Rays and their moves as close as we do, we have learned a thing or two about bullpen volatility and construction. Without the payroll flexibility to keep relief aces at a high salary, the Rays have to continually search for that next diamond in the rough.
By now we’ve thrown a handful of names at you, but please trust there is a method (or process!) to our madness. Jason and R.J. have made the case for a few names already, but here is another one: Juan Cruz.
Cruz, 32, is your classic case of failed starter turned reliever. He began his career as a starting pitcher with the Chicago Cubs before moving to the bullpen as a member of the Atlanta Braves and then the Oakland Athletics. He made 15 starts for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2006 before becoming a full-time reliever for the club in 2007 and 2008.
In those two years, Cruz was one of the better middle relievers in baseball. His ERA for those seasons was 2.88 in 110 appearances. Fielding independent metrics had him closer to 3.50; still good nonetheless.
The biggest upsurge in Cruz’s numbers came in strikeouts. Prior to 2007, he had an above-average strikeout rate – nearly one punch out per inning. However, in ’07 and ’08 he struck out a combined 175 batters in 112.2 innings or 12.60 per nine.
As has been the case his whole career (4.72 BB/9), Cruz struggled with control, but when you strikeout a lot of batters, you tend to get a free pass (pun not intended) on walks. In addition to the base on balls, he has a platoon split that leans toward ROOGY status, but it’s nothing Joe Maddon hasn’t dealt with before (Dan Wheeler).
For his stellar seasons in Arizona, Cruz received Type-A status in free agency. Normally, achieving Type-A is a good thing. It means you were among the best in your “class.” However, for a non-closing relief pitcher, it limits your free agent options because most teams do not want to surrender a draft pick for a middle reliever. Grant Balfour is in the same spot this year – increasing the Rays chances of re-signing him.
After talks of a potential “sign and trade” between the Diamondbacks and the Minnesota Twins to avoid the loss of a draft pick, Cruz was saved by Dayton Moore of the Kansas City Royals. KC surrendered their second round pick (first round was protected) and gave over $5 million to Cruz on a two-year deal with an option for a third. The deal itself wasn’t a bad one, but for the Royals it didn’t make much sense, but then again they have their own process.
Cruz experienced a steep decline across the board in 2009. His ERA and FIP both jumped up around 5.00. His strikeouts were nearly cut in half to 6.37 per nine while his walks remained steady (in a bad way). On top of that, his velocity dipped about a half-mile per hour.
Whether this had anything to do with his 2009 numbers or not, Cruz’s 2010 season was cut short after just 5.1 innings. The Royals released him in late April and he underwent season ending surgery to remove a cyst on his shoulder a few weeks later. Early reports indicated he would be ready to pitch in time for winter ball.
With all that said, here is what we have…
The Pros: past success as a reliever, swing and miss stuff (11% career whiff rate), cheap, plus a working relationship with his agent Alan Nero (Joe Maddon, Akinori Iwamura).
The Cons: high career walk rate, coming off arm injury, not adept at handling batters of both hands.
The Rays have taken a risk on injured relievers in the past (Balfour, Troy Percival, Joaquin Benoit, Jason Isringhausen, Al Reyes, etc.) as well as pitchers with control flaws (Benoit and Balfour). The one thing we do not know is how his medical records check out, but the Rays’ medical staff is one of the best in the business.
Looking at all the factors in play, a healthy Juan Cruz fits the profile of becoming the next low-risk/potential reward signing for the Rays.