Over the past few years, the Rays have become renowned throughout baseball for signing questionable relievers to cheap contracts, making some slight tweak to them, and then watching them deliver breakout seasons. Could they possibly be interested in a repeat performance with right-hander Juan Cruz?
Cruz, who turned 34 in October, is actually coming off a nice season for the Pittsburgh Pirates, going 1-1 with a 2.78 ERA, an 8.3 K/9, a 4.8 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 43 relief appearances and 35.2 innings pitched. Despite those numbers, the Pirates were forced to designated him for assignment in August because they needed fresh arms after a 19-inning marathon, and they wound up releasing him after he passed through waivers and declined an outright assignment to Triple-A. Why did no one want him after he put up numbers like that? A quick glance at the statistics above makes it pretty clear: his lack of control. Cruz is a pitcher who throws a fastball in the mid-90’s, but his issue has always been a complete lack of consistency controlling and commanding his fastball, leading to quite a few walks. Since 2005, Cruz has never managed a walk rate below 4.5, and that lack of control makes Cruz a candidate to completely implode at any time. Here’s a fun graph: Cruz’s ERA and FIP by season in his career.
Cruz has managed four seasons with an ERA below 3.00, but also three seasons with an ERA well north of 5.00. Things get even scarier when you look at his FIP: he’s been below 3.50 just once while managing a mark at or above 5.00 three times. By the way, in that one season where his FIP was below 3.50, 2010, he threw a grand total of 5.1 innings before going down with a shoulder injury and getting released. Cruz really does have great stuff. He pairs his fastball with a plus cutter and even chips in a usable breaking ball and changeup. But while he has shown the ability to be quite effective, his peripherals have never backed up his ERA and he’s a threat to completely fall apart at any moment, which is the reason he has signed minor league deals each of the last three offseasons.
The third of the three offseasons I just mentioned was this past offseason that just came to a close. Cruz actually agreed to a minor league deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, but then he saw that his chances of making the team were long and decided to terminate the deal and head back onto the market. Now that he’s available once again, could the Rays make a play for him? At this point, it seems doubtful. The Rays have five bullpen spots nailed down with Fernando Rodney, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, Kyle Farnsworth, and Cesar Ramos, and they have a host of candidates for the 6th and likely final spot including Jamey Wright, Brandon Gomes, and Josh Lueke, and if Roberto Hernandez loses out to Jeff Niemann for the 5th spot in the rotation, he’ll head to the bullpen. If Cruz complained about opportunity in Philadelphia, why would he feel any better about the Rays? And honestly, the Rays don’t need him. They have a bullpen filled with electric arms who they feel they can trust, and bringing in a veteran who will have them sitting on pins and needles every time he enters a game is not something they need to subject themselves to. If Cruz gets no offers and would be willing to head to Triple-A if he doesn’t make the team, the Rays would have no problem adding some depth. But if Cruz is looking for a real opportunity to make a big league roster, Tampa Bay is not the place for him to go.