BALTIMORE — Few players have made as much of an impact in their first season in Baltimore as Nelson Cruz, and he and the Orioles are interested in continuing their relationship beyond 2014.
The 34-year-old outfielder confirmed to reporters prior to Friday’s series opener against the Minnesota Twins that his agent, Adam Katz, and the Orioles have had discussions regarding a contract extension since the All-Star break. However, those talks have been “nothing serious” beyond a preliminary basis.
“I like the clubhouse and I like the guys,” Cruz said. “But at the same time, I’ve been through this before, and this is a business. It’s the owner and the [general manager’s] decision. But there’s no doubt that I’d like to stay.”
Entering Friday night, Cruz led the major leagues with 34 homers and was hitting .256 with a club-leading 88 runs batted in. In a season in which the Orioles have lost catcher Matt Wieters and third baseman Manny Machado to season-ending injuries and slugging first baseman Chris Davis is hitting an anemic .188, Cruz is a major reason why the Orioles own a comfortable lead in the American League East entering Labor Day weekend.
Through June 4, Cruz looked like a favorite to be the AL Most Valuable Player when he was hitting .319 with 21 homers, 55 RBIs, and a 1.064 on-base plus slugging percentage in 242 plate appearances. However, in 311 plate appearances since then, the veteran slugger has batted only .208 with 13 home runs, 33 RBIs, and a .658 OPS.
Cruz has been a welcome addition in the Orioles clubhouse as he’s been popular with teammates and had a previous relationship with manager Buck Showalter going back to their days with the Texas Rangers.
“Obviously, Nelson’s had a good year. I’ve known him for quite a while,” Showalter said. “He’s been a good teammate. Right now, we’re focused on these next 30-odd games, and we’ll see [after that]. The people that are responsible for that and do that for a living, I’ll let them handle it. I’m concentrating on managing and trying to stay out of the way and keep things going in a good direction.
“Nelson’s one of the reason why we have this opportunity. Certainly, we’d like to have that continue. They ask me what I think about how things fit baseball-wise, but I don’t get into the financial part of it. The further we play and the more we do, the better chance [he stays], I guess.”
Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette will face a number of critical decisions this offseason as Cruz isn’t the only impact player scheduled to become a free agent. J.J. Hardy will also see his three-year contract expire and figures to be in high demand with shortstop production at such a premium around the major leagues. The Orioles must also exercise a $17.5 million option to prevent longtime right fielder Nick Markakis from potentially becoming a free agent.
Wieters and Davis are also scheduled to become free agents following the 2015 season and could command lucrative contracts to remain in Baltimore.
Given the difficulty Cruz faced finding a new home following his 50-game suspension due to the Biogenesis scandal before signing a one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles in spring training, he may feel a tad more loyalty than most players would after only signing a one-year contract. On the flip side, the Orioles must be careful not to overpay for a player who is 34 years old and not having a particularly strong second half of the season.
“I’m not in a rush right now. I just want to stay focused on what we have right now,” Cruz said. “Hopefully, we go where we’re supposed to go and get it done. We’d like it to be done before, but my main goal is to go to the playoffs.”