Should The Texas Rangers Bring Back Nathan, Murphy, or Cruz?

Cruz-Murphy
From the end of the 2012 season to the beginning of Spring Training in 2013, the Rangers lost Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Michael Young, Mike Adams, and Koji Uehara (not to mention Ryan Dempster and Scott Feldman as well). Those first five names were worth 5.2 rWAR in 2012 (7.2 if not for Young’s terrible -2.0 WAR year). This year, the big names hitting free agency for Texas are Nelson Cruz, Joe Nathan, and David Murphy, who combined to tally 5.4 rWAR in 2013. 
The name power of this year’s crop of Rangers to hit free agency may not be the same as 2012, but by WAR, their impact to the club will be. What is of interest in this piece is if any of these three are worth bringing back in 2014.

Joe Nathan (64.2 IP, 1.39 ERA, 10.2 SO/9, 3.1 BB/9 in 2013)

Nathan turned in his best season since 2008 this past year, including a 2.26 FIP that was his best mark since 2006. Despite turning 39 years old later this month, the veteran closer showed no signs of slowing down in 2013.

There were early concerns over decreased velocity and his ability to produce in spite of it, which were warranted. According to brooksbaseball.net, Nathan’s average fastball velocity in April was 91.9 MPH, the lowest fastball velocity Nathan had posted in a month in his career. However, by season’s end, Nathan was once again averaging a 93.5 MPH fastball, which was still a full mile-per-hour below his 2012 average, but a significant improvement over what he showed in April.

Nathan turned down his half of a $9 million option for the 2014 season with the Rangers, making him a free agent in search of a two-year contract. This was not an unexpected move by Nathan. If anything, the unexpected part was that the Rangers were willing to pick up the $9 million tab for next year.

The Rangers should not be players in the Joe Nathan market this winter, unfortunately. For what it will take to purchase Nathan’s services, the Rangers have more pressing needs to throw that money towards, especially considering the suite of pitchers in the back end of the Texas bullpen who should be able to work effectively in the closer role, even though they may not fully fill Nathan’s shoes.

Signing Joe Nathan two Novembers ago is arguably a top three free agent signing by the Rangers current front office. They took a risk on him, committed to a longer contract and more money than they normally would to a reliever, and Nathan completely outperformed that deal in every sense of the term.

David Murphy (476 PA, .220/.282/.374, 73 wRC+ in 2013)

Murphy is hitting the free agent market for the first time in his career, and unfortunately for him is doing so after the worst year of his career, by far. Nothing went right for Murphy in 2013 as he began the year as the Rangers everyday left fielder, and by September he only started 11 of the team’s 28 games to close out the season.

Statistically, there is no clear reason for Murphy’s depressed 2013 campaign apart from some bad luck due to a .227 BABIP (career .302 BABIP). He faced the exact same percentage of right-handed and left-handed pitching as he has in his career (76.7% vs. 76.4%), and his line drive percentage was the same as his career (19.3% vs. 19.2%). It could be that at age 32, Murphy hit a wall and won’t recover in 2014, or it could simply be one bad year that he rebounds from next season.

Murphy took on a lot of the public team leader duties that were vacated by the departure of Michael Young, and he brings a professional approach to his game. He is certainly a fan favorite, and he has been a very solid player for Texas in his six-plus years with the club.

Strangely, despite having the worst year of these three, Murphy may make the most sense as an option to bring back in 2014.

If Murphy’s BABIP were to positively regress to the mean in 2014, he could serve as the perfect left field platoon with Craig Gentry. As a career .280/.347/.469 hitter against right-handed pitching, and as a still serviceable defensive option, bringing Murphy back on a one-year deal in the $5 million range (he made $5.775 million in 2013) may make a lot of sense for Texas, from both a production and budgetary perspective.

Both Gentry and Murphy are at their highest level of utility when serving in the fourth outfielder role. Pairing them together in left field could turn out to be a shrewd and efficient way to protect both players from being over-exposed in an everyday role, and fulfill their maximum potential.

So I’m conditionally* advocating bringing back David Murphy as a Texas Ranger. Huh. That’s unexpected.

*This changes if Ian Kinsler makes the move to left field to open up second base for Jurickson Profar

Nelson Cruz (456 PA, .266/.327/.506, 122 wRC+ in 2013)

It seems to be a foregone conclusion in the minds of many that Nelson Cruz will return to Texas in 2014. I feel the opposite.

According to Jon Daniels, the Rangers will make Cruz the qualifying offer of one-year and $14.1 million. With Alex Rios in right field, bringing Cruz back would likely slot him as the designated hitter, with limited time in the field (as it should be). A one-year, $14 million deal would be acceptable for a power hitter of Cruz’s ilk.

However, it seems unlikely that Cruz will accept a one-year deal, and instead will reject the qualifying offer and seek a multi-year contract. As he turns 34 during next season, this may be his last opportunity to secure a three-year deal. Cruz is a fairly similar comparison to Michael Cuddyer – Cruz’s career slash line of .268/.327/.495 is a rough match for Cuddyer’s .277/.345/.462. Cuddyer got a three-year, $31.5 million deal heading into his age 33 season with Colorado in 2012.

If Cruz does reject the qualifying offer and looks for a deal in the Cuddyer range, I think that will quickly knock Texas out of the interested suitors. The only way that may change is if Cruz does test the free agent market, and because he would cost the signing team a first-round draft pick, he is unable to find a suitable deal. At that point, returning to Texas may be his best option, and the two parties may come to a more suitable agreement.

I am wary of Cruz, however. He doesn’t seem like a player who will age on a gradual curve. He can be very easily pitched to (breaking pitches low and away), and in 2013 it felt like he was suspended before he could go into one of his patented cold streaks. It was the first year of his career as a full-time player in which he did not have a single month with an OPS below .700.

Cruz was an excellent find by the Rangers in 2006, and after being sent to Texas he turned out to be the best player in a deal that was heralded as the Francisco Cordero-Carlos Lee trade. Unfortunately, his legacy in Texas will be a missed fly ball in the World Series, and a suspension for being linked to a performance-enhancing drugs investigation. In a perfect world, he’d get one more shot as a Ranger to re-write that legacy. But the baseball offseason isn’t the time to get sentimental, and it doesn’t appear that there is a good fit for Cruz on this team any longer.

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM
Peter Ellwood

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