SEATTLE — Let there be no mistake. Newcomer Nelson Cruz will bat cleanup next season in the Mariners’ lineup and spend most of his time as the designated hitter.
“If you look at the numbers,” manager Lloyd McClendon said, “we were last in baseball in (production from our) No. 4 hitters. Our DH was 14th out of 15. This guy’s track record addresses that.”
The Mariners confirmed their four-year deal with Cruz, 34, in a Thursday morning news conference at Safeco Field. The $57 million package became official after he passed a routine pre-signing physical examination.
“I am excited to join the Mariners,” Cruz said. “Watching Seattle play from the other side of the field, I know how close this team is to the post-season, and I am hopeful that I can help to get us there.”
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Cruz nearly became a Mariner a year ago before signing a one-year deal as a free agent with Baltimore for $8 million after spending the previous eight years at Texas.
“It was pretty close,” he said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t make it happen. The reality is that I’m here now. I’m part of the team. I’m part of the city. And what we have here is pretty good.”
Many clubs, including the Mariners, backed away from Cruz a year ago because of his 50-game suspension at the conclusion of the 2013 season for his connection to the Biogenesis drug scandal.
Cruz then put together the best season of his career by leading the majors with 40 homers while batting .271 and driving in a career-high 108 runs. He was also picked to the All-Star team for the third time in his 10-year career.
Enter the Mariners, who improved 16 games last season in finishing 87-75 despite an attack that scored more runs than just one other American League club.
The result was a deal in which Cruz receives $14 million in each of the next four seasons along with a $1 million signing bonus.
“Our number one goal this off-season,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said, “was to improve our offense, ideally by adding right-handed power. With the addition of Nelson Cruz we think we’ve accomplished that goal.
“Nelson has a track record as a middle-of-the-order hitter on pennant-contending clubs. He will be an asset on the field and in the clubhouse…We see him as an ideal fit as we strive toward our goal of winning a World Championship.”
In addition to shelling out $57 million, the Mariners will lose their first-round pick in next June’s draft as the penalty for signing a free agent who received a qualifying offer from his former club.
Cruz is just one of seven players to hit at least 20 homers in each of the last six seasons. The others are Miguel Cabrera, Matt Holiday, Brian McCann, David Ortiz. Hunter Pence and Mark Reynolds.
McClendon said he expects Cruz’s presence to have a ripple effect throughout a lineup.
“I think you’ll see Robinson Cano get a lot better as well,” McClendon said, “and Kyle Seager will drive in more runs as a result. Great players make other players better, and this guy is a great offensive player.”
Cruz’s deal became official one day after the Mariners confirmed a new contract for third baseman Kyle Seager ($100 million over seven years) and traded outfielder Michael Saunders to Toronto for pitcher J.A. Happ.
Cano responded on twitter: “Congrats to Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz @ncboomstick23! Next season is gonna be a great one for the @Mariners.”
Yes…Cruz’s twitter handle is @ncboomstick23, which requires no change because McClendon surrendered uniform No. 23 to his new clean-up hitter.
“It was kind of easy,” Cruz revealed. “Only a few cigars. We have a few of those in the Dominican.”
McClendon hasn’t yet picked a new number but noted through a smile: “I don’t give a (flip) I’ll figure out something.”
Cruz spent much of his career in hitter-friendly home parks but dismissed concerns that Safeco will muffle his power — despite what the numbers say: a .234 average in 52 career games with nine homers and 19 RBIs.
“I’ve been here a few times over the years,” he said. “Many times. I don’t see any difference. The ball doesn’t carry, like people say, but I love to hit here. This is one of my favorite ballparks.”
IWAKUMA STAYING PUT
Seen any trade speculation regarding right-handed pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma? Well, forget about it. Zduriencik reiterated for a second straight day that Iwakuma isn’t going anywhere.
“I have no clue where that came from,” Zduriencik said. “We never engaged (any other clubs) with Iwakuma. But someone threw it out there. I was surprised when I read it. No. He’s going to be here.
“The Iwakuma thing, I right away called (translator) Antony Suzuki and said, `make sure you talk to Iwakuma.’ There’s nothing to it. We’re not trading Iwakuma.”
In fact, Zduriencik sounds reluctant to surrender any of his starting pitchers despite Wednesday’s depth-building trade that netted Happ from the Blue Jays.
“You have Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and all of these nice young arms,” Zduriencik said. “Why would you break that up right now?
“Every general manager would tell you that you never say never, but (trading Iwakuma) is about as never as I would say. It’s not going to happen.”
Happ projects, at this point, to “pitch third of fourth in the rotation,” McClendon said. That would seem to position Happ behind Hernandez, Iwakuma and, perhaps, James Paxton.
“I like Happ’s stuff,” McClendon said. “He pitched in a very tough ballpark in Toronto, and his numbers were still pretty decent. I think the opportunity to pitch here in Safeco will make him better.
“He’ll probably be a little more comfortable because he’s a fly-ball pitcher, and a fly-ball pitcher in Toronto is not a good thing. I think you’ll see his numbers jump considerably.”
Happ, 32, was 11-11 last season with a 4.22 ERA at Toronto.
RAMIREZ ON ROLL
Right-hander Erasmo Ramirez continued his strong winter performance Wednesday in Venezuela by yielding just one run and two hits over six innings for Lara before the bullpen blew a lead in 6-2 loss to Caracas.
That was the first earned run permitted by Ramirez in 30 innings over five starts. Ramirez has given up 15 hits in his 30 innings while striking out 22 and walking four.
Wednesday’s outing put Ramirez, 24, at his projected winter innings’ limit, but Lara is trying to persuade the Mariners to allow him to make at least one more start.
The Mariners face a decision next spring on Ramirez, who is out of options. He was 1-6 with a 5.26 ERA last season in 17 big-league appearances, including 14 starts.