Scott Servais approached his longtime friend and player, Nelson Cruz, earlier this week simply wanting to know how much playing time the 38-year-old slugger wanted to get with the 2018 season coming to a close.
Cruz’s response says much of what you need to know about Nelson Cruz the baseball player and why he’s so revered in the Seattle Mariners organization.
“I say, ‘Hey, how much do you want to play down the stretch, the last 4-5 games,’” Servais said. “And he looks at me and goes, ‘I’m the employee. I play when you tell me.’”
Servais paused to soak that in a little more.
“Very strong message,” Servais said. “You don’t hear that all the time. It was pretty cool.”
And Servais’ response?
“I’ll let you know when you’re playing,” he laughed.
It was apparent through Servais’ tone that he understands this could be the final time he and Seattle see Cruz playing in a Mariners uniform before he becomes a free agent. Cruz signed a four-year, $57 million contract with the Mariners in 2015 after 10 seasons between the Rangers, Orioles and briefly with the Brewers.
But Servais lamented before Sunday’s game that he hopes it’s not.
“I really hope he’s back,” Servais said. “I say that very sincerely. I do. I know what he’s meant to the organization, this team and clubhouse and everything around and I hope that he’s back here. He is one of my all-time favorites. I couldn’t be any prouder of him and what he’s done and how he’s handled himself. I really hope this isn’t the last time.”
Cruz echoed the same thing. He said he’s hoping for the best, and that’s to be back in Seattle.
“I came in with a goal,” Cruz said. “And I haven’t accomplished that. I look for that.
“It feels like it was yesterday when I came here. It’s already four years. I hope for the best and hopefully we can get something done and I can come back. If not, I mean, I understand it’s a business, too.”
Servais removed Cruz in the middle of the top of the fourth inning, with Ben Gamel trotting to right field to give him a hug and replace him. Cruz got a standing ovation from fans as he left the field, took off his hat to acknowledge them and then hugged Robinson Cano at the top step of the dugout before acknowledging the fans one more time.
Certainly a classy move from Servais to allow Cruz that moment.
They were together in the Rangers organization when Servais was the director of player development there, when Cruz was on his last chance in the organization before Servais approached the then 27-year-old about changing his swing and approach. Cruz took to it, put in what is an almost legendary work ethic as viewed by many of his peers that he maintains to this day, though differently.
Now he’s still thriving even though he’s approaching 40. He’s maybe the most productive free-agent signing in Seattle sports history, with his 163 home runs in four years and a .908 OPS. He has more home runs than any other players in the majors in that span (just ahead of the Athletics’ Khris Davis) and he’s in the top-10 of players since then in OPS, with Mike Trout at the top (1.031).
General manager Jerry Dipoto has publicly expressed the same willingness in wanting to re-sign Cruz, but it will all be dependent on what they offer, and if the Mariners believe they can end their streak of 17 consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance next year, of if they’d be better off letting Cruz walk and create playing time for younger players in a rebuild. Maybe someone like Daniel Vogelbach.
Cruz also said Sunday that he has yet to hear from his agent or been approached about any contract discussions, though the Mariners certainly could have been waiting for the season to end.
“I want to be part of this team,” Cruz said. “I understand it’s a business and as a player that’s something you can’t control. You can only do so much.”
Robinson Cano helped recruit Cruz from Baltimore to Seattle four years ago. He was asked if there’s any way he’d let his locker neighbor leave.
“If it was up to me, I would have re-signed him three months ago,” Cano said.
“I don’t know what else you can ask from the guy. More than 35 home runs a year and 100 RBI. I don’t know what else you can ask for.”
Cruz’s numbers are down this season compared to his career numbers. He entered Sunday with a .257 batting average, .343 on-base percentage and 37 home runs, but he still hits the ball at exit velocities that’s among the top five in all of baseball. Cruz heading to the disabled list after he tripped over a dugout step in the first series of the season certainly didn’t help anything.
“We’ve seen Nellie this year, maybe more than other years either really hot or really cold,” Servais said. “When he gets hot, it’s awesome. We’ve seen 5-6 home runs in 6-7 days and he really carries the team. We probably saw that a little more this year than I’ve seen in the past out of him.
“But, again, he’s still got plenty of baseball in him.”
Servais approached Cruz on Saturday to ask if he’d be OK starting in right field for the Mariners 2018 season finale. It would be the first time Cruz had played outfield in an American League game since Aug. 16, 2016, against the Angels.
Of course he was. He was eager, actually. Cruz relishes any opportunity he gets to show he’s still an athletic, hard-throwing right fielder even though the Mariners have converted him to a full-time designated hitter his past four seasons in Seattle.
“He looked at me like, ‘Are you serious?’” Servais said. “I said, ‘Yes, I want you to play right field.’”
Maybe that’s Servais giving in for a final game after Cruz had been begging for the shot to play outfield much of the season. Maybe it’s recognizing this might have been Cruz’s final game and might as well let him go out with an ovation.
“He’s just, again, I really hope this isn’t the last time,” Servais said. “I hope he’s back.”