The Baltimore Orioles have been living in a weird not-quite-fantasy land for the past two seasons. After 2012, which was a legitimate storybook season that ended with the team turning back into pumpkins against the New York Yankees -- a team at which they've spent the better part of a century staring up the division standings (they're hardly unique in this, of course) -- the 2013 campaign should have been a relative letdown. After all, the team's success in one-run games in 2012 proved to be just as big a fluke as everyone outside of Baltimore said it was with swift finality, and the team found itself tied for third place with those very same Yankees and sitting at home as the Tampa Bay Rays earned a wild-card berth and the Boston Red Sox went on to win the World Series.
And yet, last season was more promising for Orioles fans than it should have been on the cut-and-dry merits for mainly two reasons: Manny Machado, and more importantly, Chris Davis.
Machado is his own bag of concerns -- after suffering a horrible freak knee injury at the end of the season and rushing back as quickly as possible, Machado still looks almost nothing like the player from last year at the plate and has even struggled a bit in the field. Chris Davis, on the other hand, has continued to be a power-hitting revelation following a slow start and a short stint on the disabled list. Last year, his (ultimately unsuccessful) chase of the single-season home run record -- first Bonds' and then, as the year wore on and he came slightly back to earth, Maris' -- helped distract Orioles fans from the fact that the team had no starting pitching worth mentioning.
Which brings us to 2014, and Nelson Cruz.
Cruz is the only Baltimore hitter currently outproducing Davis at the plate. Whereas Davis is hitting .260/.388/.488 in 152 PA going into Tuesday night's games, Cruz has put up a .294/.362/.610 line in 210 PA since coming to Baltimore on a one-year, $8 million deal in an offseason marked by short-term value contracts for guys like Cruz -- one-dimensional or otherwise-flawed players who were too good not to put a qualifying offer on, but not sure enough bets to warrant other teams signing them to big deals and paying a first- or second-round draft pick for the privilege.
With Cruz, the concern was not only that he was unable to consistently play even fringy outfield defense -- or that he'd spent virtually his entire career up to that point on the Texas Rangers, a team that played half of its games in one of the most hitter-friendly environments in baseball -- but also that he was a power hitter who had spent the end of the previous season serving a 50-game suspension for steroid use. Realistically, Cruz should have taken the qualifying offer. I have a feeling that this offseason, we'll be seeing more guys in positions like Cruz's seriously considering (or perhaps even accepting) their qualifying offers, if only to avoid the fate of Stephen Drew, who signed back with the Red Sox for essentially the $14.1 million one-year qualifying offer pro-rated over the remainder of the season, or the still-unsigned Kendrys Morales.
But thinking about what Cruz will do this offseason, when he is once again a free agent, is getting ahead of the real question, which is: Can Cruz keep this up?
Sustaining a power surge like the one in which Cruz finds himself is difficult, but far from unheard-of: There have been 172 player seasons in the Expansion era (from 1961 to present) in which a batter has qualified for the batting title and slugged over .600. Of course, this list will be shrinking -- Cruz qualifies for the batting title himself so far this season, so he is among the listed names, along with Victor Martinez (.609), Yasiel Puig (.616), Giancarlo Stanton (.622) and, of course, Troy Tulowitzki (.720?!). While it's impossible to say what direction Tulowitzki's season is going to go, and while Stanton certainly has the raw power tool and polished hitting experience to sustain his production, Puig and Martinez are probably headed back into the upper part of the .500s. Cruz is easily the biggest "will he or won't he?" question mark of the bunch.
(Other notables: Barry Bonds's 2001, 2004, and 2002 occupy the top 3 spots, of course, while 2013 Chris Davis' .634 SLG ranks 68th; the most impressively out-of-left-field entry on the list belongs, fittingly enough, to Houston Astros outfielder Richard Hidalgo in 2000, when he slugged .636 for a full season -- and only broke even .500 SLG one other time for a full year the rest of his career.)
Should Cruz finish the season with a slugging percentage over .600, it would technically be the second time in his career he'd have done so -- but the other season, Cruz's 2008 with the Rangers, was only 31 games long, as Cruz had yet to break into Texas's everyday lineup. Cruz is still in his physical prime, and all the intangible gunk that sometimes contributes to these nutty single seasons -- this is not just a season for Cruz to show the rest of the league what they missed out on by passing on him, but it's also a contract year -- is there in heavy doses. It is unlikely Cruz will be back in an Orioles uniform next year, and he knows it. There's just not enough money in the budget to sign Cruz to a long-term deal and extend Chris Davis, and if Baltimore has to make a choice between the two, it's not a particularly difficult one considering they still have a little bit of control remaining on Davis through the end of the arbitration process.
Besides, while executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has had success convincing owner Peter Angelos to agree to extend young talent like Adam Jones and Matt Wieters (though the Wieters extension talks have gone nowhere so far), Angelos is probably already feeling substantial buyer's remorse about starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, who currently sports a 4.98 ERA in 56.0 IP, has three years and $38.75 million remaining on his deal after this season, and isn't getting younger.
It's unlikely the Orioles are going to indulge in any more big multi-year free agent deals over the next couple offseasons, and that's definitely what Nelson Cruz should and will be looking for if he slugs .600 the rest of the way -- and if he walks away with the home-run crown, there will be more than a couple teams willing to throw a four-year, $70-80 million deal his way.
Of course, first he's got to hit those dingers. But that shouldn't be too much of an issue. For now, at least, Cruz is a Baltimore Oriole, and nothing says modern-day Orioles magic like hitting dingers and finishing behind the Yankees.