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By Will Korn 

Talking Sports: October contenders reaping rewards of offseason risks

 


Back track to November of 2013 for a minute.

Remember when Nelson Cruz and Jhonny Peralta were considered two of the best free agent bats on the Major League Baseball market?

Do you remember how much you heard ESPN and baseball insiders tell you that being guilty (allegedly – because it still hasn’t been proven by a drug test) of using performance-enhancing drugs would frighten many potentially suitable teams away from them? There was an overlying stigma that both Cruz and Peralta’s numbers would drop considerably because they were “off the juice.”

Well, it took a while – late January or so – but eventually Cruz and Peralta found homes with the Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals, respectively.

They took different routes to their new teams. Cruz basically fell into Baltimore’s lap on a one-year, $8 million pillow deal. He was seeking a five-year, $75 million payday but that was a few counties outside of the price range of just about every interested team, especially given his 50-game ban for PEDs that might have ended the Texas Rangers’ playoff hopes on Aug. 4 – the day he was suspended. Cruz’ injury history – particularly with hamstrings – is well documented in an extensive collection of volumes.

So Cruz was willing to take a one-year contract in hopes of boosting his value on next year’s market. He didn’t just “boost” it. He shot it to the moon and now it is higher than it has ever been.

Cruz, who is hitting .270 with 40 homers and 107 RBI this season in 155 games as the Orioles’ everyday right fielder, is probably the best bargain in baseball right now and maybe in the entire sports world.

This season, he’s posted career highs in plate appearances, hits, walks and will very likely set new career highs in games played and runs. He is a massive piece to a very potent Baltimore offense that led the way to the team’s first AL East division title in 17 years. Twenty-nine other teams are kicking themselves right about now for passing on even making the three-time All-Star an offer.

Contract year motivation and production? Absolutely. The numbers themselves? 100 percent clean.

After his suspension last season, Cruz is certainly being drug tested several times per week. If he were using – like his teammate Chris Davis who is currently serving a 25-game ban – he would have been caught long ago.

No, this season is a display of what a natural power hitter can do when he is fully healthy over long stretches. This is what the Rangers had for seven seasons, but only saw for a collective one or two seasons. The guy just couldn’t stay on the field.

For the first time in my lifetime, the Orioles have legitimate shot at reaching the World Series. If that happens, Cruz will have been a major reason why. Nice call, Baltimore.

Peralta, the former Detroit Tigers’ shortstop, was given the same 50-game suspension without the benefit of a thorough investigation from the MLB. Just like Cruz, he was not proven to be guilty of PED use and was another victim of the MLB’s desperate attempt to address the issue and hand out punishments as quickly as possible to keep its fan base calm.

Recall that Anthony Bosch, owner of the Miami clinic that distributed the PEDs, was paid six figures by the MLB in return for documents that suggested that Cruz and Peralta – as well as a handful of other players – might have received the drugs from Bosch. No drug tests conducted by the league. Just paid off documents and the word of a man who ratted out, itching to reduce jail time. But I digress.

Peralta was in the same boat as Cruz in terms of teams’ awareness of his risk. He’s injury prone and has missed around 500 games in his 12-year career – about 42 per season. He’s played in 154 games this season.

He also has developed a reputation as a below-average to average defensive shortstop, which no doubt turned off a few interested teams last offseason.

Peralta’s bat is ultimately what landed him the four-year, $53 million deal from the Cardinals. St. Louis General Manager John Mozeliak – regarded as one of the brightest in the game – took a chance on the power-hitting infielder, fully aware of the risk involved with a possible repeat incident--or I should say, associtiation with--of PEDs.

Instead, Peralta has produced a very nice season. He’s only hitting .259 but has knocked 21 balls out of the yard, has 71 RBI and will almost certainly set a new career record in walks. He’s become a more patient hitter in 2014 as he hasn’t walked 58 or more times since 2007.

At the time of Peralta’s signing, the general consensus among many baseball people was that $13 million per year was a fair price but four years was not team friendly for a defensively challenged shortstop.

But the alternatives? The mendoza-scraping, yet hustling Pete Kozma? A rumored trade for the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus, which likely would have cost a couple of top prospects? Maybe even Oscar Tavares as the price?

In the end, Mozeliak opted to invest dollars rather than prized prospects to fill a team need. There were gaping holes after the departure of Carlos Beltran and David Freese. St. Louis needed a proven major league bat over Kozma, who is probably more of a utility/bench player anyway.

St. Louis has already clinched a playoff berth and is in the middle of a tight race with the Pittsburgh Pirates for the NL Central. It’s a fair bet that the Cards aren’t in first place without Peralta in the middle of their lineup.

Now, these two teams are on track for another October run. Both players – once thought to be major detriments to any team that dare sign them – have turned into critical components of both clubs’ success. Both Cruz and Peralta also have respectable postseason histories as well.

It can be argued that baseball is one of the most accurate microcosms of life itself. Taking risks is necessary to coming out on top in life.

So it is the same with America’s pastime.

 

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