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MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

With big reward possible, who will roll the dice on Cruz?

Mariners reportedly are interested in the slugger, who remains a tricky one to evaluate

With big reward possible, who will roll the dice on Cruz?

What is the right price for Nelson Cruz?

Cruz has obvious run-producing ability. And yet, over on the debit side, there is age, there is an injury history and, last but not least, there is the 50-game PED-related suspension that occurred in 2013.

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Put it all together and the Nelson Cruz package doesn't lend itself to a convenient group of comparables. He's a gamble for somebody. Cruz is potentially a worthwhile gamble, but at what cost and over what length of time?

Persistent reports have Cruz heading to the Seattle Mariners. In the context of one team spending considerable money and taking sizable chances this winter, maybe this fits.

The Mariners went mammoth on the Robinson Cano signing -- $240 million over 10 years, an Albert Pujols-sized deal. They also signed two players -- Corey Hart and Logan Morrison -- who have considerable pop, but who have had serious knee injuries.

Seattle has also reportedly signed closer Fernando Rodney to a two-year, $14 million deal. Rodney will turn 37 in March. He had one of the finest seasons in the history of relief pitching in 2012 for Tampa Bay, but was much more like his average in '13.

You can understand the Mariners' sincere and expensive efforts to get better. In the American League West, they are up against two teams with major-market revenues and spending habits to match, although the Rangers have had much more recent success than the Angels. That discussion doesn't even include the club that won the division each of the past two seasons, the Oakland Athletics. The A's have loads of pitching and the ability to mix and match a lineup that has been productive enough, even though it is a bargain-basement crew compared to the rest of the teams in the division.

So the Cruz signing would not be out of character for the way Seattle has approached the rest of this offseason.

Cruz has obvious power. He had a .506 slugging percentage in 2013, hitting 27 home runs in just 109 games.

But Cruz wasn't available for the last 50 games of the regular season because of the suspension. The performance-enhancing drug issue will always give pause. Will Cruz return and be the productive hitter he was for the bulk of his career? Or will he return from the suspension and have the kind of truly disappointing season that some other players have produced in their returns from PED-related suspensions?

On Cruz's side of the argument is a substantial track record as a productive offensive player. But there are other concerns.

Cruz will turn 34 in July. Only once in his Major League career has he played in more than 128 games in a season (159 in 2012).

The team that signs Cruz will also lose a Draft pick because the Rangers made a $14.1 qualifying offer to him.

In these circumstances, it is difficult to imagine a contract longer than two years -- or at most a two-year deal with an option for a third. As far as the money goes, the Mariners have already surprised the market this winter, and they may again in the case of Cruz.

There are good and valid reasons to look upon Nelson Cruz as a difference-maker in a lineup. There are also reasons to approach his acquisition with a reasonable, logical, measurable amount of caution.

It will only take one club to view the difference-maker aspect as the more important, more compelling factor, and the caution will be relegated to a distant second place.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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