Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said Sunday afternoon that one of the team’s needs for the compressed free-agency period was to add a veteran bat.
“We’d like to get a veteran hitter that can help us score some runs and hit some home runs,” he said.
Rizzo reportedly did just that late Sunday night by adding arguably the most veteran hitter on the market — 41-year-old designated hitter Nelson Cruz. The Nationals and Cruz agreed to a one-year, $15 million deal with a mutual option for 2023, making Washington the first National League team to pounce on a slugger to be its DH amid the new rules bringing the position to the senior circuit.
The team has yet to officially announce the deal, as of Monday evening.
Nationals manager Dave Martinez couched his statements about the deal Monday with the disclaimer that it is still “pending a physical,” but the fifth-year skipper did say he was “excited” about Cruz.
“I’ve known him for many many years. He’s a phenomenal guy, a great hitter,” Martinez said. “I’m so excited that he’s here. It’ll be fun to watch.”
Cruz has been one of baseball’s best power hitters since he broke out with an All-Star campaign in 2009 with the Texas Rangers. Since then, he’s hit at least 22 home runs in every season — excluding the COVID-19-shortened 2020 campaign — and has amassed 449 long balls in his 17-year career.
The Dominican Republic native played in the corner outfield for most of his career until 2017 when he became a full-time designated hitter. While his speed and agility have declined with age, his power hasn’t, as Cruz has averaged 39 home runs since 2014 (not including 2020) during stints with the Orioles, Mariners, Twins and Rays. In 140 games last season split between Minnesota and Tampa Bay, Cruz hit .265 with 32 homers and 86 RBIs. He’s made seven All-Star Games, won four Silver Slugger Awards and has been a top 10 MVP vote-getter five times in the last eight years.
Martinez isn’t ready yet to start talking about lineup configurations, but it’s likely that Cruz will hit behind Juan Soto, either in the No. 3 hole or in the cleanup spot. The extra right-handed bat could move Soto, an on-base machine, into the No. 2 hole, allowing Cruz and first baseman Josh Bell to slug away in the Nos. 3 and 4 spots.
As long as Cruz remains healthy and produces the way he has his entire career, the move could be a win-win for the Nationals no matter how the team performs.
If the team surprises people and is a contender, Cruz will be a reason why and will serve as a presence in both the clubhouse and the lineup. He also has ample experience coming up clutch in big games. In 2011, he was the ALCS MVP after he hit six home runs and drove home 13 runs for the Rangers against the Tigers.
But, if the Nationals aren’t successful in 2022, Cruz is likely to be a valuable piece at the trade deadline. In fact, he could be more valuable than ever at the deadline this year. With the DH coming to NL lineups, more teams could be in the market for Cruz’s services than in previous seasons.
Last year, Cruz netted the Twins two minor-league pitchers when they shipped him off to Tampa Bay. One of those pitchers, Joe Ryan, is now set to be a starter for the Twins this season. If the Nationals are forced to sell in July, getting a potential back-end rotation piece would be worth the money spent on Cruz’s contract.
Either way, Martinez said Cruz’s experience and knowledge will be good for the team’s young players, such as Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom — two 24-year-olds who struggled in the big leagues last season.
“We’re bringing a guy in … that can really teach our guys how to really work an at-bat,” Martinez said. “That’ll be great for our young players.”
Washington also reportedly agreed to a major-league deal with veteran relief pitcher and former Nationals closer Sean Doolittle on Monday. Doolittle, 35, was the Nationals’ closer from 2017 to 2019, totaling 75 saves and helping the team win the World Series in 2019. After pitching poorly for the team in 2020 as he dealt with a knee injury and diminished velocity, he had a slight bounce back last season, posting a 4.53 earned-run average with the Reds and Mariners.
“We know what he can do when he’s healthy,” Martinez said. “Last year, we kept an eye on him, watched him get his velo back. We definitely think he can help us.”
Another familiar face rejoining the team in spring training is outfielder Gerardo Parra. A fan favorite due to his “Baby Shark” walkup song, Parra is part of the Nationals’ non-roster invites to spring training.