Cruz Passes on Contenders (For Now), Signs With Nats

© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I hope you’ll allow a quick personal story. In December of 2018, while I was still working for the Astros, I engaged in talks with then-free agent Nelson Cruz’s representatives. Like many teams, the Astros were hesitant to give anything more than a one-year deal to a designated hitter who had turned 38 during the previous season. Ultimately, there was no multi-year pact to be had, and the Twins ended up winning a fierce competition for Cruz’s services with a one-year, $14 million deal that included a $12 million 2020 club option. Cruz would go on to have one of the best seasons of his career in 2019, making exercising that option a no-brainer; following the 2020 season, he signed another one-year, $13 million deal with Minnesota. Heading into this offseason, Cruz was still a much in-demand bat, particularly after it became clear that the National League would adopt the designated hitter, with the rumor mill linking him to as many as six teams. On Sunday, he landed with the Washington Nationals on a one-year, $12 million deal that includes a mutual option (which in reality isn’t really an option at all, but we’ll get to that in a bit).

Cruz has been an ageless wonder. From 2015-20, his age 34-to-39 seasons, he posted wRC+ marks ranging from 133 to 164. He slipped to a 122 wRC+ in 2021, including a 96 wRC+ in 55 games following a trade to the Rays; while a partial season, that represented his first sub-100 mark since 2007. It’s difficult to figure out exactly what went wrong while he was with the Rays, but it feels silly to simply assume that father time suddenly caught up to him after a strong first half of the season with the Twins.

Part of Cruz’s sudden dip is surely a fluke of the small sample, while some is likely due to poor batted ball luck. The stranger part of his Rays tenure was the sudden decline in his swing decisions and, more jarring still, an inability to catch up to good velocity. It’s hard to know exactly what caused this, though there were several mitigating factors other than age that we could point to, including a tough home park to hit in, a September forearm contusion, and some time missed to a stint on the COVID IL and, later, an unspecified illness. His utterly Cruz-esque time with the Twins should give Washington a bit of comfort, and anyway, it’s only a one-year commitment. At some point Cruz is going to slow down, but his stretch with the Rays isn’t necessarily a sign that that time is here.

There’s also the significant ancillary value Cruz brings to a roster. Getting back to that 2018-19 offseason, as part of the team’s due diligence process, I performed what is commonly referred to as a “makeup dig” on Cruz. It was the most positive one I’ve ever done, as former teammates, coaches and front office people didn’t just speak highly of Cruz, they raved about him. He provides one of the best clubhouse presences in the game, with both his attitude and work ethic serving as a model for younger players, which at this point is just about everyone on the roster.

Cruz was reportedly pursued by some clear playoff contenders, especially the Dodgers and Padres, during the pre-signing buzz period of his offseason. By signing with the Nats, he’s almost assured to be part of a playoff run in the second-half of the season, as he’s likely to be one of the better bats available at the trade deadline. In his press availability Monday, Cruz said all the right things about how he signed with Washington because team management told him they would make moves to compete, but it’s hard to see that happening in reality; five of the Nationals’ projected starting nine would be bench players on a team with realistic postseason aspirations, and the pitching leaves even more to be desired.

As for his contract, the deal includes a $16 million mutual option for 2023 with a $3 million buyout, which is really just a piece of creative accounting. At their core, mutual options are pretty silly. The odds of a player and a team both making use of a salary figure set 12 months in advance are infinitesimally small. Instead, that hefty buyout effectively makes it a one-year deal for $15 million with the opportunity to delay the CBT hit on 20% of the money.

For now, Cruz will toil away in Washington, inching closer to the 500 home run mark (he’s currently 51 away), knowing that he’ll likely hit in the postseason for a fourth straight year. It’s just that those at-bats are unlikely to come in a Nationals uniform.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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NATS Fanmember
2 years ago

Surprised this NATs Fan for sure, but I like the signing. Maybe being around Cruz will help Garcia and Kieboom figure out how to hit. Plus we can trade him for a good prospect at the trade deadline. Lastly, it helps Soto be happy to give him guys who protect him in the order and guys he can drive in.

NATS Fanmember
2 years ago
Reply to  NATS Fan

Also 4 of them would bench for good teams as one of the guys you mentioned started in CF for a World Series winning club!