What Nelson Cruz’s signing means for the Nationals

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said Sunday afternoon that one of the team’s needs for the compressed free agency period is to sign a veteran stick.

“We would like to have a veteran hitter who can help us score runs and hit home runs,” he said.

Bingo.

Rizzo did just that late Sunday night by signing arguably the most veteran hitter on the market – 41-year-old designated hitter Nelson Cruz. The Nationals and Cruz have 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 their DH amid news rules bringing the position to the senior circuit.

Nationals manager Dave Martinez framed his statements on the signing on Monday with the warning that the deal is still “pending physical review”, but the fifth-year skipper said he was “excited by Cruz.

“I have known him for many years. He’s a phenomenal guy, a great hitter,” Martinez said. “I’m so excited he’s here. It will be fun to watch.

Cruz has been one of baseball’s best power hitters since breaking out with an All-Star campaign in 2009 with the Texas Rangers. Since then, he’s hit at least 22 home runs every season — excluding the COVID-19-shortened 2020 campaign — and amassed 449 long pitches over his 17-year career.

The Dominican Republic native played in the corner’s outfield for most of his career until 2017 when he became a full-time designated hitter. Although his speed and agility have diminished with age, his power has not, as Cruz has averaged 39 home runs since 2014 (not including 2020) during stints with the Orioles, Marines, Twins and the Rays. In 140 games last season split between Minnesota and Tampa Bay, Cruz hit .265 with 32 home runs and 86 RBIs. He made seven All-Star Games, won four Silver Slugger Awards and was a top 10 MVP five times in the past eight years.

Martinez isn’t ready to start talking about lineup setups just yet, but it’s likely that Cruz will hit behind Juan Soto, either in the No. 3 hole or in the cleanup zone. 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 sneak into the No. 3 and 4 spots.

As long as Cruz remains healthy and producing like he has his entire career, the move could be a win-win for the Nationals, regardless of how the team performs.

If the team surprises people and is a contender, Cruz will be a reason why and serve as a presence in both the clubhouse and the roster. He also has a lot of experience in big games. In 2011, he was the ALCS MVP after hitting six homers and 13 runs for the Rangers against the Tigers.

But, if the Nationals don’t make it in 2022, Cruz will likely be a valuable asset at the trade deadline. In fact, he might be more valuable than ever at the deadline this year. With the arrival of DH in NL rosters, more teams may be in the market for Cruz’s services than in previous seasons.

Last year, Cruz scored the Twins with two minor league pitchers when they sent him to Tampa Bay. One of those pitchers, Joe Ryan, is now expected to start for the Twins this season. If the Nationals are forced to sell in July, getting a potential backstop rotation piece would be worth the money spent on Cruz’s contract.

Either way, Martinez said Cruz’s experience and knowledge would be good for younger players on the team, such as Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom, two 24-year-old players who have struggled in the major leagues last season.

“We’re bringing in a guy…who can really teach our guys how to really bat,” Martinez said. “It will be great for our young players.”

Cruz won’t be the only veteran to join the club this week, as Washington also reportedly signed veteran relief pitcher and former Nationals Sean Doolittle to a major league deal on Monday. Doolittle, 35, was the Nationals’ closest 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 while suffering from a knee injury and reduced speed, he had a slight rebound last season, posting a 4.53 ERA 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 bike back. We really think he can help us.

Another familiar face joining the team in spring training is outfielder Gerardo Parra. A fan favorite due to his song “Baby Shark,” Parra is among the Nationals’ off-list guests at spring training.