Is there any reason to believe Cruz could rebound in 2023?


Age on opening day 2023: 42

How acquired: Signed as free agent, March 2022

MLB service time: 15 years, 82 days

2022 salary: $12 million

Contract status: $16 million mutual option for 2023 with $3 million club buyout

2022 stats: 124 G, 507 PA, 448 AB, 50 R, 105 H, 16 2B, 0 3B, 10 HR, 64 RBI, 4 SB, 0 CS, 49 BB, 119 SO, .234 AVG, .313 OBP, .337 SLG, .651 OPS, 90 OPS+, 0 DRS (did not appear in field), -0.8 fWAR, 0.2 bWAR

Quotable: “Nelly Cruz is such a mentor and such a presence in the clubhouse, especially with our younger Latin players, that I wasn’t just going to give him away for nothing just to move on. He likes it here. He wanted to be here. He’s a terrific teammate and leader in the clubhouse. We didn’t get the level of prospect that we wanted for him, so we kept him.” – Mike Rizzo, on 106.7 FM’s “The Sports Junkies” after the trade deadline

2022 analysis: On the surface, the Nationals’ decision to sign Nelson Cruz right as spring training began seemed an odd one. Why would an admittedly rebuilding club spend a guaranteed $15 million (2022 salary, plus the $3 million buyout in 2023) on a 41-year-old designated hitter? The thinking was that Cruz would provide lineup protection for Juan Soto, be a strong clubhouse influence and likely become a solid trade chip come August. Turns out only one of those things proved true.

Though he enjoyed a handful of hot streaks at the plate, they were few and far between. Overall, Cruz never found a consistent stroke at the plate, producing career-low numbers in nearly every category. Most of his production came via opposite-field singles. While occasionally valuable at-bats with runners in scoring position, it didn’t nearly make up for his drastic loss of power and inability to drive the ball to left field.

In the clubhouse, Cruz did live up to his reputation. Teammates adored him and appreciated his willingness to talk, mentor and often detect issues with their swings (or even pitches) he would glean from watching in the dugout or in-game on video tablets.

But when the Aug. 2 trade deadline came, Cruz’s off-the-field contributions weren’t enough on their own to make him attractive to contenders. While Soto and Josh Bell were dealt to the Padres, the 42-year-old DH remained for the rest of the season. And he continued to bat cleanup most days, until an eye infection forced him to miss the final 2 1/2 weeks.

2023 outlook: Given the numbers and his advanced age, it’s perfectly appropriate to wonder if Cruz’s outstanding career has finally reached the finish line. There are, however, a few reasons to believe he might still have something left in the tank, if he can make some adjustments.

Cruz actually hit the ball hard this season. He ranked in the 84th percentile in the majors with an average exit velocity of 90.9 mph. While down a couple notches from his peak, it’s still good enough to be productive. The problem was that he couldn’t hit the ball in the air. His groundball rate skyrocketed from 43.4 percent in 2021 to 53 percent this year. He also had all kinds of trouble hitting fastballs, slugging just .369 off that pitch after slugging .572, .763 and .673 off it the previous three seasons.

If he can correct his vision problem – he told he planned to have surgery for that – and if he can find a way to elevate the ball the way he used to, Cruz might still be able to produce for somebody in 2023, even as he turns 43. It’s hard to imagine that would happen in D.C., though. The Nationals already have multiple right-handed, DH-types on the roster and can’t really afford to bring back another one on the heels of the worst season of his long and storied career.

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