The Padres are among the teams with interest in Nelson Cruz, reports Jon Heyman of the New York Post (Twitter link). The designated hitter is one of the more accomplished bats still available in free agency, though he’s coming off a career-worst 2022 campaign.
Cruz told reporters in the Dominican Republic last week that his camp had already received offers from clubs for what’ll be his age-42 season. The seven-time All-Star unsurprisingly didn’t reveal which clubs had put forth those offers, and it’s not clear whether San Diego is one of those teams. Cruz also didn’t specify whether he’s received major league offers or just non-roster invitations to big league camp.
It was a rough season for Cruz, who spent a year in Washington after inking a $15MM free agent deal. For the first time since 2007, he hit at a below-average level. Through 507 trips to the plate, the right-hander posted a .234/.314/.337 line with only 10 home runs. It was his lowest homer total in 14 years, thanks largely to a career-worst 52.4% grounder percentage. Cruz continued to hit the ball hard, averaging just under 91 MPH in exit velocity while posting a 45.7% hard contact rate that was around 10 points above the league average. Much of that contact was driven into the dirt, though, a suboptimal outcome for a lumbering slugger.
Cruz had shown some worrisome signs late in the 2021 season as well. Owner of a .294/.370/.537 line through the first few months in Minnesota, he stumbled to a .226/.283/.442 mark upon landing with the Rays in a deadline deal that sent Joe Ryan to the Twin Cities. Cruz had previously seemed ageless as he continued to mash into his 40’s, but he has just a .232/.304/.371 slash through 745 trips to the plate since that trade.
Health could’ve played a part in that dip in production. At year’s end, Cruz revealed he’d been playing through some inflammation in his left eye. The issue, which he said had been impacting his vision, required surgical repair in late October. That’s not expected to affect his readiness for Spring Training, though it offers a possible explanation for Cruz’s struggles of late. Of course, the fact that he’ll turn 43 in July raises questions about whether he’ll be able to bounce back.
That also figures to depress his asking price, as Cruz is surely looking at a paycut from last season. If he secures a big league deal, it’ll be a one-year pact that likely contains a fairly low base salary. That could him make him more palatable to a San Diego club that might be nearing its spending limit. The Friars are certain to pay the luxury tax for a third consecutive season and they’re roughly $6MM shy of the $273MM threshold that’d result in their top 2024 draft pick being pushed back ten spots, as estimated by Roster Resource.
Cruz is well-known to San Diego president of baseball operations A.J. Preller. The Friars baseball operations leader was a member of the Rangers scouting staff before landing in San Diego, a run that overlapped with Cruz breaking through as a regular in Arlington. They reportedly showed interest in Cruz last offseason before he signed with the Nats.
The 18-year MLB veteran had ample experience in the corner outfield early in his career. He’s been almost exclusively a DH for a half-decade, not logging a single inning of outfield action since 2018. Any team that brings him in would presumably do so with an eye towards giving him ample run at designated hitter, in addition to some pinch-hitting work. The Friars signed Matt Carpenter to a two-year guarantee earlier in the offseason and figure to deploy him at DH fairly frequently as things stand. Carpenter is capable of factoring in at the non-shortstop infield positions and can add some insurance to the corner outfield as well, which would open up DH time for Cruz if a deal were to come together.