Donning GM hat for Classic, Cruz recruits loaded DR roster

Righty-hitting slugger balancing tournament duties with Padres spring camp

February 22nd, 2023

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Last July, after months of ruminating, finally accepted the offer to become general manager for the Dominican Republic ahead of the World Baseball Classic. He wasted no time recruiting.

Juan Soto, then Cruz's teammate in Washington, was perhaps his very first target.

"He was telling me right away, 'I want you at the World Baseball Classic,'" Soto said. "I told him, 'I'm all in.' I told him I was ready."

In the months that followed, Cruz had dozens of those conversations, calling players, agents and coaches while mapping out a loaded Dominican roster and staff.

The fruits of that labor will soon pay off. Cruz -- in Padres camp at age 42 -- will serve as both player and GM for the Dominican Republic when the tournament gets underway next month.

"We started from zero," Cruz said. "It's a lot of work. But we're almost done, and it's been a great journey, a great experience. It's something, as a player, you can't experience. You get to see the other side of baseball."

The roster that Cruz carefully constructed now looks like a juggernaut. It features current teammates Soto, Manny Machado and Luis García. It also boasts the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Rafael Devers and Julio Rodríguez. With Sandy Alcantara and Cristian Javier on the mound, the D.R. looks like a favorite to win the whole thing.

Initially offered the GM job in 2020, Cruz turned it down, noting, "I wasn't ready." But the 2021 edition of the WBC was postponed by the pandemic. When Dominican federation president Juan Núñez called last January, Cruz needed a few months to mull it over. But in the twilight of his big league career, it was an opportunity Cruz couldn't pass up.

"It's a big responsibility," Cruz said. "As a country, that's what we love. It's part of our culture. It's in our DNA. Every move you make, the whole country is expecting, seeing what's going on, seeing what's going to happen. Definitely you have to take pride in it, but at the same time try to be professional. Because I'm part of the roster, too."

Cruz still isn't sure how many at-bats he'll get for Team Dominican Republic, where he’ll likely serve in a similar capacity to his role with the Padres.

"I'm not the manager," he said. “We’ll see what happens; we’ve got a lot of good hitters. I’m there to help, whatever might be the case.”

No, he's not the manager. But it was Cruz, after all, who headed the process of hiring Rays third-base coach Rodney Linares for that very job in the first place.

In the meantime, there's the not-so-small matter of Cruz preparing for his season with the Padres. He signed a one-year deal with San Diego last month, looking for the elusive World Series title he's been chasing for the better part of two decades.

Team officials aren't concerned with Cruz's buildup, even if he doesn't see much playing time at the WBC. He's an 18-year big league veteran, after all. More than anything, the Padres have raved about Cruz’s dedication to his craft -- whether it’s hitting or roster-building.

“It’s quite the moonlighting,” manager Bob Melvin said. “… Look, with his experience in the game, he’s able to handle both of those things. And he’s done everything we’ve asked of him and more here in camp.”

Cruz is expected to serve as a right-handed weapon in some form of a DH platoon with the lefty-hitting Matt Carpenter. When he’s not starting, Cruz figures to serve as the top bat off the bench, and there’s a chance he sees time at first base as well.

With Washington last year, Cruz slashed .234/.313/.337, posting his lowest OPS (.651) since his sophomore 2006 season.

After the 2022 season, Cruz underwent surgery to address inflammation in his left eye that limited his vision. The difference, he says, “is night and day.”

The Padres don’t need Cruz to be the 40-homer force he was during his peak. They merely need him to continue raking against left-handed pitching. If his improved vision leads to a bounceback, there are at-bats to be won against right-handers as well.

In the meantime, he’s a valuable clubhouse presence on a team filled with players who respect and even revere him.

"Everything he's done for the Dominican Republic, he's just unbelievable,” Soto said. “The way he cares for his area, his neighborhood, and how he takes care of people, it's just incredible. He's building hospitals, schools, fire [stations]. He's just incredible. Just another role model that we can look toward.”