The lowdown on FA DH Nelson Cruz

November 21st, 2021

One of this generation's great power hitters is a free agent, after a midseason trade took him from the struggling Twins to the division champion Rays. Though he may be one of the oldest players on the market, aging hasn't been much of an issue for the 41-year-old, who garnered MVP votes in six of his past seven seasons, through 2020. Despite a slow second half in Tampa Bay, there's little doubt the seven-time All-Star will be an intriguing option for teams looking to add power to their lineups in 2022, especially if the universal DH is implemented.

Here's what you need to know about Cruz:

FAST FACTS
Birthdate: July 1, 1980 (Age 41 in 2022)
Primary position: DH
Height/weight: 6-foot-2, 230 lbs.
Bats/throws: Right/right
Place of birth: Las Matas de Santa Cruz, Dominican Republic
School(s): Monte Cristi (Monte Cristi, DR)
Signed: Feb. 17, 1998, by Mets
MLB debut: Sept. 17, 2005
Qualifying offer: Not eligible to receive one

THE NUMBERS
2021: .265/.334/.497 (130 OPS+), 32 HR, 2.5 WAR* in 140 G
Career: .277/.346/.527 (133 OPS+), 449 HR, 42.4 WAR in 1,882 G
*Per Baseball-Reference

STAT TO KNOW
Cruz ended the 2021 season tied with Rafael Palmeiro for the third-most home runs (208) hit by a player from his age-35 season onward, trailing only Barry Bonds (317) and Hank Aaron (245). He's also tied with Bonds and Aaron for the most seasons of 30-plus homers (five) by a player 35 or older. Of his 42.4 career WAR, Cruz has accrued 20.8 since his age 35 season.

QUESTION MARK
While Cruz has only seemed to improve with age, it is worth noting that he will turn 42 halfway through the 2022 season. Since 1995, only nine position players have appeared in 50-plus career games past their 42nd birthdays and most were unproductive during that time. At some point, age is bound to catch up with Cruz, but will it happen in 2022?

He's among the best
Although Cruz shows no signs of slowing down, it's worth pointing out just how much he's accomplished in his career to date. Among active players, Cruz ranks third in home runs (449), fourth in RBIs (1,238) and sixth in hits (1,913). The only two players he trails in all three categories? Likely Hall of Famers Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera.

A milestone is on the horizon
If Cruz is able to turn in another full season in 2022, his next team will almost certainly be the one he's with for a major milestone. He needs just 87 hits to reach 2,000 in his career -- which shouldn't be a problem for him, as he's never had a full season in the majors in which he didn't collect at least 100 hits. He would join Pujols, Cabrera, Robinson Canó, Yadier Molina and Joey Votto as the only active players with 2,000 hits.

He tears the cover off the ball
This almost certainly doesn't need to be said -- Cruz is incredibly strong. Thankfully, while it wasn't available for the first half of his career, Statcast has allowed us to understand just how strong in recent years. Take hard-hit rate, which tracks batted balls hit with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher, for example. Among players with at least 200 batted balls since 2015 (there are 736 of them), Cruz has the fifth-highest hard-hit rate, at 50.9%. For further context, Giancarlo Stanton, owner of five of the 10 hardest-hit home runs tracked by Statcast, trails behind him at 50.5%.

His market may be about to open up
While Cruz was a serviceable outfielder in the first half of his career, he's spent the majority of his playing time at DH since 2016, did not appear at a defensive position from 2019-'20 with Minnesota, and in 2021 spent just seven innings in the field, playing first base for the Rays in an NL ballpark. However, if the DH is adopted across baseball for 2022, Cruz would suddenly become an option for NL teams looking for a power boost. That could clear the way for him to return to the Senior Circuit for the first time since he began his career by playing eight games with the Brewers in 2005.

He's a clubhouse presence
As desirable as Cruz has been to general managers for his on-field performance, he may have even more appeal to his fellow players as a teammate and role model. Just ask the Twins, who named Cruz their 2021 Bob Allison Award winner, given yearly to the player who most exemplifies "determination, hustle, tenacity, competitive spirit and leadership both on and off the field," a full two months after he was traded to the Rays. It gets sweeter, too -- Cruz became so important to teammate Miguel Sanó in his time in Minnesota that when Sanó and his wife learned they were expecting a daughter in 2021, they asked Cruz to be her godfather. Unfortunately, Cruz was traded to the Rays a few weeks before baby Danea was born, but the day her parents brought her home was the very same on which Cruz played first base for the first time in his career. For the occasion, he wore a glove gifted to him by Sanó -- one inscribed with the names of Sanó's son, Dylan, and daughter, Angelica, who passed away in 2014. Cruz was also named the 2021 recipient of the Roberto Clemente Award, "bestowed annually to the player who best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field."