Now 42, Washington Nationals slugger Nelson Cruz is wrapping up his worst season since becoming a full-time big leaguer in 2009. Cruz owns a .234/.313/.337 batting line and only 10 home runs through 507 plate appearances. Adjusted for ballpark and the league's offensive environment, Cruz has been 13 percent worse than the average hitter in 2022.
Despite his age and the declining production, Cruz is not yet ready to call it a career. He strongly hinted at continuing to play next year in a recent interview with the Washington Post. Here's what Cruz said:
"If I don't feel like I am having fun, I will leave, you know?" Cruz said last week by his locker at Nationals Park. "Everybody is here for different reasons. I play to win, to get to the championship, to win a World Series. That's the ultimate goal that we share. But it is not just my career. It is for everyone around me, too. A lot of people depend on if I play and how I play."
"Many people have benefited from it," Cruz said of his work in the Dominican. "And I believe once I stop playing, that will be changed drastically. I won't be able to provide like I used to. So there are different reasons that I keep pushing. But the most important one, I think, is just for the love of the game. When you love something this much, that doesn't shut off so easily."
Through personal donations and money raised by his foundation, Boomstick23 Foundation, Cruz has helped build a hospital, supply ambulances, pave roads, and build a computer center in his hometown of Las Matas de Santa Cruz in the Dominican Republic. He has been one of game's most active players in the community throughout his career.
Cruz remains on Washington's active roster even though he has not played since Sept. 13 due to inflammation in his left eye that bothers him when he hits. The 104-loss Nationals have given those at-bats to 30-year-old Joey Meneses, a rookie putting up huge numbers, and also Luke Voit, a possible offseason trade candidate. Cruz has taken on the role of veteran mentor in the interim.
Given his age and career-worst season, there's a chance Cruz is done as a productive big league player, especially since he is a DH and a DH only. That said, he has held his own against lefties this season (six percent better than MLB average) and has driven in 16.1 percent of baserunners, above the 14.1 percent league average. Also, Cruz has long been regarded as a great clubhouse guy. He's someone teams want leading their young players.
The universal DH will create more opportunities for Cruz in 2023 and his role could be similar to the role Albert Pujols had with the Cardinals this year. St. Louis brought Pujols aboard as a platoon DH and veteran leader, then he played his way into more at-bats as he chased down 700 homers. A club could bring in Cruz in a similar platoon DH/leader role.
It should be noted Cruz is sitting on 459 career home runs. Hitting 41 homers next season to reach 500 seems very unlikely, but it's not completely impossible either. Not many thought Pujols could hit the 21 he needed to reach 700 career homers this season.