Somehow, at 41 years old, Nelson Cruz is still one of the premier hitters in baseball. Since the start of the 2019 season, a sample of over 300 games, Cruz has mashed to the tune of a .289/.368/.569 slash line, good for an OPS+ of 152. While his age will no doubt be a factor in his free agency, his bat is too good to be ignored, and he will certainly find a place to play in 2022, if he chooses to do so, something few players can do past the age of 40. It is very natural to wonder if retirement might be Cruz’s ultimate decision. While nothing is ever certain, Cruz said as recently as the start of the 2021 season that retirement was not on his mind.
Don’t expect Cruz to sign early. With the pending labor strike and new CBA, new rules are coming to baseball. One of the most anticipated is the potential of a universal DH. Such a change would be massive for Cruz. Not only would it double the number of DHs in the league, but it would leave 15 National League teams with a hole in their lineup they had not prepared for. Because of this, Cruz will almost certainly wait until the labor negotiations are sorted out to sign.
A return to St. Pete seems unlikely. The Rays have a crowded outfield as things are, with Kevin Kiermaier, Manuel Margot, Brett Phillips, Jordan Luplow, and Austin Meadows all under contract for 2022. While some of these players are likely to be traded this winter, one of them seems poised to slot in as a DH, presumably Meadows, who DHed 60 times in 2021. While Cruz was a valuable addition to the 2021 squad, re-signing him would seem to introduce more problems and questions than it would answer.
One issue that Cruz may encounter is that many contenders in the American League already have a designated hitter. The Astros have Yordan Alvarez. The Red Sox have JD Martinez. The Yankees have Giancarlo Stanton. The White Sox have Eloy Jimenez. Of this group, Jimenez seems the most practical to return to the field, but even that seems unlikely. This is especially true when you consider that Chicago will more likely than not focus on left-handed bats.
The Blue Jays should be interested. Although, like Chicago, they are already right-handed heavy. Toronto did not have a true DH in 2021. George Springer had the most games as a DH (38), as he was used in that role to reduce his workload as he battled injury. With Springer presumably healthy and ready to play the outfield every day, this opens the team up to the possibility of a true-DH type player. With Marcus Semien departing, the Blue Jays will need to remake his production somehow. While Cruz doesn’t provide the defensive value that Semien did, there really aren’t any other second baseman who provide the offense that Semien, or Cruz, provide. It’s also worth noting the veteran presence that Cruz could bring to a very young clubhouse. It’s not possible to measure the impact that his mentorship could have on a young star such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr, particularly after Wander Franco spoke so highly of the veteran slugger after their brief time together this past season.
The next team we’ll look at is the Mariners. While Seattle’s roster is constructed quite a bit differently than the aforementioned Toronto, both finished the season in essentially the same position; on the outside looking in. Both teams will come into 2022 with unfinished business. Both teams will need to bolster their roster a bit if they are to get over that hump next season. Luis Torrens was Seattle’s most frequent DH in 2021 (59 games). While Torrens did put together a respectable season with a 102 OPS+, he is a far cry from the presence that Nelson Cruz provides. Cruz would solidify the middle of the lineup, providing both protection and mentorship for the impressive Seattle core consisting of Mitch Haniger, Ty France, Kyle Lewis, and others.
Expect Cruz’s market to be one of the slowest to develop. If the DH does get added to the National League, which seems more likely than not, then throw most of what was said here out the window. That would instantly make 15 more teams that fit him. Assuming Cruz prefers to play for a contender, this change would be even more monumental, given how many AL contenders already have a DH. Wherever he ends up, Cruz will slot nicely into the middle of the lineup, where he will no doubt be a massive problem for opposing pitchers.
Matt O’Halloran is a junior mathematics major at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He works in analytics with the school’s baseball program. He is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and an editor at Diamond Digest. He can be found on Twitter @matto20.