The Nationals signed Nelson Cruz to hit. He’s a veteran player whose clubhouse presence is valued on a team prioritizing youth development, but Washington brought him in this offseason on a $15 million deal to be a potent bat in the middle of a lineup stocked with very few.
For the first month of the season, Cruz wasn’t hitting. He finished April with a .155 batting average that went down as his lowest for any full calendar month in his entire career. Despite ranking third among all active players with 449 career home runs heading into the season, Cruz hit just two long balls in his first 25 games.
The 41-year-old Cruz defied the aging curve in his 30s, putting together an all-time decade as a power hitter that could’ve made him a first-ballot Hall of Famer if not for being linked to the Biogenesis scandal in 2013 and receiving a subsequent 50-game suspension. Yet it looked like his age might have finally been catching up to him. He struggled down the stretch in 2021 after being traded to the Tampa Bay Rays and was off to an even worse start this year.
Then May began, and Cruz started to look more like the hitter the Nationals hoped he would be. After reaching base twice in Washington’s 7-3 win over the Colorado Rockies on Thursday, he’s hitting .315 with a .358 on-base percentage in 20 games this month. While his power numbers are still lagging, Cruz’s 39.3% hard-hit rate since May 1 ranks among the top 30 hitters in baseball and he sports a 10% home-run-per-flyball rate well below his career average.
“Definitely, it feels better,” Cruz said Tuesday of getting into a rhythm at the plate. “My approach is getting better also. I’ve been hitting the ball where it’s pitched, so it feels good.”
Only signed to a one-year deal, Cruz may not find himself in D.C. by the end of the season if he continues to see an uptick in his offensive production. The Nationals, even after winning back-to-back games Wednesday and Thursday, sit at the bottom of the NL East with a 16-30 record that bests only the Cincinnati Reds across the major leagues.
Washington is all but guaranteed to be sellers at the trade deadline, which makes Cruz one of the most likely candidates to land with another team. After the Nationals held an all-out fire sale last summer and signed only one-year deals over the winter, they put themselves on a new path that so far has included a lot more losing than the club has endured over the last decade.
The deadline is still over two months away, which should give him plenty of time to improve upon his .628 OPS for the season. For now, the Nationals are just looking for Cruz to provide lineup protection for Juan Soto and some power in the middle of their lineup.