There’s no question that the MLB designated hitter rule, now adopted by both leagues, has prolonged the careers of baseball’s many top notch hitters. Statistics show that most fans favor lots of hitting opposed to defense, and they go nuts when a player goes yard. It’s just more entertaining. For National League teams, the transition remains a bit tricky for the most part, although the Philadelphia Phillies had an advantage last season when Bryce Harper was unable to play the outfield, yet carried his team in the DH role.
The other exception in 2022 was the San Diego Padres. With the right handed bat of Wil Myers along with the switch hitting Josh Bell and Jurickson Profar, the Friars had depth to pencil in players at the DH slot. What’s more, they could all play defense. That’s not the case for the upcoming season. It’s true that port side slugger Matt Carpenter can provide an occasional band-aid at first base. But the other alternative, aging veteran and right-handed swinger Nelson Cruz, is not nearly as versatile. Let’s examine the facts and weigh the positives and negatives.
It’s true that Cruz, who will be 43 in July, has racked up some impressive statistics over 18 years in the big leagues. He has launched 459 bombs in his career with a very respectable .274 batting average. That’s because the Dominican Republic product has also tallied 2,018 hits and is always a tough out. Besides that, he brings forth that dugout and clubhouse wisdom that can be a valuable learning tool for young players. Nelson is also a good guy.
While earning nearly $40 million to date, he has done a lot for the D.R. and specifically his native city of Las Matas de Santa Cruz. And because of that generosity, he was selected as the Marvin Miller Man of the Year award in 2020, and the Roberto Clemente award the following year, both while he was a member of the Minnesota Twins.
On the flip side, despite his amazing numbers at the plate, Cruz has switched zip codes a lot over the years. The Padres will be his eighth employer, which prompted a friend of mine to suggest that Nelson could be dubbed the modern day Harry “Suitcase” Simpson. I didn’t bother to mention that Simpson’s nickname stuck for a different reason, but it’s curious that a player so productive as Cruz seems to wear out his welcome. A lot of it stems from his involvement in the Miami Biogenesis scandal in 2013, the same web that snared other stars like Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Jhonny Peralta and the year prior, Bartolo Colon.
Cruz was suspended for 50 games after buying a damning amount of a banned substance, and his alleged PED use made it difficult to find a job the following season. Still, Nelson continued to be a runs machine until last year with the Washington Nationals. His slash line there was a disappointing .224/.313/.337 in 124 games, striking out 25% in 448 at bats, and the Nats bought out his deal.
There’s no question that Cruz’s bat speed has slowed considerably, although he claims that eye surgery this off season will help him see the ball a lot better. Nelson’s one million dollar guarantee is mere pocket change compared to San Diego’s inflated payroll, reportedly the third highest in baseball for 2023. And according to Cruz, he turned down better deals on the table in search of a World Series ring, and the Padres appeared to be the best option.
“That’s the thing I’m looking for before my career is over,” Nelson confirmed. “I want to win (it all).”
To be honest, I was never on board with the Cruz deal, although Carpenter will get more opportunities even if both he and Cruz remain healthy. The fact that a stacked Padre lineup will give Nelson better pitches to hit, I’m still skeptical. But there could be a silver lining here if Cruz could take Fernando Tatis Jr. under his wing, and convince the youngster to be less careless with banned substances he chooses to use, intentional or by mistake. Cruz could serve as a father figure for “El Niño.” The kid could absorb tons of knowledge from this man. And considering the fact that Fernando is a huge part of this club moving forward, that’s an investment worth a hell of a lot more than a million dollars.