In 2021, Nelson Cruz did what he has in pretty much every season for well over a decade now: hit dingers and just generally rake at the plate. Last year, he hit .265/.334/.497 with 32 home runs with the Twins and Rays, good for a 130 OPS+ and a 122 wRC+. He did all that despite turning 41 in July.
Now, whenever the lockout ends, Cruz will be on the market as a free agent. Should he be someone the Yankees take a look at?
The main thing to consider is that Cruz is pretty much a DH only at this point. He played seven innings at first base in game this year, but that was an interleague situation, and it was the first time he had played the field at all since 2018. The most notable single play of his career is also probably a botched fielding attempt on a play that could’ve clinched the 2011 World Series for the Rangers. If you sign Cruz, you’re pretty much committing him to getting the vast majority of DH at-bats. Considering how reluctant the Yankees were to having Giancarlo Stanton play the outfield, it seems unlikely that they then sign someone else that would force Stanton into the field for 100+ games.
However, if they had an about-face and decided they were fine doing it, Cruz would probably be a bat worth risking it for. Since 2013, he has hit .282/.356/.545 with 319 home runs. That is a 145 OPS+ and an average of 35 home runs per year. He’s made six All-Star teams in that span, and probably would’ve made a seventh if the All-Star Game happened in 2020. Even as he’s gotten older, he’s been a remarkably consistent hitter. His batted ball profile also didn’t show any signs of slowing down in 2021.
On the other hand, while still good, his actual numbers were a bit below his previous norms. Now, that means they fell from “great” to “still really good,” but a wRC+ of 122 is noticeably below the 164 from the previous two years. His 2.0 FanGraphs WAR that he put up in 2021 was exactly the same as what he put up in the shortened 2020 season, despite playing making over 300 more plate appearances this year. Again, a 122 wRC+ would be a boost to any lineup, but considering that he’ll turn 42 next year, it’s not unfair to wonder if that dip was the beginning of the end.
Still, the 42-year old thing could work in their favor if the Yankees just wanted to take a shot on him. At that age, he’s unlikely to get anything more than a one-year deal from any team. If the Yankees did take a shot on him and it wasn’t working out, it wouldn’t be the biggest deal to just eat whatever money they gave him. MLB Trade Rumors projected him to get one-year/$12 million, which would be easily manageable if the Yankees decided to take the chance.
It should also be noted that one of the expected outcomes of the CBA negotiations is the universal DH, so there will probably be more teams going after Cruz once all of that is hopefully settled.
Nelson Cruz has been one of the most productive hitters in baseball for a long time now. He’s a very fun personality, and it would be kinda cool to see him in a Yankees’ uniform. However, when you dig into it and think things through, it’s hard to see it happening.