And what happened next was part of the reason the Nationals pursued him so aggressively after the owners’ lockout ended on March 10. Cruz chased the field, didn’t bat, and approached Fedde in front of the mound. He explained to Fedde that he changed the way he grabbed the ball in his glove and tipped Cruz off. Cruz showed him with his own hands and suggested that Fedde try to grab every pitch the same way.
“For me, it was all about that player, not so much the position,” general manager Mike Rizzo told the Washington Post on Thursday. “The plan wasn’t to spend $15 million on a designated hitter. But we wanted to spend it on Nelson Cruz. That was the important part. We identified him as the player we wanted and tried to do everything we could to get him.”
“Besides what he brings between the lines and the lineup and an impressive middle of the lineup and his track record, he brings all the intangibles to the table,” Rizzo replied. “He’s a great teammate. He has been a mentor at every stop he has ever made. We see him not only as a mentor for our Latin American players, but also for our young American players.”
Fedde fitted straight into the latter group. To land Cruz, Rizzo asked Soto, the team’s 23-year-old star, to call the veteran and introduce him. Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals assistant GM in charge of international operations, has also checked in with Cruz a few times. The result was a one-year deal for Cruz to share mid-lineup with Soto and Josh Bell — and possibly be pushed back to prospect deadline if Washington sells again.
Last July, the Minnesota Twins traded Cruz to the Tampa Bay Rays for two pitchers. One of them, Joe Ryan, is expected to be in the Twins’ opening day rotation. That helps show Cruz’s present and future value, both of which will increase if he can produce in his 18th season. No player has hit home runs since early 2014. In 2021, his performance with the Rays declined somewhat, with Cruz hinting Wednesday that he was struggling to score at Tropicana Field. (Batters have long spoken out about the indoor stadium’s poor lighting.) The Nationals need his usual vigor to score runs and convince teams to challenge Soto, who scored nearly 35 percent of his plate appearances in the final two months of last season.
“I know my body well enough. I find routines. I’m finding ways to stay on the field first and foremost,” Cruz said of keeping production well into his 40s. “That’s how you get production. And trust in the work I put into it every day. I rest a lot. I also take a lot of naps. That’s a good tip.”
The last bit made Cruz’s mouth twist into a grin. Assuming he scouted the dormitory at Nationals Park, a reporter asks about a glitch.
“Do we have one?” Cruz shot back.
The club’s communications director nodded from the back of the interview room.
“Oh yeah,” Cruz said, leaning back with a big smile on his face. “Then we look good.”
Unsurprisingly, five of Cruz’s previous six teams have played in the American League, given that the National League only included DH in the new contract. During his introductory press conference, Cruz called learning unknown pitchers his “biggest challenge.” Then there’s preparation for the regular season in just three weeks.
Cruz is not expected to play the Miami Marlins in the Nationals spring practice opener Friday night. But he could be in the line-up this weekend, alongside Soto or not. On Thursday morning, Cruz, Soto and Bell, the 29-year-old Nationals first baseman, took additional hitting practice from bullpen coach Ricky Bones. Bell, a left-hand switch hitter, drew moonshots right and right to center. Soto, as he does, crushed liners that either crossed the fence or banged against it in every gap. And Cruz alternated between seared line drives and high-arc shots over the left field wall.
Rizzo leaned against the back of the cage and watched every swing. A teammate walked through the dugout and dubbed it “the laser show.”
Of Soto, Cruz said, “He understands the strike zone pretty well. He knows when and how to do damage. It’s very impressive and to see him every day it will be fun to bat behind or in front of him… Hopefully the only thing that can stop him is an injury. Hopefully he can stay healthy and do what he’s supposed to do in the future.”
And from what he has told Soto about being a clubhouse manager, which Cruz has been called throughout his career, deflected Cruz to later: “Throughout the year we’re going to be talking about different things that he might feel like.” has that he needs to get better or needs to improve. And if he feels like he needs some help from me, I will be there.”
Yes, Cruz will and will be at the top of Rizzo’s post-lockout to-do list.
“It was important for us to protect Juan in the lineup but also give him a veteran presence that he respects very much to share the clubhouse with,” Rizzo said. “But this is Soto’s team. He’s the leader of the team, he’s taken over and I think it’s important to have a mentor like Nellie Cruz to guide him through this process.”