The Mets are among the teams with interest in Nationals slugger Nelson Cruz, reports the New York Post’s Jon Heyman.
At this stage of his career, Cruz is strictly a designated hitter. Apart from one game at first base with the Rays in 2021, he hasn’t played the field since 2018. The Mets have frequently used their DH slot to give their regulars a half-day off, though the closest things they have to regular designated hitters are J.D. Davis and Dominic Smith. Both players have shown offensive prowess in the past but are having down years so far in 2022, making it fairly logical that the Mets would be thinking about upgrades.
Through 128 plate appearances coming into tonight, Smith is hitting .221/.297/.327 for a wRC+ of 83, a far cry from the 134 he put up in 2019 and the 166 during the shortened 2020 campaign. It’s a second straight season of diminished production for Smith, as he also put up a line of .244/.304/.363 last year, 86 wRC+. As for Davis, he had a wRC+ between 118 and 137 in the previous three seasons but is down to 98 this year, with a line of .240/.328/.338 coming into tonight’s action. There’s a bit more reason for optimism in the case of Davis, as he’s still hitting the ball hard. Statcast gives him good marks on basically every batted ball metric, including placing him in the 98th percentile in terms of average exit velocity. However, it seems the Mets are willing to look outside the organization to consider a change.
The Nationals underwent a big roster teardown last year, trading away many of their best players for prospects. In the offseason, they signed a number of veterans to one-year deals, with Cruz getting the largest and the most notable of the contracts. With the club knowing they were entering a noncompetitive rebuild year, his $15MM deal was clearly designed with a midseason trade in mind. As expected, the club is currently sporting a recording of 30-55, the second-worst in the National League.
However, Cruz isn’t exactly holding up his end of the bargain, as he’s hitting just .241/.322/.369 for a wRC+ of 94. That’s fairly similar to the production he put up with the Rays after last year’s midseason trade from the Twins. His batting line in a Rays’ uniform last year was .226/.283/.442, 96 wRC+. That means it’s been almost a full season’s worth of below average offensive production for the 42-year-old.
It’s still likely that some team takes a shot on Cruz based on his track record, but it’s unlikely the Nats will get the huge return they may have envisioned. Last year, the Twins sent Cruz and Calvin Faucher to the Rays in exchange for Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman. That deal seems to have worked out very well for the Twins, with Ryan emerging as a key piece of their rotation, though Strotman is struggling in the minors. Cruz was hitting .294/.370/.537 at the time of the deal for a wRC+ of 141, which surely helped the Twins net a return that the Nats are unlikely to match.
Since the Nats are so far out of contention and Cruz is heading back into free agency at season’s end, it’s likely that they will take the best prospect package they can find. That means it’s unlikely the Mets and Nats make perfect trading partners, as Heyman’s report notes that the Mets hope to hang onto all of their top prospects. This lines up with reporting from Bob Nightengale of USA Today from a few days ago, which suggested the Mets would prefer to take on large contracts as opposed to giving up important young players. That would seem to suggest the two clubs have misaligned priorities, though it’s possible the Nats aren’t able to get top prospects from any team, based on Cruz’s diminished production over the past year. Heyman adds this lack of willingness to deal top prospects makes it unlikely the Mets land either Josh Bell or Willson Contreras, but makes Cruz and Trey Mancini better fits. The Mets’ interest in Mancini was reported last week.
Given the rebuild, the Nats’ payroll is the lowest it’s been in about a decade, outside the shortened 2020 campaign, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That presumably means they don’t need to move Cruz just for financial reasons. For their part, the Mets are right up against the new fourth luxury tax line of $290MM. Jason Martinez of Roster Resource estimates that the Mets have already surpassed the line, calculating their luxury tax number to be $290.1MM. The aggressive spending has worked out for them thus far, as they are currently 51-31, trailing only the Dodgers among NL teams and giving them a 2 1/2 game lead over Atlanta in the East. They will surely look to be aggressive between now and the August 2 trade deadline in order to supplement their roster for a postseason run.
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