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Nationals, all-star DH Nelson Cruz agree to one-year deal with option for 2023

Nelson Cruz hitting one of his 32 home runs during the 2021 season. (Matt Slocum/AP)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Washington Nationals made their biggest move of the offseason Sunday night, agreeing with Nelson Cruz on a one-year deal worth $15 million guaranteed, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. The contract will not be official until all details are worked out and Cruz passes a physical. But less than 12 hours after General Mike Rizzo declared his intent to sign a veteran power bat, he filled that need with the 41-year-old designated hitter.

The breakdown of Cruz’s deal is $12 million for 2022, then a $16 million mutual option for 2023 with a $3 million buyout, according to two people with direct knowledge of the terms. Since mutual options are rarely picked up, adding his salary for the coming season with the buyout equals the expected total value of the contract.

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Shortly after Rizzo’s afternoon meeting with media, reports surfaced that the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres were front-runners to land Cruz. The Nationals, though, remained set on landing a slugger to put next to Juan Soto and Josh Bell in their order.

For Soto in particular, Cruz, an all-star in 2021, could provide right-handed protection and an important voice. Cruz has been a respected clubhouse leader in stops with the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles and Milwaukee Brewers. Soto, the Nationals’ 23-year-old star, was called the face of the team and franchise by Rizzo on Sunday.

As the negotiations grew more serious, a person close to Soto said the right fielder was “thrilled” about potentially sharing a lineup with Cruz. And keeping Soto happy, now and into the next year three years, is a crucial part of Washington’s rebuild.

Cruz is coming off an all-star season that saw him hit 32 homers in 584 plate appearances for the Twins and Rays. He has the most homers of any player since the start of the 2014 season. With the Nationals, he could offer both reliable production and a valuable trade chip if they find themselves selling again this summer. The addition makes them better heading into the season and still has a future-focused element.

Before engaging with Cruz on Sunday, they had only added on the fringes of the roster, bringing in veteran reliever Steve Cishek, second baseman César Hernández and utility man Ehire Adrianza on major league deals, and a handful of others on minor leagues contracts that include invites to spring training, which kicks off with the first full-squad workout Monday morning. Cruz, though the oldest of the bunch, is in a different class.