Nelson Cruz Defying Father Time Alongside All-Time Greats
Image courtesy of © Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY SportsBy now you know the backstory. Cruz didn’t debut as a regular in the big leagues until 2009 as a 28-year-old. He’s now 39 and is experiencing the best season of his career. Minnesota beat out a tightly contested market including the Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays for his services, and he’s been an integral part of a team that’s hit the most home runs during a single season in major league history.
It’s one thing to put up an incredible power season. It’s a great development to absolutely crush a free agent signing. It’s a completely different development to rival the likes of Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, and David Ortiz.
When checking in on seasons to take place after a player turns 38 years old is somewhat difficult for a guy like Cruz. He’s posted 3.6 fWAR in 104 games thus far, which ranks 37th of 210 seasons to meet the criteria. The top of the leader board is a Who’s Who of Hall of Famers, but it’s also chock full of guys still playing a position or those from yesteryear. Barry Bonds tops the list while names like Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Willie Mays all make appearances as well. In strict terms of value, Cruz comes up a bit short. When comparing his skill set though, there’s a lot of eye-opening to be done.
Only five players, including Nelson, have ever posted an OPS north of 1.000 after turning 38. That list is Bonds, Williams, Ty Cobb, and Ortiz. Cruz trails only Bonds and Williams in the single season slugging department, and his 35 homers round out the top 10. Even more impressively, only 13 other seasons in that 210 total have been composed of fewer games. Cruz has missed time due to a nagging wrist injury, but it hasn’t slowed him down when in the lineup and has only dropped what would be an even more gaudy counting stat line.
In recent memory Minnesota employed the services of another aging talent in the rotund form of Bartolo Colon. A 44-year-old back in 2017, there was nothing exceptional about his 5.18 ERA. He was brought in to eat innings and did exactly that down the stretch. Cruz was signed to be a key cog in a lineup destined to make noise, and his response has been greater than anyone could’ve imagined.
Baseball is a unique sport in that the best players generally are consistent on a yearly basis. Aside from that group though, there are often breakouts that can be remembered for some time. Phil Hughes’ record setting K/BB ratio in 2014 comes to mind, and Nelson Cruz’s exploits for Rocco Baldelli this season will likely be remembered in the same vein. Cruz won’t be talked about in the same realm as the likes of Bonds, Williams, or the previously mentioned tie-ins, but for 2019 he absolutely has some real parallels.
The Twins are given the opportunity to bring Nelson back in 2020 at a discounted $12 million, and you can bet they'll exercise that option. Expecting him to defy Father Time again may be foolish, and the age cliff can be steep when it appears. For now though, there’s no denying this has been one of the most exceptional seasons in Minnesota history, and it’s one that Cruz can hang his hat on well into retirement. Whether home run number 400 comes (he’s currently 5 shy) before September flips or not, the greatest of greats would be proud of this elder statesmen representing longevity well.
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