39-Year-Old Nelson Cruz Is the Heart of MLB's Most Powerful Lineup Ever

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 4, 2019

Minnesota Twins designated hitter Nelson Cruz looks skyward after his solo home run during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

On Aug. 31, Minnesota Twins catcher Mitch Garver smacked his second home run of the day in a game against the Detroit Tigers.

It was also the 268th home run hit by a Twins batter in 2019. With that, Minnesota set the MLB record for long balls by a club in a single season, surpassing the 2018 New York Yankees.

The Twins would go on to lose to Detroit, 10-7. But that's academic. Minnesota sits in first place with a comfortable six-game lead in the American League Central entering play Wednesday. Not coincidentally, these Twinkies are a power-hitting machine unlike any we've ever seen.

At the heart of it all? Ageless veteran Nelson Cruz.

Prior to the 2019 season, the perennially penny-pinching Twins signed Cruz to a one-year, $14.3 million contract. It was a short-term gamble.

Yes, Cruz was a six-time All-Star who clubbed 37 homers for the Seattle Mariners in 2018. He was also set to turn 39 in July and brought essentially zero defensive utility. Designated hitters within sight of their 40th birthdays don't inspire bushels of confidence.

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Yet here Cruz is, crushing baseballs as per usual. In 101 games with the Twins, he's hit 35 homers with 92 RBI, a .310 average and a 1.034 OPS. 

On Aug. 8, a ruptured ECU tendon in his left wrist appeared to put his season in jeopardy. But Cruz ultimately didn't need surgery and returned to action on Aug. 19.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

The next day, he homered and drove in three runs in a 14-4 win over the Chicago White Sox. Despite the injury, he hit .397 with a 1.253 OPS in 73 August at-bats.

Diving deeper into the stats, Cruz leads both leagues in Statcast's barrels per plate appearance percentage at 12.9 percent. For comparison, Mike Trout is seventh at 10.9 percent, and Aaron Judge is eighth at 10.8 percent. Cruz also ranks third in average exit velocity at 93.8 mph, trailing only Miguel Sano (94.4 mph) and Judge (96.1 mph). 

Even as he lurches toward the big four-oh, the guy can destroy baseballs.

He's not the only masher in the Twins lineup. Outfielder Max Kepler leads the team with 36 homers. Outfielder Eddie Rosario (27), third baseman Miguel Sano (27), Garver (26), first baseman C.J. Cron (24), second baseman Jonathan Schoop (21) and shortstop Jorge Polanco (20) have all reached or eclipsed the 20-dinger mark. Eight players on one team achieving the 20-homer feat sets another MLB record.

And old man Cruz is right in the thick of it all.

"Are we surprised that we're seeing it from him? Absolutely not," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli told reporters after Cruz swatted three home runs in an 11-3 win over the Kansas City Royals on Aug. 3. "It's just what he does. He continues to go out there and produce at levels that nobody else does."

Cruz, it's worth noting, is more than a year older than Baldelli.

DETROIT, MI - JUNE 9:  Manager Rocco Baldelli #5 of the Minnesota Twins celebrates with Nelson Cruz #23 of the Minnesota Twins after a 12-2 win over the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on June 9, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty I
Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Here's the part where we acknowledge Cruz was suspended for 50 games in Aug. 2013 for violating MLB's performance-enhancing drug policy. Call his career numbers tainted if you must.

Since 2013, however, Cruz has been under the same random-testing microscope applied to all modern big league players and has not been slapped with another suspension or even mentioned in a credible PED rumor.

He hit 40 homers for the Baltimore Orioles in 2014. During four campaigns with the Seattle Mariners between 2015 and 2018, he hit 44, 43, 39 and 37 homers, respectively. Now, he's got 35 with 24 games left to play.

Who's betting against another 40-tater finish?

More than that, Cruz is a veteran anchor for a young Twins team hoping to hang with the Houston Astros and Yankees among the Junior Circuit elite. His pop matters. But the intangibles matter, too.

Assistant hitting coach Rudy Hernandez called him "a veteran guy with the right attitude for the kids," per Andy McCullough of The Athletic.

"Nelly is the big brother to all these guys on this team," hitting coach James Rowson added, per McCullough. "A lot of the things that we do go through Nelly."

Of course, mentorship only goes so far. At a certain point, you have to lead by example. And Cruz is doing exactly that, overcoming age and injury blips to buttress the most homer-happy offense in major league history.

Can the Twins make a deep postseason run with an inexperienced core and without an established postseason ace? That remains to be seen.

But their bats will intimidate any opponent in a short series, and Cruz will be in the middle of it in his 15th big league season.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

The contract Cruz signed with Minnesota last winter includes a $12 million team option and a $300,000 buyout for 2020. Barring the unexpected, it's a near certainty the Twins will exercise that option and bring him back for his age-39 campaign.

Why wouldn't they? He's silenced the doubters and shown he can handle Father Time's curveball over and over.

Eventually, his skills will fade, and he'll cede the spotlight to up-and-coming boppers, including some of the guys he's mentoring right now in Minnesota's clubhouse.

But as Cruz's lumber keeps proving, eventually isn't here yet.

   

All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of Baseball Reference and MLB.com.

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