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Nelson Cruz gets better with age

Cruz is coming off the best seasons of his career, and he’s starting 2021 with a bang.

Minnesota Twins v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Twins didn’t bring Nelson Cruz back until February 2, just a few short weeks before pitchers and catchers were scheduled to report to spring training. Minnesota inked him for a one-year, $13 million deal. Cruz fared better than most in a shallow free agent class that had to contend with pandemic-induced frugality. The frozen market itself was exacerbated by uncertainty regarding the universal designated hitter, and as a result, Cruz’s market was slow to develop and there wasn’t much competition for his services. If Cruz had a down “year” in 2020, he might still be looking for work like Edwin Encarnación, Cruz has been consistently incredible. Judging by what Cruz has accomplished recently, $13 million is an absolute bargain.

Cruz is entering his age-40 season but you wouldn’t know it if you looked at his numbers. While most 40-year-old ballplayers are content to work on their golf game, Cruz is finding higher peaks to climb. Since joining the Twins in 2019, Cruz has hit .309/.393/.626 for a 163 wRC+. In that time frame, Cruz’s wRC+ ranks second in all of baseball among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances (Cruz has 738). The only hitter to outpace him is Mike Trout, and if a hitter is only trailing Trout in a category, they’re doing something right.

Switching to OPS+, Cruz has a chance to have the best season ever by a 40-year-old hitter as pointed out by Céspedes Family BBQ. The previous record belongs to David Ortiz who put up a 164 OPS+ in his final season. What would make this all the more impressive is that this is very nearly his age-41 season. A player’s age in a given year is determined by how old they are as of July 1. Cruz will turn 41 on July 1, so he missed the cutoff by less than 24 hours.

Those previous numbers don’t include Monday’s game in which Cruz showed no signs of slowing. Cruz doubled and went yard twice, once for a grand slam and the other for a solo shot. The grand slam came after he launched the previous pitch over the wall but just foul. The solo homer was clocked at 116.6 mph, the hardest ever hit by a Twin since Statcast began tracking exit velocity in 2015.

With the Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring at the end of the year, the universal DH could be here next season. If that’s the case, it’ll be much harder for the Twins to coax Cruz back with what they’re paying him this year. Minnesota was fortunate to more or less have Cruz to themselves this winter, but they won’t have that luck if his market doubles.

Until then, the Twins can reap the benefits of Cruz’s excellence. The Twins are expected to win the AL Central, and if Nelson Cruz keeps hitting like he has, they will.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.