Should the Twins Bring Back Nelson Cruz?

Photo Credit: Jordan Johnson (USA TODAY Sports)

They say anyone who wages battle with Father Time will always come out defeated in the end, and that’s always been true in sports. Well, unless your name is Tom Brady or Nelson Cruz.

Cruz has been one of the most consistent sluggers in baseball over the last decade. That alone is an accomplishment. Even more impressive? His numbers have stayed relatively the same in his late 30s and now at age 41. That’s why the Minnesota Twins should consider bringing Cruz back for another stint.

During his first two seasons in a Twins uniform, Cruz continued to show why he was called Boomstick by mashing 47 home runs, recording an 1.020 OPS, and a .318 BABIP during the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Cruz was the best addition Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have brought in since taking over the front office in 2016. Once his two-year contract expired, there was uncertainty over whether the Twins would bring him back or move on because he would be over 40 years old.

Whether or not to bring Cruz back was a question the team, fans, and analysts talked about all winter. That debate ended with a new one-year, $13 million contract to stay with the Twins. Cruz had earned the benefit of the doubt for his recent production, but it was never a guarantee he would see the same success again — until he did just that.

Cruz slashed .294/.370/.537 and hit 19 home runs with a .308 BABIP and a .243 isolated power clip before he was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays this year. While he wasn’t the player he was in 2019, Nelly continued to be Minnesota’s most productive hitter. He earned a 2.1 bWAR before being traded to Tampa Bay at the deadline. Cruz was a sought-after free agent in 2019 and 2021, and the Rays were always in the mix.

Cruz is hitting .235/.296/.480 with 12 home runs in 179 at-bats with the Rays. Cruz has also become the oldest player ever to hit over 30 home runs in a season. Although he’s had success in the stat sheet, Nelly’s also significantly impacted the Rays, putting them in, ahem, “Cruz control” in the competitive AL East. They remain favorites to win the AL Pennant again.

He has brought a calming veteran presence to Tampa Bay, something the Twins saw firsthand over the last two seasons. Cruz’s impact was a massive boost in 2019, helping guide them through the highs and lows of a playoff chase. The benefit of his experience also was a considerable boost to Rocco Baldelli, a rookie manager who is younger than Cruz, by giving Baldelli a veteran whose leadership style dovetails with how Baldelli wanted to manage the team.

Cruz led a young core into its first playoff series two years ago, and with a new core on the horizon, he would continue to be a perfect leader. His relaxed approach would benefit players like Trevor Larnach, Alex Kirilloff, and others dealing with the ups and downs of their first few big-league seasons. Don’t forget how crucial Nelly was to Miguel Sanó‘s development in 2019, lifting the slugger to his best season as a pro. Sanó slashed .247/.346/.576, hitting 34 home runs with the Bomba Squad. Sanó credited the veteran as the motivator for his development and selected Cruz to be his daughter’s godfather this summer.

Here’s another reason in favor of a reunion with Cruz: Like Brady, he understands the importance of taking care of himself. The 41-year-old has been dedicated to staying in shape, eating right, and famously taking daily naps to stay rested. The commitment to his health has been a critical factor in his sustained success. Based on this season, it looks like it won’t be going away soon.

There is some precedent for ageless wonders like Cruz in the modern era of baseball. Taking away exceptions to the rule like Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey Jr., a good measuring stick for Cruz is former 23-year veteran Julio Franco.

During and after his age 40 season, he appeared in 637 games and recorded 409 hits with 72 doubles and hit 32 home runs while slashing .285/.358/.412. During his age-45 season in 2004, he hit .309 in 125 games with the Atlanta Braves. Franco’s power numbers are much lower than Cruz’s, and Nelly’s on-field value is solely in his power. But the Boomstick would make up that gap because he plays in an era of baseball that’s more dedicated to sluggers like him, even if it means more strikeouts.

Of course, Cruz isn’t guaranteed to play at a consistent league level at age 42, but he was unlikely to play this well during the last two seasons. Even if Cruz regresses, the Twins have other options at designated hitter, including Sanó or Josh Donaldson to help take the load off of Cruz and maximize his at-bats, if necessary. DH is going to be a position the Twins will take a long look at regardless. They might be hesitant to relegate younger players like Brent Rooker or Sanó to the spot, and they also might not want to put Donaldson there because it would create another hole at third base. The simple option might be to re-fill it with Cruz and let everything work out from there.

The Twins have shown faith in Cruz before, and both sides have maintained a good relationship. Additionally, the list of teams pursuing him wouldn’t be long unless the National League adopts the DH next season. This winter, the Twins can afford a one-year, $10-plus million contract if Cruz decides to continue playing.

Cruz is proving that he’s only getting better with age. Like Brady, many have been watching the veteran slugger, waiting to see if this is the year that age regression finally catches up with him. His remarkable run should convince the Twins brass that a reunion wouldn’t be so crazy. With the way Nelly has been playing lately, why not take a chance on an All-Star who could again lead the Twins as they try to make it back to the postseason? Cruz will keep defying Father Time, and the Twins should be the team to let him continue his fight.

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