Nelson Cruz arrived for Mariners spring training in even better shape than last year, when he had a career year. No less an expert than Edgar Martinez believes Cruz could sustain that success.

Share story

PEORIA, Ariz. — Nelson Cruz hasn’t just been aging with grace, he has been aging with greatness. What should be the 35-year-old’s twilight years are turning into his highlight years.

Last year, the Mariners slugger hit a career-high 44 home runs while batting above .300 for the first time since 2010. The year before, he hit a then-career high 40 home runs, which beat his previous best by seven.

Lines in the forehead don’t typically have this positive an effect on lines in the box score, but that’s been exactly the case with Cruz. The question is: Can it last?

It’s a perfectly reasonable inquiry given the information at our disposal. The stat geeks have provided data revealing that production not only dips when players reach their mid-30s (or early 30s, for that matter), but that it dips dramatically.

Perhaps that’s why Steamer, a projections system for the sabermetric website FanGraphs, predicts Cruz’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) number will drop from 4.8 last year to 1.6 this year. That’s quite the bungee jump — although it might not be a fair forecast.

Cruz arrived in Peoria for spring training Wednesday looking like a Superhero. His training regimen — which typically consists of four-hour workouts six days a week — only escalated over the past few months.

He didn’t offer any guesses as to what his stats might look like, but he did say he worked harder this offseason than he ever had before.

“I trained to get better,” Cruz said. “You want to see what it’s all about. The more work you put in, the better the results.”

Even so, sports are littered with athletes with world-class work ethics succumbing to Father Time. In fact, aging bodies are usually the reason for those extra reps in the weight room and flips of the jump rope.

Kobe Bryant still woke up at 5 a.m. every day this past offseason and tortured himself for hours — yet he’s 37 and one of the least efficient players in the NBA. So should Mariners fans be gnawing their nails in fear of Cruz’s decline?

For two reasons, Seattle hitting coach Edgar Martinez answers with an emphatic no.

The first: Cruz’s batting mechanics are simple.

Martinez had to adjust his swing as his age went one way and his bat speed the other. His hands were too high, his kick was too big, and if he hadn’t made changes, Martinez believes his production would have plunged.

However, the former Mariners great said that because Cruz’s movements are so compact, little if any alterations are needed, which speaks well for his immediate future.

Which leads to the second reason: Cruz has tasted MVP-caliber success.

It’s one thing to strive toward being a 40-plus home run hitter, but it’s another to actually achieve it. Martinez thinks that because Cruz has seen proof of what he can do, the results will hold steady and perhaps even improve.

“You do it once, then you know you can do it,” Martinez said. “You have confidence, and after that, the expectations grow, and now he has a goal of where he wants to be.”

Of course, there are also numbers to support any optimism surrounding Cruz’s 2016.

Citing stats from Baseball Heat Maps, pointed out that Cruz’s average batted ball last year soared 307 feet — good for seventh in Major League Baseball. But after the All-Star break, his average batted ball traveled an incredible 333 feet, which squashes any argument that age was on his tail.

Cruz just got better — or at least he got stronger. And maybe, just maybe, his muscles are still growing.

Mariners manager Scott Servais was conservative with his expectations for Cruz. He said that while he would like to see a repeat of 2015, he’s “a realist” and isn’t holding him to that.

“You’re not looking for career years out of everyone,” Servais said. “You’re just looking for everyone to do their job.”

Given his $14 million salary — modest for the kind of stats he put up over the past two years — Cruz could crank out 10 fewer homers and still earn his keep. Or, he could get even better and look like one of the biggest coups from the 2014 free-agent class. Or, after years of being old reliable, this is the season where he’s just plain old.

But he isn’t counting on that.

“I still have the love,” Cruz said. “When you quit loving the game, that is when you start breaking down.”

In other words, while this may not be a season for the ages for Cruz, don’t expect age to be a factor.