No baseball player is more vigilant about the regimen for keeping his body a specimen than Nelson Cruz. Thanks to a healthy diet, strict rest-and-recovery schedule and rigorous daily calisthenics routine, Cruz is a pro athlete whose motor is purring at peak level.
But unless his listed date of birth – July 1, 1980 – is exposed as either fake news or an alternative fact, Cruz will turn 38 before the All-Star break.
Teammate Robinson Cano happens to be a fellow workout devotee. This is fortunate for Seattle management, as it owes the 35-year old Cano six more seasons on a contract set to expire around the time condos are developed on Mars.
About Cruz and Cano, we know two things: They are the most dangerous hitters in a lineup teeming with potential, and they are not candidates to reprise the curious case of Benjamin Button.
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Which poses a question: Is the Mariners’ window of opportunity closing? Felix Hernandez, who’ll start the opener Thursday night at age 31, will make his next start at age 32. Third baseman Kyle Seager is 30, and newly acquired center fielder Dee Gordon will join the 30-Year club in a few weeks.
Because of advancements in training technology and an enhanced awareness about the details required to sustain a successful career – food, sleep, little things like that – turning 30 is not the beginning-of-the-end milestone it used to be for athletes.
But when a baseball team’s two best players are closer to 40 than 30, when its 2017 roster was determined to be the eighth oldest in the big leagues, age is prominent in any conversation about its future.
General manager Jerry Dipoto is familiar with that narrative, and offered a snappy response during the winter meetings in December.
“We’re not the decrepit, old club that is getting ready to fall apart at the seams, the way we’re being portrayed,” said Dipoto, who has stressed the generational makeover the Mariners’ outfield achieved last season.
Rookies Mitch Haniger, Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia each started at least 80 games. The last club to put three rookies in the outfield for at least 80 starts was the 1969 Kansas City Royals, an expansion team most remembered for the Rookie-of-the-Year effort it got from some 25-year-old outfielder named Lou Piniella.
Dipoto stresses the relative youth of shortstop Jean Segura (28), catcher Mike Zunino (27), and first baseman Ryon Healy (26). Combined with an outfield energized by the likes of Haniger (27) and Gamel (25), the Mariners clearly aren’t a “decrepit, old club getting ready to fall apart at the seams.”
But the clock is ticking on Cruz, and it is ticking on Cano. The duo represented the Mariners at the 2017 All-Star Game – Cano, appointed a spot on the AL team as an injury-replacement, ended up winning MVP honors – and there is no dispute about how Seattle’s bid for a playoff berth depends on them.
Baseball-Reference.com, a web site steeped in advanced metrics, projects Cruz to finish the season with statistics slightly below the crazy-good numbers he put up in 2017, when he led the league with 119 runs batted in.
Baseball-Reference.com foresees Cruz hitting .279, with 36 homers and 92 RBIs. It foresees a similar decline for Cano, from .280, with 23 homers and 97 RBIs, to .279, with 24 homers and 85 RBIs.
The bar has been lowered a tick, but if Cruz and Cano fulfill those preseason projections, stay tuned.
As for their advanced age? I am reminded of the 1983 Phillies, whose typical lineup found 42-year old Pete Rose leading off, in front of the 39-year old Joe Morgan. Of the Phillies eight regular position players in 1983, only outfielder Von Hayes was under 30.
“The Wheeze Kids,” Philadelphia Daily News sports columnist Stan Hochman called them, cleverly referencing the much younger 1950 Phillies team – the “Whiz Kids” – that won the N.L. pennant.
The 1983 “Wheeze Kids” also advanced to the World Series, where Baltimore beat them in five games. But, hey, they got there.
The 2018 World Series is scheduled to begin on Oct. 23, the day after Robinson Cano celebrates his 36th birthday. No pressure, no air-raid attack sirens about a second baseman with Hall of Fame credentials turning 36.
I’m just pointing out what’s obvious.
The clock is ticking.