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Nats Keep With Market, Enter New Season Much Younger Than Ever Before
"There's someone who hasn't gotten the message -- or else refuses to play by the new rules," said one executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The executive estimated Martínez would represent an upgrade to about 20 teams' rotations, "but at $6 million it's not something that makes sense anymore."
One result of this trend is that teams are valuing their draft picks more highly than at any time in the past, to the point where, this winter, they were largely unwilling to give up a first- or second-round pick as a penalty for signing a "Type-A" free agent.
"You're seeing teams hanging on to their draft picks, getting them signed and then speeding up their arrival to the majors," Astros Manager Cecil Cooper said.
It is also probably not coincidental that the shift toward youth since 2005 overlaps with the precise time frame of baseball's ban on amphetamines, which began in 2006 -- or three years after the introduction of steroid testing. With the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs, it stands to reason that older players were able to hang on longer, with more and more players enjoying statistical renaissances deep into their late 30s or beyond.
"It's not that you go around suspecting individual guys who are older players [of drug use]," said one executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It's just that, across the board, older players have a harder time staying on the field now -- the way nature intends it to be, but in a way that was all jumbled up before amphetamines testing. Nowadays, if you sign a bunch of 35-year-olds, you're going to be paying for a lot of [disabled list] time."
The shunning of older players seems to be affecting position players hardest, since they require more out of their legs.
"There still seems to be a healthy market out there for veteran pitchers," said Washington's Rizzo, "but when it comes to position players, most teams are looking to get younger."
Not so long ago, the perennially best teams were the oldest ones: the Yankees with their veteran-laden lineup, the Braves with their trio of veteran aces. In 2000, the Yankees, with an average age of 31.7 years, beat the New York Mets, who averaged 30.7 years. Last year, though, the Phillies averaged 30.4 years (pushed north, undoubtedly, by the presence of then-45-year-old Jamie Moyer), while the AL-champion Rays clocked in at a cool 27.3 years.
And the Rays were hardly a fluke. Almost uniformly last year, young teams succeeded and old teams fell flat. Two of the four oldest collections of hitters in the AL were the Yankees (a league-high 31.3 years) and Tigers (30.4 years), who also happened to be arguably the league's biggest on-field disappointments. The youngest collection of hitters? It wasn't Tampa Bay (27.0), but the Minnesota Twins (26.2 years), who contended in the AL Central all the way to a one-game tiebreaker.
For the Nationals, the trend toward youth seemed to take hold during the course of their injury-plagued 2008 season. By the end of July, the team had released King, Lo Duca, Mackowiak and veteran backup catcher Johnny Estrada, and had stashed out-of-shape veteran Dmitri Young on the disabled list.
By the end of the season, the rotation was handed over to the likes of Collin Balester (22), Shairon Martis (22) and Garrett Mock (25). This winter, the team added two more young starters -- Scott Olsen (25) and Daniel Cabrera (27) -- then promoted 22-year-old Jordan Zimmermann from Class AA. The average age of the projected rotation: 24 years old.
And with the exceptions of Guzmán and Belliard, the Nationals won't have any position players over the age of 30 on their Opening Day roster, and their starting lineup will have five 26-or-younger hitters (Milledge, Hernández, Flores, Ryan Zimmerman and Elijah Dukes).
Last year's struggles may have made Washington baseball fans feel as if the season took years off their lives, but these days, as in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the Nationals -- and baseball itself -- are aging backward, leaving one to wonder how low they can go.