By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Twelve months, 102 losses, one general manager and seemingly an entire lifetime ago, the Washington Nationals took the field on Opening Day, in a spanking-new stadium, incongruously sporting a roster cobbled together from rusty spare parts out of baseball's equivalent of a junkyard.
The catcher (Paul Lo Duca) was nearly 36. The starting pitcher (Odalis Pérez) was 30, as was the leadoff hitter (Cristian Guzmán). The second baseman (Ronnie Belliard) was 32. The first player off the bench that day (Rob Mackowiak) was 31, and the first lefty called in from the bullpen (Ray King) was 34.
On Monday, the Nationals, humbled by the 102-loss campaign that exposed the organization's critical lack of depth, will spring forth from their dugout in Florida on another Opening Day, barely recognizable as the same team that took the field in Washington a year earlier.
The Nationals will have gotten 11 years younger at catcher (Jesús Flores) and six years younger at second base (Anderson Hernández). The leadoff man (Lastings Milledge) will have celebrated his 24th birthday the day before Opening Day.
And meantime, the man at the center of the diamond, Opening Day starter John Lannan, will not only be six years younger than his 2008 predecessor, but also the leader of a rotation expected to be the youngest in the major leagues, the five projected members of which are 24, 25, 27, 22 and 22 years old.
"The game is getting younger and more athletic before our eyes," said Mike Rizzo, the Nationals' acting general manager since the departure of Jim Bowden, "and we're right there at the forefront of it."
Indeed, the Nationals are merely one manifestation -- albeit an extreme one -- of an industry-wide trend that is only now coming into sharper focus: the general reliance on youth over experience. Simply put, the game has gotten younger at a remarkable rate over the past few years and is likely to continue in that direction, at least in 2009.
According to data at Baseball-Reference.com, the average age of a big leaguer has declined by about six months since 2005. From 2007 to 2008 alone (following an offseason in which many notable veterans, such as Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Kenny Lofton and Mike Piazza failed to land jobs), the decline was nearly two months. Though it's too early for 2009 numbers, the events of the most recent offseason indicate the greening of the game will continue.
But it doesn't take sophisticated number-crunching to see the trend in action.
Last year, the Tampa Bay Rays reached the World Series with a team for which the oldest regular starting pitcher was 26 and no one older than 30 got more than 250 at-bats. They lost to a Philadelphia Phillies team that, with a couple of late-game substitutions in left field and third base, could sport an all 30-or-under lineup. The most valuable player of that World Series was 24-year-old Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels.
Further affirmation of the trend came after the season, when the top seven vote-getters for the AL MVP, as well as the top three finishers in the NL voting, were all 30 or younger. The NL Cy Young Award went to another 24-year-old, San Francisco's Tim Lincecum, who had thrown less than 400 big league innings.
"You're definitely seeing a younger, more athletic, more raw -- skills-wise -- group of players coming up these days," said 34-year-old Houston Astros outfielder Darin Erstad, who counts himself as fortunate to have a job this season. "I was one of the lucky ones. I consider myself to be on bonus time."
So what's behind the trend? Not surprisingly, the majority of people inside the game focus squarely on economics -- but more so the baseball kind, with its complex salary-compensation system, as opposed to the general economics that rule the rest of our society.
"There's been a market shift," said the Nationals' Rizzo, "and it's been pretty noticeable."
More so than in past years, teams are rounding out the bottom portions of their rosters not with the 35-year-old role players who used to count on hanging on for an extra $2 million or $3 million salary for an additional year or two, but with inexperienced farm-system products who can be assigned the major league minimum salary (now $400,000).
Sports, in general, adhere to a strict, cutthroat form of Darwinism, but the past couple of offseasons have been particularly harsh toward older players hoping to hang on to their jobs -- or any job at all -- in the face of this youth trend.
"People have figured out they can save money on kids instead of a veteran who has played six, eight, 10 years and who expects, rightfully so, that he should make a couple million [dollars] as a spare part," said St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa. "The guys who get [shortchanged] by this are the veteran guys who are good pros, but who may have overpriced themselves by a million or two."
Like most trends, this one started with a handful of teams that found relative success with super-young squads several years ago -- Arizona and Florida come quickly to mind -- spawning imitators around the game.
"There are no secrets in the game," Baltimore Orioles President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail said, "and people are paying attention more so than before to what works for others. If you see someone doing something that works, you copy them."
This winter's free agent market was a fascinating study in baseball's new economics. Even in the midst of a recession, baseball's elite free agents landed deals just as big, or sometimes bigger, than comparable predecessors. Lefty CC Sabathia, for instance, set a record for the biggest contract in history for a pitcher, a $136 million deal from the Yankees.
But the squeeze was felt by mid-level free agents -- all-star caliber outfielders Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn and Pat Burrell all accepted pay cuts -- and especially by those at the bottom of the food chain, aging veterans hoping for one last payday and role players who could always count on at least one offer of a guaranteed contract.
"These last two offseasons, you've had a pretty good group of older free agents still available late, and they're having to consider retirement as opposed to the other options available to them," MacPhail said. "Part of it is, as the salaries of the high-profile players continue to grow, to balance the payroll and make the numbers work, you're more inclined to round out your roster with a bunch of younger guys making the minimum."
Said Houston's Erstad: "Even right now [near the end of spring training] there are very good players struggling to find jobs, and what it is I don't know. And even the ones who are getting jobs are looking at $500,000 [non-guaranteed] minor league contracts with spring training invites."
One interesting case study is pitcher Pedro Martínez, a near-certain first-ballot Hall of Famer who remained available in late March and reportedly was insisting on a guaranteed contract in the range of $5 million-$6 million.
"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.