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Truly, Boys of Summer

As Shift in Market Continues, Nationals Enter Season Much Younger Than Ever Before

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009; Page J03

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.

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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."

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