Can aging stars like Matsui still help?
Godzilla has a new home, but an old routine. On Tuesday night at Tropicana Field, Hideki Matsui pounded a 401-foot, two-run home run for the Rays, marking the third time he's gone yard in his debut as a member of the home team. Back on April 8, 2003, Matsui hit a grand slam in his first game at Yankee Stadium, and on April 5, 2010, he hit a two-run homer in his first home game with the Angels. His only homer-less home debut came last year as a member of the A's; he didn't hit one out at the Coliseum until May 2, the slacker.
The late date of this debut homer this year comes because Matsui didn't even sign with the Rays until April 30, having gone the entire winter without finding a free agent offer to his liking. In that, the 37-year-old slugger was not alone. Thirty-seven-year-old Vlad Guerrero and 38-year-old Johnny Damon went unsigned as well, part of a larger trend in which aging DH/outfielder types have found it increasingly hard to land jobs — particularly coming off subpar seasons, as all three had — and when they have, it's been for peanuts. Matsui will make just $900,000 this year. Guerrero, who signed with the Blue Jays on May 10, did so for $1.3 million. Damon, who signed with the Indians on April 17, will make just $1.25 million in base salary and potentially another $1.4 million in incentives. Then there's Manny Ramirez, who signed a $500,000 deal with Oakland on February 20. Ramirez turned 40 on Wednesday, the same day he was eligible to return to the majors from his second suspension for testing positive for a banned substance, though he hasn't been called up yet.
That quartet has accumulated 25 All-Star appearances and 1,410 homers over their combined 63 years (this season included) in the majors. The question is whether they have anything to offer their new clubs.
Baseball Prospectus' sophisticated PECOTA projection system — which takes into account age, height, weight, position, and recent level of production in several categories to find the closest comparisons — believes they can, to varying degrees:
That last column is True Average, a BP stat that expresses runs per plate appearance on a batting average scale, adjusting for park and league scoring environment. A .300 TAv is excellent, .260 is league average, and .230 is generally around replacement level, though that varies by position. Last year, AL designated hitters hit for a .276 True Average, while major league leftfielders were at .263, the lowest mark since at least 1949 (that particular methodology requires play-by-play statistics, which at the moment only go back to 1950). In other words, the system thinks these graying vets should be able to hold their own if given the chance, though it doesn't account for the fact that save for Ramirez, all of them missed spring training. What follows is a quick look at the situations of each member of that quartet, listed in reverse order of when they signed:
• Guerrero: After spending a couple of weeks in the Blue Jays' extended spring training, camp, Guerrero made his 2012 debut with their High-A Dunedin affiliate on Sunday, going 2-for-5 with a home run. He added another Tuesday night, as well as a single and a double. The Jays plan for him to spend a week with Dunedin before moving up to Double-A or Triple-A, playing some leftfield as well as DHing along the way. Meanwhile, the big club is in the midst of an early-season overhaul. Two weeks ago, they placed Adam Lind (.186/.273/.314) on outright waivers, bumping him off the 40-man roster and sending him down to Triple-A Las Vegas when he went unclaimed. Regular DH Edwin Encarnacion, and rookies Yan Gomes (the first Brazil-born player in MLB history) and David Cooper have all seen time at first in his absence. Meanwhile, leftfielder Eric Thames (.243/.288/.365) was sent to Triple-A on Tuesday, with the starting job going to Rajai Davis for the moment. Lost in the shuffle is former top prospect Travis Snider, a 24-year-old corner outfield/DH option who's hitting .333/.411/.604 in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Why the Blue Jays would prioritize playing the aging Guerrero over Snider is a head-scratcher, but one that's part of a long pattern of jerking the latter around.
• Matsui: The Rays signed lefty-swinging Luke Scott to a $6 million deal to serve as their primary DH, but his woes against lefties (.231/.311/.448 career, .158/.246/.263 in 65 PA this season) made him a less-than-ideal full-time option. A slew of injuries — including ones to lefty-mashing utilityman Jeff Keppinger and to regular leftfielder Desmond Jennings — have overexposed Scott, who's hitting a lopsided .236/.301/.446 overall. Enter Matsui, who has shown very little platoon split over the course of his career (.285/.370/.471 against righties, .285/.347/.461 against lefties); he drew the start against righty Philip Humber on Tuesday, and even played leftfield, a sad commentary on Scott's throwing ability in the wake of labrum surgery late last summer. Jennings is targeting a return next week, so it remains to be seen how manager Joe Maddon will find playing time for Matsui, even in a lineup with so many moving parts.
• Damon: With Grady Sizemore's back injury forcing Michael Brantley to centerfield, the Indians held a cattle call to find a leftfielder back in the spring, settling on Shelley Duncan. He started 20 of the team's first 21 games in left and hit .250/.375/.422 through May 1, the day before Damon debuted, but since then Damon's gotten 19 of the 28 starts, and has "hit" just .152/.239/.228 in 88 plate appearances. Duncan, who has started four times against lefties (whom he mashes) and four times against righties (not so much) since Damon arrived, has been even worse since then, "hitting" .111/.179/.250 in 39 PA. Perhaps more regular playing time for both will thaw those ice cold bats; with Travis Hafner out four to six weeks due to surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, the lineup might find room for both.• Ramirez: His 50-game suspension — reduced from 100 after he retired and sat out the remainder of last season following his suspension — ends today (May 30), but the A's haven't seen enough during his 10-day "rehab" stint to recall him. Ramirez is just 8-for-32 with three walks, seven strikeouts and no extra-base hits for Triple-A Sacramento. Meanwhile the A's are hitting hitting a collective .212/.289/.335 and scoring 3.28 runs per game, all league worsts, and their DHs — primarily Seth Smith, Kila Ka'aihue, and Jonny Gomes — are stinking up the joint at a .210/.332/.323 clip. Oakland's brass doesn't want to rush things, and neither does the slugger, but Ramirez should be wearing the green and gold soon enough.