1) Remember when people wondered last winter why the market was especially slow for older position players? The 2009 season is still early, but so far it is reminding everyone why investing in older players these days is risky business. There are seven players aged 33 and older who switched teams last winter who have posted an OPS below .750: Orlando Cabrera, David Eckstein, Ramon Hernandez, Edgar Renteria, Jason Giambi, Mark DeRosa and Bobby Abreu. The ones with upside? That's a short list; pretty much Russell Branyan and Raul Ibanez.
Five weeks do not a trend make. But it's also difficult to remember a time when so many star players in their mid-30s were looking old all of a sudden. The dimming stars include David Ortiz, 33; Derrek Lee, 33; Renteria, 33; Cabrera, 34; Abreu, 35; Magglio Ordonez, 35; Jason Kendall, 35; Giambi, 38; and Brian Giles, 38. Combined home runs for those nine players: 11. Are they merely slumping or are they toast?
Meanwhile, no club has wanted old free agents such as Jim Edmonds, Frank Thomas, Ray Durham and Paul Lo Duca.
Is it age bias? You bet. With not only steroid testing but also amphetamine testing in place, clubs no longer can count on players extending their prime years through their mid- and late-30s. The Astros are in trouble because they counted on way too many old players. The Yankees have scuffled because of injuries to old players. The Tigers have tried to remake themselves since the middle of last year by losing some old players (Kenny Rogers, Gary Sheffield, Ivan Rodriguez) and hoping others bounce back from slow starts (Ordonez, Placido Polanco). The Red Sox are swimming against the tide with four regulars age 33 or older (Ortiz, Jason Varitek, J.D. Drew and Mike Lowell). The bottom line, in case you weren't paying attention to the World Series last year: It's a young man's game.
2) Psst: Want to know the quickest way to improve as a team? Catch the ball. The Tampa Bay Rays proved it last season by jumping from worst to first in defensive efficiency, a measurement of turning batted balls into outs. And who are this year's Rays? Could be the Rangers or Tigers. Texas has made the same last-to-first jump (so far) in defensive efficiency, an early indication that giving rookie Elvis Andrus the shortstop job and moving Michael Young to third were smart moves. Detroit has improved from 11th to third. Here are the league leaders in defensive efficiency and where they ranked last year:
And let's face it, older players aren't generally known for stellar defense. The renewed emphasis on defense also hasn't helped the value of older players.
3) The most improved player in baseball is Adam Jones. The Orioles center fielder, 23, added 10 pounds over the winter through a rigorous weight training program and was crushing the ball (.370) until a sore hamstring on Wednesday slowed him for what figures to be a few days. After entering this year with 12 homers in 616 career at-bats, Jones has smacked eight home runs already and has shown much better plate discipline, rewarding the faith in him from manager Dave Trembley, who promoted him to the second spot in the order after hitting him mostly seventh or eighth last year.
Meanwhile, the Orioles called up rookie Nolan Reimold, 25, to fortify their outfield, while the Brewers summoned Mat Gamel, 23, to give them a left-handed bat off the bench and for upcoming interleague play. I'm not sure either one is in the big leagues to stay, if only to save their clubs millions of dollars. By starting their service time clocks now, the clubs risk having Reimold and Gamel qualify as arbitration "Super 2s" down the line, which would make them eligible for arbitration a year earlier than most players. The general rule of thumb is that if you wait to promote a first-time major leaguer until after Memorial Day, you should be able to avoid the financial sting of "Super 2" status.