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Why aging players find limited market for declining skills


With less than two weeks remaining before camps open, the free-agent market seems tapped out. Nothing much left, shoppers -- nothing much except two batting champions, two Cy Young Award winners, a stolen base champion, a guy chasing 500 home runs and two others with career batting averages better than .290. There is one common denominator for Nomar Garciaparra, Gary Sheffield, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Johnny Damon, Carlos Delgado, Garrett Anderson and Mike Sweeney, other than their unemployment status: they're all on the wrong side of their 36th birthday.

Those eight former All-Stars, as well as 27 other 36-and-older free agents still looking for a job or who have quit, are learning the same cold lesson that Moises Alou, Ray Durham, Luis Gonzalez, Frank Thomas and Jim Edmonds did last year, when none of them could find a job: This is a bad time in baseball to be old, especially if your defensive skills are poor. Ask Jermaine Dye, who also still doesn't have a job, despite hitting 27 home runs last season, and Brian Giles, who took a minor league contract with the Dodgers.

The game is changing. You can blame it on the Testing Era, the amphetamine ban, the economy, better informed general managers, the renewed emphasis on defense or the cyclical nature of sport (it's likely a little bit of all), but fewer older players are having an impact and commanding value as they once did.

"There are two components that are fairly obviously being emphasized: age and defense," said one GM. "Like a lot of trends, the more they are understood the more they can be overemphasized. But with age and defense -- and teams have different ways of measuring defense -- the information and emphasis is somewhat legitimate."

Take a look at this: a year-by-year glance at the number of players 36 and older who took 400 at-bats:

2009: 62008: 132007: 112006: 122005: 10

The six old regulars from last year were Anderson, Chipper Jones, Craig Counsell, Mike Cameron, Melvin Mora and Raul Ibanez, the only one in the bunch to be named an All-Star. Six elders marked the fewest such regulars in any year since 1992 -- when there were four fewer teams. Here's another way to look at it: There were as many 36-and-older regulars last year as there were in 1902, when there were only 16 teams. So much for 108 years of advances in training and nutrition.

This winter began with 70 free agents age 36 and older. Less than a third of them have signed a major league deal. Here is the breakdown on how the 70 elders have fared on the market:

• 28 are unsigned• 21 signed major league deals• 14 signed minor league deals• 7 retired

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Those who did find a big league contract hardly struck it rich. Only three players signed a deal with a guaranteed second year (Mike Cameron, LaTroy Hawkins and Ivan Rodriguez). The 21 deals for players 36 and older were worth $76.7 million, an average annual value of $3.2 million, or the same as the overall 2009 average salary. That's down from a $4.47 million average for older free agents a year ago, as Manny Ramirez ($45 million, two years), Ibanez ($31.5 million, three years), Jamie Moyer ($13 million, two years) and Randy Johnson ($8 million) cashed in big.

If older players are being marginalized, then might it become true that they represent good values for clubs, a cheap pool of talent to exploit? Uh, no. Ibanez and Trevor Hoffman ($6 million from Milwaukee) were the rare finds in the antiques market last winter. Ramirez, Moyer, Johnson and Jason Giambi ($5.25 million), for instance, were overpriced. Was Anderson worth a $2.5 million flier by the Braves? How about the $2.75 million that the Astros gave Doug Brocail?

The rate of misses outpaces the rate of hits when you're talking about players on the back end of their careers. That's why general managers have grown to prefer two other options rather than guaranteeing money to an old player: let young players compete for jobs or limit your exposure by signing veterans to minor league deals.

For example, look what happened to Edmonds, Mark Grudzielanek, Paul Lo Duca and Jay Payton last year as 36-and-older free agents. None of them could get a major league contract. They all sat out the 2009 season, except for 11 games that Grudzielanek played in the minors. This time around, faced with the new reality for older players in the game, they are back in big league camps, but only because they took non-guaranteed minor-league contracts.

The market for older players has been devalued, especially for those who don't bring a strong defensive component. Damon, for instance, badly misjudged the downturn in the elders market when he sent signals to the Yankees that he didn't want to take a cut from his $13 million salary. Guys like Anderson, Sheffield, Garciaparra, Sweeney and Dimitri Young -- old players without strong defensive resumes -- may be squeezed out of the game while solid defenders such as Omar Vizquel, Counsell and Rodriguez signed early.

General managers are getting much smarter when it comes to what makes a good value, and the collective rise of intellect in the game -- and the ubiquity of information -- has brought like-minded valuations. As one GM put it, "The old-time agents like to throw around the word collusion, like asking why a guy might get several offers of $5 million. But look at the teams making the offers. They all use similar analytical tools."

It wasn't long ago that less-enlightened GMs sunk big chunks of guaranteed money into aging players with reduced defensive skills. Go back just three years, to the 2006-07 free agent market, and you'll find that players in the mold of Dye -- aging, with declining defensive skills -- were snapped up for big money. Here is how the unemployed Dye compares to some older players who made good in the free-agent market three years ago, with the stats and ages listed from their walk year:

Maybe the best comp on that list for Dye is Luis Gonzalez -- except Dye is three years younger at the point of free agency. Any chance that Dye gets to the neighborhood of $7.35 million guaranteed? Not likely. Keep this in mind as you wonder why the market for aging players has dried up: Every one of those nine contracts from 2006-07 turned out to be a bad contract.

General managers have better collective information about how players age and how important defense is, thus Jermaine Dye becomes less valuable than was the Luis Gonzalez of three years ago. Dye was horrifically bad in the second half of last season (.590 OPS), a poor marker for a guy who turned 36. He also is coming off five consecutive seasons with a negative UZR, including a frightening -24.5 rating for 2009. One GM who initially considered signing Dye, for instance, backed off after studying the defensive metrics, even though he considers UZR "highly imperfect." Dye, the GM said, is a DH who cannot field based on "the subjective and objective defensive measurements."

It wasn't long ago that Dye's traditional numbers, especially the 27 homers and 81 RBIs, would have made him an attractive free agent. No longer. His age and his defense have left him unsigned with camps about to open in little more than a week. Still out of work, he has plenty of company.