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
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
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:
The six old regulars from last year were Anderson,
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
Those who did find a big league contract hardly struck it rich. Only three players signed a deal with a guaranteed second year (
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
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,
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
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
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.