Michael Young is the latest case study of how teams view aging players differently than they might have a decade ago -- and how that view can turn suddenly.
Young began last July with a .316 batting average and soon was headed to his sixth straight All-Star Game in what was his 11th season with the Texas Rangers. He was, as far as the Rangers go, an institution in Texas. That's no longer the case. After a long winter in which he was nearly traded and did lose his position, Young has no set role with the team.
What happened? Begin with the fact that starting July 1, Young hit .252/.299/.384 in 80 games and by the postseason his range and reaction at third base were called into question. He also turned 34 years old, and suddenly a poor second half looked like the start of a decline, not simply a slump -- especially if Young, a durable player, would continue as an everyday player in the field.
Since the World Series, Young was shopped on the trade market, lost his third base job to free agent Adrian Beltre, and was asked to try first base and DH, where he will compete for time with Mitch Moreland and now newly acquired Mike Napoli. What Texas now has is a $16 million super-utility player.
Rangers general manager John Daniels said Young gives them protection at second base, third base and first base while likely to get the majority of his at-bats as a DH. It will be a busy spring for Young, who must carry several different gloves and take groundballs at three different positions, though how quickly he takes to first base will be an important case study.
What will be tested most is Young's pride. He remains an important leader on the club, and how he adapts to this redefined role -- a role that now requires him to check the lineup every day -- will be watched closely.
Here is the reality for older players such as Young, Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon, Orlando Cabrera, Magglio Ordoñez and Manny Ramirez: The older position player is being devalued. Last year only eight 35-and-older players played 100 games in the field (excluding catchers) and posted at least a .750 OPS -- the fewest such players since 1993.
The productive older infielders or outfielders were Scott Rolen, Raul Ibañez and Ichiro Suzuki.
Now forget production entirely. Just consider guys who played the infield or outfield regularly at 35-plus -- no matter the OPS. Then you get only eight players -- the fewest everyday players in the field at that age since 1993 (excluding strike-shortened seasons).
Here are the year-by-year numbers of 35-and-older everyday position players (100 games in the infield or outfield), both overall and those who exceeded a .750 OPS:
The Angels are a better team with Vernon Wells in their 2011 lineup, especially if Peter Bourjos can hit enough to keep the centerfield job and limit Bobby Abreu to DH duty. But the trade with Toronto came with significant risks:
• That Wells' comeback season at age 31 last year was built almost entirely at Toronto's Rogers Centre. He was less productive on the road (.708 OPS, 11 homers, 34 RBI) than Juan Rivera, the spare part Los Angeles dumped on Toronto (.819, 11, 36). Wells is a career .226 hitter at Angels Stadium.
• That the Angels will pay Wells more per year from ages 32-35 ($21.1 million) than the Red Sox will pay Carl Crawford from ages 29-35 ($20.3 million).
• That Wells could be a $21 million DH in 2012 (or Torii Hunter at $18.5 million) if Bourjos and top prospect Mike Trout are established.
• That the Angels still don't have enough lefthanded power. How important was that last year? Here's a simple yardstick: Line up every team last year according to OPS by lefthanded hitters. Draw a line after a dozen teams. Eight of the top 12 teams went to the playoffs, including teams ranked 1, 2, 3, 4. All of the 18 teams below the line went home, including the Angels, who finished 15th.