Dye not yet cast but aging stars struggling to keep careers alive
Retirement announcements rarely come easily. Tim Wakefield broke down at his farewell, an appropriate response for what Jim Bouton called the first of a ballplayer's two deaths (the second one bringing the more definitive finality). Wakefield joins Jorge Posada, Orlando Cabrera, Craig Counsell, Pat Burrell, Mike Cameron and Melvin Mora among the veterans to acknowledge this winter that their careers are over.
There are retirements, though, that are even more painful: career death by being unwanted. Every season brings about the inglorious end of the forced retirement, or, to borrow from an infamous 2010 ending, this is what it means to Dye.
Jermaine Dye hit 27 home runs in 2009 at age 35, but a horrible second half (.179, seven homers) convinced the White Sox not to pick up his $12 million option. As a free agent, Dye attracted some interest from the Cubs, Brewers and Blue Jays, but none of them offered the money or fit Dye wanted. So Dye sat out for a year. Finally, last March, Dye announced his retirement -- a retirement he didn't see coming.
As full squads begin reporting to camps this week in Arizona and Florida, time is running out for unsigned veterans who just might become the next Dye jobs. Last year players such as Bengie Molina, Garrett Anderson and Troy Glaus faded away.
This week Manny Ramirez, 39, ($500,000 with Oakland) and Raul Ibañez, 39 ($1.1 million from the Yankees) found employment, albeit with the kind of cut-rate contracts Dye chose not to accept. (Not even $3 million from the Cubs moved Dye.) Ramirez has one of the purest righthanded swings of all time, but can he still hit with power? No, and he hasn't done so since the first of his two PED busts (.277, 22 homers in 172 games since). He is Wilson Betemit with baggage -- in a ballpark that will further sap what power he has (see Matsui, Hideki).
At least he has a job. The unemployment line is lengthy and star-studded, starting with Roy Oswalt, the pitcher who figures to turn up somewhere soon because the need for starting pitchers never stops. Among the 15 active players with the most hits, six of them are looking for a job: Ivan Rodriguez, Johnny Damon, Vlad Guerrero, Miguel Tejada, Edgar Renteria and Magglio Ordoñez. In addition, four more former All-Stars also don't have a job: Derrek Lee, J.D. Drew, Jason Varitek and Matsui.
The clock is ticking and the money is drying up. Each day that goes by brings them a day closer to forced retirement. Some will find work; others will find the couch. Here's a look at the 10 former All-Star hitters not in camp, and, as a shorthand look at their diminished skills, a gas gauge of how much they have left in the tank. The players are listed in order of where they rank among the active hits leaders, with age, most recent team and career hits listed.
He has had a fabulous career, but in truth, he has been a poor offensive player for many recent years while bouncing among the Tigers, Yankees, Astros, Rangers and Nationals. Since 2007, given 1,950 plate appearances, he has hit .265/.295/.304 for an OPS+ of 79.
In his prime Rodriguez was a potent offensive weapon, though in 2005 Jose Canseco said his former Rangers teammate used HGH and steroids. Rodriguez denied the claim, explaining that he was not a home run hitter: "What was I going to use that for? To keep hitting doubles?" Later, when asked if his name was on the 2003 list of failed survey tests, he replied, "God only knows."
From 1996 through 2004 -- most of it with heavy workloads behind the plate in the Texas heat -- Rodriguez hit 22 homers a year and slugged .522. From 2005, when he showed up at camp having lost 28 pounds, through 2011, he averaged nine home runs and slugged .404.
Damon has remained a good offensive player into his late 30s despite one of the ugliest lefthanded hacks you'll see. It's a credit to his athleticism and fitness. (Last year with Tampa Bay he stole 19 bases in 25 tries.) But without Yankee Stadium III to pad his power numbers (.524 slugging there, .409 since he left), with less patience at the plate (.326 OBP last year) and without a defensive component (just 46 starts in the outfield over the past two years), Damon needs to find a niche coming off the bench. He can be similar to a late-career Kevin Millar or Jason Giambi, veterans who bring clubhouse value. It's a role that won't get him to 3,000 hits, but it will extend his career a bit.
In his prime Guerrero was as fascinating and fun a presence at the plate as anybody in the game. He might hit a pitch that bounced, one intended as an intentional ball or one over his head. He could also throw a baseball as hard and as far as any outfielder, though not always with pinpoint accuracy. Those halcyon days are long gone.
Guerrero is a shell of his former self. He hit three home runs away from Camden Yards last year, slugging just .382 on the road. He hit .225 with runners in scoring position (.552 OPS) and took only 14 unintentional walks while grounding into 23 double plays. What made Guerrero so fun to watch -- the lack of plate discipline and the disc-chattering swing -- undermine him as he ages without the same superb hand-eye coordination and fitness.
Guerrero was an All-Star and Silver Slugger winner as recently as 2010, when he finished 11th in MVP voting while playing for Texas. But Guerrero wore down in the second half of that season. In 214 games since the 2010 All-Star break, Guerrero has hit only 22 home runs.
Few of his peers played the game with more passion than Tejada, who never wanted to come out of the lineup and never stopped talking on the field. The guy would do anything to play baseball, including lie about his age (he cut two years off his age for years) and his association with PEDs (he pleaded guilty to charges that he lied to Congress in 2005, the year after he had 150 RBIs).
There is no escaping the truth that his bat and defensive range have been withering for years. While bouncing among the Orioles, Padres and Giants over the past two years, Tejada posted a .298 OBP in 247 games. If you take his career back to 2007, when he turned 33, Tejada has posted an OPS+ of 96 since then.
Like most players who log a decade or more in the middle infield, Renteria aged quickly. He essentially was done as a frontline player at age 30. In the four seasons since he turned 31, Renteria has hit .261/.314/.357 for an OPS+ of 79. He has kicked around with six teams in the past eight years, lately as an insurance policy at shortstop (he never has started a game at another position) with the value-added patina of a "clutch" veteran.
Renteria does own game-winning hits in World Series clinchers at age 20 (1997 Marlins) and age 33 (2010 Giants), serving to oversell his "clutch" factor. Actually, Renteria is a worse hitter in the postseason (.252/.327/.339) than in the regular season (.286/.343/.398). He is a luxury item because he cannot play every day and he does not bring power, speed or versatility off the bench.
Ordoñez's power has been vanishing for years -- just 26 homers and a .413 slugging percentage from 2009-11 -- and now he has the added burden of rehabilitating a broken ankle from last October. And yet Ordoñez said recently he will not accept a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Good luck getting a major league guarantee.
Still, Ordoñez was a superb, professional hitter who remained largely out of the limelight, except for his 2007 season when he was the American League batting champion and MVP runner-up. Only 22 players retired with at least a .300 batting average and a .500 slugging percentage with at least 7,500 plate appearances. Ordoñez and Guerrero could join them.
When the Brewers inquired about bringing Lee to camp as an insurance policy behind Mat Gamel at first base, they were told Lee did not want the possibility of part-time work. A full-time gig may never come.
Lee has become another veteran itinerant, jumping from the Cubs to the Braves to the Orioles to the Pirates in just the past two years while still showing some power (38 home runs). Lee always did have some of the best raw power in baseball. Only Sammy Sosa (2001) ever had more extra-base hits in a single season for the Cubs than the 99 Lee cranked out in 2005. A batting champion (2005), world champion (2003 Marlins) and admired teammate, Lee has enjoyed a prolific career. He can still hit, but unless he accepts a reduced role, he could be the next Dye.
Drew seems to be content to call it a career -- a career that never fulfilled its promise. Drew was twice a top five pick (he shunned Philadelphia before signing with St. Louis) with the consummate five-tool profile. Over time, though, he regressed as a ballplayer, partly because of injuries. The player who stole 19 bases in 22 tries at age 23 ceased running. The guy who could run and throw in the outfield declined as a defender. The guy who could hit for average became such a limited hitter that defenses overshifted on him and lefthanders owned him (.252). He compiled a terrific career, especially if you just consider rate stats, but one without much volume.
Drew played 14 seasons and in none of them did he play 150 games. He made one All-Star team, drove in 100 runs once, scored 100 runs once -- and, for someone with fewer career hits than Adam Kennedy, still made $108 million, or $13 million more than Tejada.
Varitek has been close to done for some time now as the toll of catching has come due in full. In 347 games since 2008 he has hit .218/.308/.393. Varitek has extended his career, however, because of his tireless work preparing and executing game plans for pitchers. Without a major league offer to continue playing, Varitek could transition easily into coaching, instructing, advising or a similar capacity that taps into his experience and knowledge.
Technically speaking, having played nine seasons in the majors, Matsui needs to appear in one game this season to be eligible for the Hall of Fame. (While he has hit more than 500 home runs combined in Nippon Pro Baseball and Major League Baseball, his Cooperstown portfolio is a bit short.) Like Guerrero, Damon, Ordoñez and Ramirez, he brings almost no defensive component, having started only 66 games in the outfield over the past four years.
As a DH, Matsui has questionable power, which happens to many hitters who wind up in Oakland. At home last year Matsui hit only four home runs and slugged .340, giving a decidedly downward look to his skills last year (.251/.321/.375). But Matsui does have the kind of swing that can age well -- he keeps the bat through the hitting zone longer than most power hitters -- and he's not bothered by lefthanded pitching.