By Dan Bernstein
Baseball is increasingly a younger man’s game, and teams would rather pay for what someone else might do than for what you already may have done.
We used to know a time when agents boasted successfully of their clients’ respective statistical track records as selling points and the idea of “veteran presence” in a clubhouse or dugout was something valued more than figuratively or after the fact. But better-educated front offices have ended the romance over such things, accelerating the abrupt ends of position players’ big-league careers that used to have softer landings on the ends of benches.
Every year sees the sport move on without a list of familiar names, sending them to their choice of next things — fledgling media opportunities, continued work in some foreign or minor league as a player or coach, or already just garden-variety retirement in their 30s, having earned enough to be happy on the golf course or in the middle of a lake. It’s the way of things that it ends for everybody.
But the last two seasons have been something notable, building to a list of current free agent names right now that drives home the new reality. A listener of Chicago’s 670 The Score, who goes by the moniker “Whitley from Ravenswood,” has made a hobby of chronicling this phenomenon, keeping a close eye on what has gone on with increasingly unwanted veteran hitters. He presented these names of players with at least 850 major league hits to their credit who played last season, and are still unsigned as of the time of this post.
Rickie Weeks Jr.
And two more — Rajai Davis and Miguel Montero — are in camps on minor league deals.
Whitley notes “if current roster statuses held and the season started today, there would be 62 guys with a minimum of 1000 career hits under major league contract and another 14 with at least 850 career hits, for a total of 76. Summing up, I’d never seen anything like last season; this puts it to shame.”
He also makes a point of recognizing that this particular statistical category naturally replenishes with the next cohort, and that there is a large group of current players at the cusp of the 850-hit threshold. The lesson to be learned, however, is that making it to free agency after that point for most now means less that big chance to cash in and more a confrontation with a game that is relying on a younger labor force.
Prospects are developing faster across the board, and remain remarkably cost-effective relative to free-agent expenditures. Contract-controlled youth wins that calculation every time, now, unless a wealthy franchise finds itself in just the right competitive window to justify what is now understood to be overpayment for services. And even as the ongoing need for pitching has allowed older guys to keep jobs and sign deals on the wrong side of 30, they still are looking at a current market that has yet to employ such established performers as Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb.
The people in charge of putting together baseball teams are increasingly happy to see their own draft picks developed and ready to step into open jobs instead of players that others decided they didn’t need.