Putting Expiration Dates on MLB's Aging Stars

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Putting Expiration Dates on MLB's Aging Stars
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Every player reaches a point where the production he provided in his prime simply starts to fade. Sluggers start making adjustments in order to better turn on a fastball. Ace pitchers start relying on guile rather than "high cheese," as Hall of Fame great Dennis Eckersley referred to the blazing high fastball.

Whatever the case, it's been well-documented that pitchers and hitters alike start regressing at some point past the age of 30. Bleacher Report's own Zachary Rymer submitted a comprehensive piece regarding the effects of aging last February.

What does that mean for current stars who are considered the old-timers of the sport?

Players aren't like a gallon of milk—they don't come with predetermined expiration dates. Players go through their own decision-making process in terms of when they think they're ready to retire. They might take hints from how their bodies are reacting, some decide for family reasons, others simply want to retire on top.

Billy Wagner was arguably the best closer in the National League when he called it quits at the end of the 2010 season. Keep in mind too that Wagner had already made that choice earlier in the season. It was clear he still had plenty in the tank, but he never wavered.

In Wagner's case, he was ready to spend time with his family and be a constant presence in the lives of his four children.

"I'm going to be a Little League coach with my kids," he said (per The Associated Press, via ESPN.com). "I enjoy it. I enjoy being around them and being on the farm and want to do a lot of stuff with my church. That's really what I want to do, just slow it down and see what comes along."

Not all aging stars are ready for a relaxed life at home, however. Ramon Castro enjoyed a 13-year career as a backup catcher and last played in 2011. Yet he still feels he has more than enough to bring something to the table for a team willing to take a chance.

Castro is playing for the Independent League Long Island Ducks, a team well-known for employing former major leaguers. For Castro, it's a way to find his way back to the big time.

Castro told Jonathan Zeller of SI.com that's the reason he and players like Dontrelle Willis and Ben Broussard are there.

"We're here for a reason: to have scouts watch us play, stay healthy and try to go back to the big leagues," Castro said.

Castro is trying to hold back Father Time for as long as he can, hoping for one last shot at glory.

Some players—and I'm not suggesting that Castro is one of them—simply don't recognize their own expiration date. They either refuse acknowledgement of it or blindly believe they are still of value. They're not paying attention to the signals their body is sending them, and they're not reading the musings of experts and media types who have been calling for their retirement for some time.

With all of that in mind, here is a best-guess estimation of expiration dates for some of today's aging stars in Major League Baseball.

  

Torii Hunter, Detroit Tigers: 2014

Leon Halip/Getty Images

Hunter provides a very interesting case study in terms of an aging player getting it done in the latter stages of his career. Hunter put up a .313 batting average last year for the Los Angeles Angels, the best mark of his career. He’s continuing to hit like a kid, batting .369 and supplying the Detroit Tigers with a fabulous option near the top of the batting order.

Hunter signed a two-year, $26 million deal in November. At the end of the contract he’ll be 39 years old. He had indicated back in 2011 that he wanted to retire as an Angel, but the Halos had other plans.

Considering his current play, should he retire? Here’s a look at Hunter now as opposed to 10 years ago.

 

BA

HR

RBI

OPS

K

BB

2013

.370

1

12

.911

15

5

2003

.250

26

102

.762

106

50

The power numbers overall have dropped, but Hunter’s more focused on contact now, realizing his role as a table-setter for sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. That was the role he played for the Angels last year as well with Albert Pujols and Mark Trumbo hitting ahead of him.

Nonetheless, Father Time will have his way with Hunter as well—he’s enjoying the time he has left and using it in a way that benefits his team more than it does his stats.

The guess is that Hunter will indeed retire at the end of his contract, but it could be in part to go into business with another player on this list.

 

Vernon Wells, New York Yankees: 2014

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Wells also has two years remaining on his contract, with the Angels picking up most of the tab. That was the price the Halos were willing to pay in order to deal Wells to the Yankees during spring training.

To say that Wells was a massive disappointment during his time in Anaheim is an understatement. When Wells was traded, Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports! opined that the Yankees resembled a “desperate” organization.

The reaction on Twitter was just a bit more vitriolic:

Another tweeter suggested a place Wells could be traded to if things didn’t work out in the Big Apple:

One other Yankees fan was hoping against hope that Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto somehow had a last-minute brain fart:

That should give a general idea of what fans thought about Wells at the time.

But Wells crossed everyone up by putting up a stellar month of April, hitting .300 with six home runs and 13 RBI. The Yankees, devoid of half of their starting lineup, were energized by the likes of Wells and others.

Still, Wells seems focused on his retirement at the end of the 2014 season. In fact, his intent is to go into business with another who may be retiring at the same time—Torii Hunter.

And the business isn’t just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill turnkey operation. Wells and Hunter want to own a baseball team.

Wells told Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com last February that was the plan moving forward:

"It's definitely something we're interested in doing once we're both done playing," Wells said. "It's fun, man. Instead of playing fantasy GM, you're actually putting together your own team and learning what it takes to pretty much make money in an organization, especially in the Minor Leagues. Because sometimes you're only going to get 500, 600 people in a game, but you have to figure out ways to get fans in the stands. That's part of the business."

Wells and Hunter will follow the path taken by Angels owner Arte Moreno, who first owned the minor league Salt Lake Trappers before setting his sights on the majors.

Wells is only 34, but he appears committed to enjoying retirement and living on the other side of the baseball life.

 

Derek Jeter, New York Yankees: 2014

Derek Jeter's ankle fracture opened the floodgates in terms of injuries for the Yankees. Video courtesy MLB.com

The Yankees’ current health struggles started in the ALCS last year with the ankle injury suffered by Jeter. To say that things snowballed from there doesn’t accurately describe the spate of injuries suffered by the Bronx Bombers.

Player

Injury

Earliest Est. Date of Return

Derek Jeter

Fractured ankle

2013 All-Star break

Alex Rodriguez

Hip surgery

August 2013

Curtis Granderson

Fractured forearm

Mid-to-late May 2013

Mark Teixeira

Wrist strain

Early June 2013

Kevin Youkilis

Lower-back pain

Mid-May 2013

Jeter is aiming for a return in July, and it’s a safe bet that he has no intentions of considering retirement after an abbreviated season marred by injury.

It’s more likely that Jeter will play at least through next season, retiring on his terms.

 

Placido Polanco, Miami Marlins: 2015

Polanco is 37 years old and playing in his 16th season. He’s remained relatively healthy thus far, a departure from the past three seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies. It’s been his back that has been the source of many of his DL stints since 2010, with neck and ankle injuries sprinkled in for good luck.

Polanco played in just 90 games last year, his lowest total since his second season (1999). The Phillies declined to offer a contract at the end of the season, deciding instead to go with another aging infielder—Michael Young.

Polanco signed with the Marlins, who were literally desperate for any warm body to play third. Things might have seemed like the same-old, same-old when Polanco was felled by an oblique injury during spring training. But he recovered in time for the regular season and—knock on wood—has stayed on the field.

The strain on Polanco’s body with the amount of injuries has taken its toll—his numbers have been in decline for the past four seasons.

 

HR

RBI

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

dWAR

2009

10

72

.285

.331

.396

.727

2.0

2010

6

52

.298

.339

.386

.726

2.0

2011

5

50

.277

.335

.339

.674

0.8

2012

2

19

.257

.302

.327

.629

0.1

2013

0

6

.255

.314

.298

.612

-0.1

Defensively, Polanco has slipped as well, but he’s fortunate that a team like the Marlins is around to continue employing him.

If he stays healthy through the end of the season, he’ll likely find another team needing a veteran bat off the bench. But this could be the last year he sees regular playing time.

 

Hiroki Kuroda, New York Yankees: 2014

Kuroda was arguably the most consistent pitcher for the Yankees in the 2012 season with 16 wins and a 3.32 ERA. Kuroda delivered that performance at an age (37) when most pitchers are in decline.

Kuroda considered going back to Japan or Los Angeles, where his kids attend school. In the end, the $15 million contract offered up by the Yankees was just too good to pass up.

And who can blame them? Kuroda represented one of the best available free agents on the open market. With owner Hal Steinbrenner’s edict to try and get under the luxury tax threshold in 2014, they seemed completely uninterested in pitchers like Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Lohse and Zack Greinke.

Once again, Kuroda has delivered. He’s 4-1 with a 2.25 ERA, including the masterful five-hit shutout against the Baltimore Orioles delivered on April 14.

I’d say that’s a pretty fair short-term investment.

But does anyone think Kuroda is going to ride off into the sunset if he’s pitching like this in September? The $15 million will seem like chump change if Kuroda continues to dominate for the rest of the season.

Kuroda misses his native Japan. But it doesn’t mean he wants to end his career there. When Kuroda signed his deal, he clarified things with Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News:

“I have never said on record that I want to end my career in Japan,” Kuroda said. “What I have said is that if I go back to Japan, I will play for my former team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. But I have never said that I am going to end my career in Japan.”

And why would he when he’s making $15 million and playing like a 28-year-old?

I do think, however, that Kuroda will play one more season beyond this year and follow up on his above statement, pitching in front of adoring fans in his native homeland before he hangs the spikes up for good.

 

Michael Young, Philadelphia Phillies: 2015

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Young suffered through a subpar year with the Texas Rangers in 2012, hitting just .277 with eight home runs, 67 RBI and a .682 OPS. This came a year after he led the majors with 213 hits and added 48 extra-base hits.

Now with the Phillies, Young’s .326 average is stellar, but the production thus far is once again lagging.

In fact, here’s an interesting tidbit that describes Young’s season thus far:

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Young has been a disappointment in Philly by any means—they’ll take a .418 OBP from the No. 2 spot in the batting order any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

But the four extra-base hits is indeed an indicator of a downward trend in overall production that doesn’t bode well considering Young is now 36 years old.

There’s still some life left in that body—but for Young that life will be more like life-Lite.

Could Young hang around to try and reach the 3,000-hit mark? He could, but it would likely take until at least midway through the 2016 season to reach that elusive goal. If teams want to employ a singles hitter for that amount of time then Young could have a chance.

A guy who knows a thing or two about great players—Hall of Fame third baseman and former Phillie Mike Schmidt—believes that Young should be in Cooperstown someday right alongside him.

Via Bob Brookover of Philly.com:

"Michael Young could retire tomorrow, and he would be a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame,” Schmidt said. “He's probably two Michael Young years away from being a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I don't know what his career hitting numbers are, but he's a little like Derek Jeter. Is he not? If he played in New York, imagine what people would be saying about Michael Young's career. Somebody would have mentioned the Hall of Fame a long time ago."

So there you go—Young’s practically in without the 3,000 hits.

The year 2015 will be his curtain call.

 

Tim Hudson, Atlanta Braves: 2015

Video courtesy MLB.com

At the age of 37, Hudson won his 200th game, and he did it with flair. Courtesy of Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper, Hudson helped his own cause with his solo home run.

In fact, Hudson now shares a distinct honor with his win:

Pretty heady stuff right there.

With the win, Hudson climbed to 3-1 with a 3.86 ERA. The 300-win mark is out of his reach—he’d have to win 17 more games this season and manage to come up with four 20-win seasons in the next four years, by which time he’ll be 42 years of age.

But there’s certainly enough left in the tank for Hudson to possibly get one more multi-year contract. If not by the Braves, then Hudson will find suitors willing to extend his career for two more years.

 

Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies: 2015

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

For the past year-plus, Halladay has looked human.

In fact, he’s looked more like a journeyman pitcher than a man with two Cy Young awards, a perfect game and a postseason no-hitter to his credit.

In fact, one scout saw Halladay as exactly that earlier this season:

In his last start on Tuesday, Halladay was lit up for eight runs on nine hits in 3.2 innings, raising his ERA to 6.75. According to MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian, it was a definite low point:

Halladay told Matt Gelb of Philly.com that he’s not even close to giving up:

"I had to be spot-on today, I really did, and I just wasn't," Halladay said. "You catch any other team any other time and you're OK. I'm not discouraged at all. I feel like we've really come a long ways, and I feel good about where I am. The location could be better at times, and I think that's been coming."

The Phillies certainly hope it’s coming as well.

Halladay has earned his stripes, and the Phillies will be patient in letting him work out his issues on the mound. Soon to be 36 years of age, he’s no longer a pitcher capable of blowing hitters away. But he’s learning to get hitters out with guile, grit and his vast knowledge.

It’s simply taking a while.

Halladay’s contract with the Phillies will end at the end of the year—a right shoulder strain last year all but sealed his fate in terms of his vesting option for the 2014 season.

But if he can figure out his issues and learn to pitch with less, there’s no reason to think he can’t be an arm that would be desired by other teams for at least another year or two.

 

Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees: 2014

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

How much more can be said about Rodriguez at this point?

When it comes to the topic of retirement, Twitter has plenty to say about Rodriguez.

This guy was so adamant about it, he felt the need to “scream” it:

Another Twitter “fan” compared Rodriguez to Manny Ramirez:

Ramirez is in Taiwan trying to convince himself he still has something left in the tank.

At least Taiwan will learn a nice long home-run trot.

As for A-Rod, he doesn’t just have health concerns to worry about, but also possible legal ramifications in connection with his alleged involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. It was reported last month that Rodriguez allegedly purchased documents from the clinic with the express purpose of concealing his involvement.

Rodriguez told Katie Couric back in 2007 that he had never used PEDs of any kind.

Well, that didn’t work.

Rodriguez finally admitted two years later what practically everyone on the planet already suspected.

It should be said that Rodriguez has never been punished by MLB, and investigations are still ongoing concerning his alleged involvement with Biogenesis. But the results of that investigation could very well play a part in how long his career will last.

His hip could take care of that as well. Rodriguez is currently rehabbing with the hope of coming back sometime after the All-Star break. His mobility and range of motion at the time will dictate whether he can play third base or just DH, but it’s likely that Rodriguez simply won’t last the length of his contract.

Legal or medical issues will end Rodriguez’s career in 2014.

It’s all about learning about body language and understanding limitations that come with age. It’s sometimes apparent that Father Time has sent a message saying it’s time. Or even when it is apparent, denial sets in.

It’s that fine line that is often blurry. And for aging MLB stars, it’s a matter of interpreting that line properly.

 

Doug Mead is a Featured Columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle.

Feel free to talk baseball with Doug anytime on Twitter.

 

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