In professional sports, youth is king.
Most pro athletes' careers are over before age 30 and only a handful of athletes can maintain their level of play into their 40s. In either case, it is an inevitable reality that once a player hits the big 3-0 he is living on borrowed time and his numbers will start to decline.
Usually, this decline is swift and decisive. In rare cases, where aging players can stay in shape, avoid injuries and make critical adjustments in their game, they can slow that decline to something much more gradual and graceful, allowing them to stay competitive far beyond the average athlete.
Curiously enough, MLB teams have a long history of handing huge contracts to players whose best years are probably behind them. I spent some time musing on that very subject last year on Bleacher Report.
Don't get me wrong. When an athlete is able to remain at the top of his game well into his 30s, or even into his 40s, he should be celebrated because it doesn't happen that often. That is, unless he has done so by using PEDs, which continue to stain the reputation of MLB. In such cases, those tainted athlete deserve to be suspended and vilified.
From youngest to oldest, let's have a look at the oldest players in the majors for the 2013 season and see how they've been doing.
Bartolo Colon has experienced a renaissance in his career since losing the entire 2010 season to injury. But let's not kid ourselves. His ties to the Biogenesis scandal and the 50-game suspension that he was handed last season are contributing factors to his resurgence at this age.
In his second year with the Oakland Athletics, Colon is having one of the best years of his career. His 2.90 ERA and 1.205 WHIP are the second-best and third-best marks of his career in those respective categories. He is leading the A's in wins with 14 and his three shutouts this season are tied for the most in the majors.
Under normal circumstances, if I saw a guy in his late-30s suddenly start playing like he did when he was in his prime from 10 years earlier, I'd have my suspicions that his performance was somehow enhanced. But in this case, we definitely know that Colon is indeed a cheating cheater who cheats. I have to deduct a couple points off him for that and for getting suspended for almost a third of a season between 2012 and 2013.
However, I'll also give credit where credit is due. He has served his time and his presence on Oakland this season is undeniably a major factor in the team's success.
Ortiz has pitched in parts of 12 seasons since his debut with the Anaheim Angels in 1999, but has not pitched regularly at the major league level since 2006.
In seven appearances this year, his ERA of 6.04 and WHIP of 1.776 were not particularly good. What the Blue Jays were looking for was someone who could chew up some innings, but the injury to Ortiz kept him from being able to fill that hole.
The good news is that Ortiz has already begun throwing again. The National Post reports that he will not require Tommy John surgery to fix the damage in his elbow, so there's a chance he could be ready to take the mound again next season.
LaTroy Hawkins is playing in his 19th major league season and with his 10th team. Originally an ineffective starter, he was moved to the bullpen in 2000 and has never looked back.
For the last 13 years, Hawkins has been a steady contributor out of the pen, used primarily as a set-up man, but also saving as many as 28 games in 2001. This year, with the New York Mets, he is sporting seven saves and 13 holds in 62 games with a 3-2 record and a 3.41 ERA.
Hawkins is not the shutdown guy most teams seek to bring in for the ninth inning, but he has managed to be the consistent presence that every team could use in a middle-relief or setup role. In that respect, he is continuing to perform well and may yet have a few more years left in the tank.
Now in his 18th season in the majors, Andy Pettitte may finally be nearing the end of his long road.
Actually, this is the healthiest that Pettitte has been in quite awhile; aside from a muscle strain that put him on the disabled list for two weeks in May, he has taken the ball every five days like clockwork and has racked up his most starts (25) and innings pitched (150.1) since 2009.
His 4.01 ERA and 1.397 WHIP are right in line with what has been fairly typical for him in his mid-to-late 30s, so the New York Yankees are no doubt satisfied with what he's giving them.
Having admitted in 2008 to using PEDs in 2002 and 2004, Pettitte has already retired once in 2011. Although he has been performing up to expectations since he came back, one has to think that he'll hang 'em up for good sooner rather than later.
He has hit a whopping 25 home runs so far this year, leaving him just five shy of becoming the first 41-year-old in MLB history to reach 30 homers in a season with a month still to go.
Here's where I would normally raise the ugly spectre of PEDs, but Ibanez seems to be one of those rare specimens who is doing things the right way and continues to produce based on his athleticism and good old-fashioned hard work.
Although his batting average has tailed off in the last few seasons, he continues to drive in 60 or more runs year after year and he can still crush a mistake as well as he ever did in his younger days.
In a year when the Mariners are once again out of the playoff picture in September, Ibanez has been a bright spot for the franchise and remains a reason to keep watching them play.
Jose Contreras has likely thrown his last pitch in the majors at age 41.
He started the season in the Pittsburgh Pirates' bullpen where he made seven appearances in May, giving up runs in three of those games and winding up with a 9.00 ERA.
The Pirates eventually let him go and he was signed to a minor league deal with the Boston Red Sox in July. With his performance in Triple A-Pawtucket not showing him to be a guy who can come up and be effective, the Sox released Contreras in August.
Contreras first reached the majors late in life. He defected from Cuba in 2002 and had already reached his 30s when he debuted on the mound for the New York Yankees in 2003. A mid-rotation starter for his first seven seasons, he was relegated to a relief role in 2010 while pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies. Although he was effective in that role for two years, the last two have not been very good.
Give Contreras credit: He made a career of pitching in the major leagues at an age where most guys are shutting it down. But it looks like his age has finally caught up with him.
Henry Blanco turned 42 at the end of August, but is still putting in time in what is generally considered to be the most physically demanding position in baseball.
Although he has never been a big hitter, he has at least hit his weight for most of his career. However, not so this season where he has batted an anemic .149 between the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners.
Blanco, however, has made his mark in the majors with his defensive skills and they still seem to be up to the task. He has thrown out 33 percent of attempting base stealers this year and has posted a solid .990 fielding percentage as a part-time player.
But the simple reality is that Blanco is no longer hitting at a level that most teams would consider acceptable. If he's no longer able to hit over the Mendoza Line, all the defense in the world won't extend his career much longer.
He hasn't been a regular since 2009 and his days as a perennial MVP candidate are far behind him, but he has assumed a leadership role in the Indians' clubhouse and continues to make a positive impact on a team that still has a shot at a wild-card spot.
Giambi is hitting just .183 for the season, almost 100 points below his career average, but he has also yanked eight home runs out of the yard in only 62 games, so he still has some pop when he gets ahold of one.
Since admitting to steroids use, Giambi has not hesitated to back MLB in its continued attempts to clean up the game. As a result, he has managed to be one of the very few villains of the steroids era who has managed to emerge from the other side almost looking like a sympathetic character.
Chances are pretty good that he only has a year left at most, based on his current level of performance, but he's helping Cleveland make a run at the postseason, so he has to get some credit for that.
Darren Oliver is in his second season with the Toronto Blue Jays and continues to provide decent innings out of the bullpen.
The lefty broke into the majors back in 1993 with the Texas Rangers and eventually worked his way into a starting role. Although he won as many as 14 games in 1996, he was never a standout and eventually was moved to the bullpen fulltime while pitching with the New York Mets in 2006.
Now 42 years old and in his 20th season, he has a 4.06 ERA and 1.286 WHIP this season in 44.1 innings. If he can continue to contribute those kinds of numbers, he might still have a year or two more left in his arm.
Five years from now, he will almost certainly be elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility and be hallowed as the greatest closer of all time.
After missing most of 2012 following a serious knee injury, he is third in the majors in saves this season with 41, has a tiny 2.06 ERA with a 1.108 WHIP and continues to be a dominant force out of the New York bullpen.
His performance this year is right in line with his historical norms, so it wouldn't be at all surprising if he were capable of continuing to pad his all-time saves lead, which currently stands at 649, but he seems determined that this will be his swan song.
While the data says that closers, including Rivera, perform a statistically irrelevant job, there is no doubt that he has been the best pitcher to ever take on that role. There is also no doubt that he is one of the finest relief pitchers that baseball has ever seen.
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