Looking at the MLB standings this final week of May, the casual fan would find it impossible to resist doing a double-take.
The Rays and Marlins are in first place. The Yankees and Tigers are in last. That story has been beaten to death. Also of note is that the Rays and Marlins are among the two youngest teams in the league, while the Yankees and Tigers are among the two oldest. That story has also been beaten to death.
But if you look further in the standings, it is noticeable that older, veteran teams around the league seem to be under-performing all-around this season. While this may be an aberration, there could be a hidden reason for such performances.
The Red Sox are the second-oldest team in the league, and yet are among the best teams in baseball. They are, however, led by some young guns, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester—both of whom have thrown no-hitters in the recent past.
Colorado is the fourth-youngest team in the league but is following up their World Series appearance with a major stinker of a season. They, however, have major injuries at almost every star position.
To the point, youth and veteran savvy can only go so far to explain what is going on this season. What may be a more sinister and interesting explanation for this season could lie back in the steroids era.
What every of the veteran teams listed above that is massively underperforming has in common is that there are a number of household baseball names on their rosters who are vastly underperforming.
Interestingly, there could be a reason for these teams being in such a predicament.
Throughout the steroid era, there were a number of players who were suspected of taking steroids or HGH, or who admitted to taking such drugs that experienced late-career resurgences or career years.
Over time, this led to some players receiving contracts in the later stages of their careers that players would normally receive when they were entering their typical late-20s prime.
Players suspected of using steroids such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens experienced some of their best seasons in their late-30s, a time when the typical player begins to break down and suffer from worsening numbers and production.
Bonds and Clemens, whether they took steroids or not, were not the only players who experienced late career revitalization during the Steroids Era. There were a number of players who had career years that came out of the blue, or who experienced steady numbers in their late-30s instead of declining returns.
Many teams saw these heady numbers and turned a blind eye to what may have been occurring under the subtext. They focused on the fact these players were keeping in shape and having great numbers later in their career. These teams also saw players who had proven themselves time and time again, and now were so reliable that signing them to long, expensive contracts seemed like a great idea. These were players who were sure not to disappoint.
And for years, teams may have been rewarded. Late-career peaks became the norm. Whether these players took steroids or other performance enhancers has yet to be shown. Undoubtedly, some did take such drugs to boost their performance and then parlay such production into big, long-term contracts.
Such a system worked well for both the players and the teams. Players got paid. Teams won games and had superstars breaking all sorts of records. It was win-win.
And then the hammer came down. The Steroids Era began to come to an end.
The ramifications of the end of the Steroids Era have been far and wide. Some are clear to see, such as pitchers beginning to dominate again. Some are much more subtle.
One major possible consequence of the end of the Steroids Era is how contracts in MLB are structured, and how teams that signed older superstars to long-term contracts may suffer.
Teams such as the Mets, Yankees, Tigers, and Mariners have aging sluggers who are expected to produce great numbers. But maybe those expectations are based upon an era that no longer exists.
This is not to implicate players on any of these teams—except already admitted steroid users. Instead, the point could be made that many of these aging sluggers were given hefty, long contracts because many of their peers experienced late-career stability and productivity. These teams, naturally, would expect other superstars to meet the performance of their predecessors.
Those players who, in the Steroids Era, had great seasons in their late-30s may very well have led to great contracts for the current crop of players who are just now entering that age. The latter players may have benefited from the era their predecessors played in.
These giant contracts, however, may have caused their teams to suffer immensely. Not only are these crop of players not a match for the Bondses and Clemenses of the world in a matter of productivity in their late-30s, but they are a giant burden on the teams they play for.
Players such as Carlos Delgado and Richie Sexson are earning millions of dollars and performing horribly. Maybe they didn't do steroids, but their current contracts may have benefited from the era.
Here in the post-Steroids Era, we may now see players in the later stages of their careers getting paid massive amounts of money for sub-par results, to their benefit and their respective teams' detriment.
We may also be witnessing a backlash to the Steroids Era with the youthful teams that are suddenly succeeding and competing at levels completely unexpected for them this year.
Many of these youthful team are signing their young, budding stars to long-term contracts to make sure the typical peak years are going to be spent with the home club. No longer are teams counting on being able to sign proven players who still have a lot of gas in the tank in their late-30s. Now we are seeing teams taking slight-to-giant risks on young, unproven players who have a lot of potential, instead of paying veterans who are running on empty.
What does this mean for MLB?
It could mean that we begin to see a giant youth movement throughout the league, as players begin retiring earlier and young stars are called into action earlier.
In the long term, this could mean we see an increase in such things as the sacrifice bunt, the triple, the inside-the-park homer—and, importantly, the stolen base. We could also see a decrease in the intentional walk and the home run. Basically, what we may see is return to a mid-80s style of baseball.
The next few years could be very interesting for baseball, as teams get younger and the game gets faster. We'll find out soon enough what exactly this new era has in store.
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