Vladimir Guerrero hit .300 last year with 29 home runs and 115 RBI. He made the All-Star team, and for the first few months of the season, he looked like an MVP candidate. At 35 years old, coming off one of the worst seasons of his career and plagued by injuries, few could have predicted such a comeback season from Vlad.
Still, would should have more seriously considered the possibility of a great season. Good players are good for a reason. And while age may diminish a players ability to produce, the talent is still there.
We all know Joey Votto, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton will probably have pretty big seasons next year, and we can probably guess the same of Jon Lester, Josh Johnson and Tim Lincecum. But what about the leagues older stars? How will they handle their advanced age? Can they put up huge numbers in 2011?
This past year, Derek Lee followed up perhaps the second best season of his career with his worst season since a 1999 campaign with the Florida Marlins. Lee hit just .260 with an uncharacteristically low .347 OBP and just 19 home runs. So why should we expect a big season from Lee in 2011?
As with every player on this list, track-record has to mean something. Lee hit .306 with a .972 OPS, 35 homers, and 111 RBI just a year ago. Prior to 2010, he hadn't failed to reach the .280 batting average mark in over a decade, and had only once fell shy of a .350 OBP. Aside from missing half of the 2006 season, Lee hadn't failed to reach 20 homers in a given season since 1999.
While Lee struggled with the Cubs, he played very well after a mid-season trade to the Atlanta Braves. As a member of the Braves, Lee hit .287 with a .384 OBP. He only hit three home runs, but he also hit 14 doubles, giving him 17 extra base hits out 37 hits in total. His .465 SLG was just shy of his career average, and his 130 OPS+ was seven points above his career average.
Finally, Lee signed with the Baltimore Orioles this winter. While the Orioles have struggled over the past couple of years and play in a very tough division, they also play in a friendly hitters ballpark. Over the past few years, they've seen career years from guys like Aubrey Huff and Luke Scott. And the lineup they can put around Lee will be quite good. Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Luke Scott, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and so on.
Lee isn't going to win an MVP award, and he isn't going to play as well as he did in 2009, but he can still be an offensive force and he's in the right position to put up a big season in 2011.
The concern with Chipper Jones, as always, will be injuries as the 39-year-old third baseman begins his 18th season with the Braves in 2011. While one cannot write off these healthy problems that have so plagued Jones over the past decade, one must also recognize how good he still is when on the field and healthy.
Jones has hit .264 and .265 the past two seasons, respectable averages but not ideal for a player who won a batting title in 2008 hitting .364 and has a career batting average over .300. But despite struggling through injuries these past two seasons, and dealing with batting averages far bellow his career norms, Jones got on base 38.1 percent of the time in 2010, down just slightly from 38.8 percent of the time in 2009. He walked 61 times and struck out just 47 times last year.
Jones also still has moderate power. Given a full season of at bat, he can hit 20+ home runs and drive in 100+ RBI. He's also still an above average defensive third baseman, though not quite the fielder he was in his prime. Clearly, the talent is still there. Chipper just needs to stay healthy. The odds are stacked against him, but for a player of Chipper's talent, I wouldn't put it past him.
After nearly winning his second Cy Young award in 2009, Chris Carpenter actually had a quiet 2010 season despite leading the league in starts, and pitching quite well all season. The soon to be 36-year-old right-hander made 35 starts last season, pitching 235 innings with a 3.22 ERA, up nearly a full run from 2009 but a respectable ERA for any pitcher.
All things considered, Carpenter didn't pitch that much worse in 2010 than in 2009. He struck out more batters per nine innings—6.8 compared to 6.7—though he walked a few more as well. He continued to induce groundballs at a well above league average rate, but a correction of his HR/FB ratio led to a spike in home runs and a higher ERA and FIP.
Despite across the board regression, Carpenter's stuff was still there. He still made guys miss, he still commanded the strike zone, his velocity was down from a career high in 2009, but right at his career average of 91.5 MPH. His K/BB rate was above his career average, as was his home run rate.
Is Chris Carpenter a top-10 pitcher in baseball? Probably not. But at 36 years old, he's still got it. Expect another big season from the Cardinals No. 2 starter next year.
Over the past few seasons, Alex Rodriguez has steadily declined from his god-like 2007 level to a rather pedestrian 2010 level of play. Maybe you've noticed. The 35-year-old slugger hit .314/.422/.645 in 2007, but just .270/.341/.506 in 2010.
Alex Rodriguez was still a good player last year. He hit for a respectable average and didn't kill his team making too many outs. He still hit 30 home runs and drove in 100 RBIs, doing so for an incredible 13th straight season. His defense was, as always, solid. Not too bad, not too good. And unlike in previous down years, Rodriguez was not a distraction.
But we are talking about Alex Rodriguez, one of the 15 or 20 greatest players to ever play the game, a guy who has won three MVP awards and was probably snubbed on at least one other occasion. He's 613 career home runs and a .303 career batting average. This isn't Alex Rodriguez.
Age has certainly played a part in this decline, as has a hip injury that kept him out of the first month of 2009 season. The hip will hopefully continue to improve, and the age with hopefully continue to be an issue. But what we have to focus on more than anything else is that 2010 was somewhat of an isolated incident.
No, A-Rod has not been the same guy since 2007. But his 2008 and 2009 seasons were at least as good as his 2004 and 2006 seasons. He's not going to win the MVP award every year, but he had a .965 OPS in 2008 and a .933 OPS in 2009. It's possible Alex Rodriguez has really hit the decline phase of his career and that he will never again be an elite player. But he's still Alex Rodriguez. I would not bet against a major rebound.
HIroki Kuroda might be the most underrated pitcher in baseball. Since coming over from Japan in 2008, Kuroda has made 82 starts, pitching nearly 500 innings, and has done so with a 3.60 ERA, a 3.46 FIP and a 3.18 K/BB rate. How many people have noticed?
Kuroda had the best season of his career last year, making 31 starts with a 3.39 ERA and a 4.2 WAR. His 3.24 FIP was among the best in the National League, as was his strikeout to walk rate of 3.31. His groundball rate also topped 50 percent for the second time in three years.
What's amazing about Kuroda is that, at 35 going on 36, he still seems to be getting better. He struck out 7.29 batters per nine innings last year, a career high. He set career bests in wins, ERA, FIP and expected FIP. His swinging strike rate topped 10 percent for the first time.
Kuroda has already done a lot, but could 2011 be the year he finally gets noticed? Could he finally be recognized as one of the best No. 2 pitchers in baseball? I think he could.
Jim Thome putting together a huge season should not be a shock to anyone. But as the future Hall of Famer passes his 40th birthday, it becomes more and more improbable that he can do it again. After four impressive years with the White Sox, Thome moved on to his third American League Central team in 2010 and was immediately successful.
Playing in 108 games last season, Thome .283 with 35 home runs and 59 RBI. His OBP of .412 was his highest since 2006, and his .627 SLG his highest since 2002. His 1.039 OPS was the fourth best of his career, and his best since leaving Cleveland seven years ago.
Thome is 40 years old, but the way he's playing, that doesn't matter. He's decided he wants to come back for the 2011, and has even indicated he'd like to play in 2012 as well. He's just shy of 600 home runs, and should even further build his Hall of Fame case over the next season or two. As Thome says, he's never felt better, and there are few players more likely to have a big season in 2011 than Jim Thome.
Roy Halladay won the Cy Young award. Of course he's going to have a huge season next year. Right?
Almost certainly. But there are some reasons to be just a tad worried. Halladay will turn 34 years old early in 2011 season. Over the last five seasons, he's thrown at least 220 innings and completed a total of 38 innings. Yeah, he's a workhorse. But the workload eventually gets to every work horse, and as he approaches his mid-30s, you have to worry whether that will be the case with Halladay.
With that said, I have full confidence in Halladay to stay healthy and continue to pitch at an elite level over the next few seasons. His last three years, along with 2003, have been his best seasons. His strikeout rate reached a full-season high last year, and his walk rate reached a career low. His 7.3 K/BB rate was a career best and one of the best in recent memory. And he's also pitching for a good team in the National League.
Expect another Cy Young caliber season from Halladay, and perhaps another after that. He may not keep this up into his late 30s, but for now, I don't believe Halladay will slow down.
Mariano Rivera is still one of the best closers in baseball, but certainly seems to be slowing down just a bit. Two years ago he struck out 77 batters while waking just six, and posted a 1.40 ERA, the second best of his career. Rivera's control is still elite, thought not quite what it was a few years ago, and his severe drop in strikeout rate is unsettling.
So why do I have confidence in Mariano Rivera's ability to bounce back? Because he's done this before.
Coming off one of the best seasons of his career in 2005, a season in which he contended for the Cy Young award, Mariano Rivera had a down year in 2006. His strikeout rate fell to 6.6, the second lowest mark of his career, and his ERA jumped 40 points. Rivera was still one of the best closers in the game, but a drop in strikeout rate was concerning, especially given his age. Though his ERA ballooned the next season, his strikeout rate recovered, and went on to have two of the best years of his career in 2008 and 2009.
Relievers don't pitch too many innings, and when, like Rivera, you throw just 60 in a give season your statistics can be a bit misleading. Rivera was still very, very good. He got the job done. And while that strikeout rate was a little low, does a 180 out sample size tell us enough to discount Rivera's ability going forward? I don't think so. Had just 10 more of the 180 outs been strikeouts, Rivera would have posted a strikeout rate of 8.3 per nine innings, just above his career average.
Rivera is getting older. He could be slowing down. But 2010 did not tell us that.
Since signing a massive contract with the Atlanta Braves following the 2008 season, Derek Lowe has been a disappointment. Coming off a career year, Lowe joined the Braves two years ago, and has posted a 4.33 ERA in Atlanta. But the 37-year-old showed some reason for hope last season.
Making 33 starts for the Braves, Lowe lowered his ERA 67 points over 2009 to just 4.00. He also won 16 games, and got his strikeout to walk rate back over the 2.0 thresh-hold. His groundball rate also rebounded just a bit, but an increase in HR/FB rate mitigated this improvement.
Lowe's 3.89 FIP and 3.65 xFIP indicate that he is still a very good pitcher and despite his age he's been highly durable making 32 or more starts in nine straight seasons. The Braves have yet to see his big contract pay-off, but that could change next season.
Manny Ramirez does not yet have a team, so it might be a bit early to include him on this list. But as I've said before, I have a great deal of confidence in ManRam's offensive ability, and despite his struggles last season and his advanced age, I believe he's still capable of putting up a monster offensive season.
Last season, Ramirez hit just nine home runs, but coupled with a .298 batting average and an OBP over .400, he had a respectable offensive season. His .870 OPS was not exactly "Manny being Manny," but it wasn't too bad either. He's also just a year removed from a .949 OPS, and two years removed from a 1.031 OPS.
There is a downward trend here. Ramirez is getting older. Ramirez isn't the same hitter he was a few years ago. But he still hits .290-.300, he still walks a ton, and he still has some pop. He's still capable of great things with the bat.