Todd Walker

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Older players getting squeezed in MLB

MLB veterans see turn to young players going too far: ‘It’s a little alarming’

Gabe Lacques , USA TODAY Sports


CLEARWATER, Fla. – For Major League Baseball veterans, life doesn’t end at 30. In the game’s shifting financial landscape, however, it gets much more complicated.

As spring training exhibitions get under way this weekend in Florida and Arizona, a significant number of employable, affordable players remain at home. And several veterans in a higher performance and financial strata received far less interest – and ultimately, compensation – than they expected entering the winter.

While the game has skewed younger for many years – Kris Bryant, 24, was named National League MVP, while Mike Trout won his second American League MVP at 25 – many big-leaguers are worried that older players who might populate the edge of major league rosters are feeling too much of a pinch.

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“These are proven baseball players who can help a team win games, and yet they’re not employed. I honestly think it’s a flaw in the system,” says Michael Saunders, a 30-year-old outfielder who signed a one-year, $9 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies in January. “At the end of the day, if you can help a team win games, you should have a job.

“It’s a little alarming at this point.”

Across the clubhouse, Howie Kendrick knows the feeling. After reaching free agency after the 2015 season at age 32 – with a lifetime .293 average and .333 on-base percentage – he found the market cool for his services, due in part to the fact he was tied to draft-pick compensation. He eventually returned to the Los Angeles Dodgers on a two-year, $20 million deal with deferrals. “I didn’t want to be sitting home until June or July, looking for a job,” says Kendrick, traded in November to the Phillies. “A lot of guys are looking at it like, ‘Hey, I just gotta get out and play.’”

This spring, he’s aghast that pitcher Joe Blanton, his teammate with the Dodgers and Angels, remains unsigned. Blanton, 36, revived his career as a full-time reliever in 2015, and last year pitched his way into the Dodgers’ primary set-up role.

Blanton’s numbers were stellar – a 2.48 ERA, a 1.01 WHIP, and 80 strikeouts in 80 innings pitched.

“Last year, I loved playing with him,” says Kendrick. “Just money as the set-up man down the stretch. Joe’s a hard worker, man. To see a guy like him without a job this late… The teams I’ve played on where we won a lot, we always had a strong veteran presence. Especially in the bullpen.

“You have to know who you’re getting, to know the player and know that they’ve had success.”

Instead, teams are, more than ever, opting for players with little to no track record making closer to the league minimum $535,000, rather than guaranteeing around $1 million to $4 million a proven veteran might command. A January analysis by Fangraphs, citing USA TODAY Sports’ salary database, noted that 333 players opened the 2016 season making at or near the minimum salary, up from 241 in 2006.

And so Blanton is joined in the unemployment line by players such as outfielder Angel Pagan (35), infielder Kelly Johnson (35) and outfielder Coco Crisp (37). A larger group were relegated to taking non-guaranteed minor league deals.

While the youthful trend began as the effects of more stringent performance-enhancing drug testing kicked in, it’s continued to accelerate more than a decade after the banning of amphetamines.

“Ten years ago, at 30, I would have been in my prime. Now, I’m old,” says catcher Alex Avila, who returned to the Detroit Tigers on a one-year deal to back up James McCann.

With revenues nearing a record $10 billion, it seems strange teams would go cheap on the end of their rosters. Avila, echoing others’ sentiments, likens it to a pendulum that may swing in another direction in coming off-seasons.

That may be the case merely for the higher-end free agents.

“Every year the music stops. There’s not enough chairs for everybody. This year is no different," says Kansas City Royals GM Dayton Moore. "Everybody is constantly looking and searching and desiring to complete the roster with young players, homegrown players, players they can develop for the future. It’s part of the game and it happens every single year.’’

One factor that won’t go away is the luxury tax ceiling, which will increase in the five years of the upcoming collective bargaining agreement. However, it’s proven a significant deterrent for clubs who don’t want to pay a tax on any payroll north of $189 million.

This past winter, a record six clubs exceeded the ceiling and paid fines ranging from $2.96 million (Chicago Cubs) to the Dodgers’ $31.8 million.

“I think a lot of teams look at that as a salary cap,” says Avila. “It’s unfortunate; I don’t think that’s what it was meant to do, but that’s what it’s kind of turned into. Those are the rules we have to play by in baseball.”

Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler, 34, sees it partially as an offshoot of baseball’s information age and teams’ utter commitment to analytics.

“I really think clubs are using the age number to their advantage – which if you ask me, being 34, is a little ridiculous,” says Kinsler, whose .831 OPS ranked fourth among AL second basemen in 2016. “I feel like I can play this game for a long time and be extremely productive. But they have risk evaluators determining how healthy guys have been in the past, they try to put a number on what you’re worth, and basically predict that you’re going to decline.

“There’s all these decline numbers now – but every case is individual.”

Kinsler and Kendrick both were surprised there wasn’t a better market this winter for right-handed sluggers such as Edwin Encarnacion ($60 million guaranteed from Cleveland), Mark Trumbo ($37.5 million from Baltimore) and Jose Bautista, who re-signed for one year and $18.5 million with Toronto. Kinsler says Bautista – who remade his swing and didn’t come into his own until he was 29 – is a prime example of a player for which actuary tables shouldn’t necessarily apply.

MLB players’ association executive director Tony Clark was asked in a recent news conference if he was worried about potential collusion among franchises to suppress salaries. He termed it a sensitive subject, and says the “discussion is never flippant or thrown out unless factual.”

The thought has crossed Kinsler’s mind.

“I can give you my opinion, but like Tony, I don’t want to start a fire,” says Kinsler. “It’s tough to pinpoint why that’s happening.

“There should always be a team, always a situation, where a team can use a Joe Blanton, can use an Angel Pagan. I don’t know why; I have my reasons, but I think a lot of it just has to do with salary.”

That doesn’t help the vets stuck at home. Nor does the trend ease the mind of players like Kinsler or Saunders, who will hit the market again at 31 or 32, depending on whether Philadelphia exercises a 2018 option.

“The fans deserve to have the best players on the field, and the best show on the field, so to speak,” say Saunders. “At the end of the day, we’re showmen. We play for the fans.

“We’re an entertainment business, and it doesn’t do this business any good to have such high-quality players sitting on the couch at home.”

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