Stove not quite so hot for aging stars
Big league jobs tough to find for many 35 and older
For a group of big-name baseball free agents over the age of 35, last year was a winter of serious discontent.
Frank Thomas, Jim Edmonds, Ray Durham, Paul Lo Duca and many others were hit by a deep freeze that left proven veteran Major Leaguers without big league offers, and in some cases, even Minor League invites. It was cold and puzzling, and yet another harsh sign of the economic times.
A year later, with the Hot Stove season in full swing, similarly aged former star players such as Garret Anderson, Brian Giles, Jim Thome, Nomar Garciaparra, Kevin Millar, Darin Erstad, Miguel Batista and Randy Winn might find themselves wondering where they'll be employed, or quite possibly having to prove themselves in Spring Training all over again.
"I don't think this trend just started last year," said agent Barry Axelrod, who represents Rich Aurilia, a 15-year Major League veteran and former All-Star who accepted a Minor League deal from the Giants last winter and might have to do the same this time around.
"I think this has been coming on much more subtly than what we saw last year, maybe for five years in small increments, baby steps. In my case, for a guy with as many years as Richie has in baseball and the accomplishments he has in baseball, it's almost like it used to be -- that guys of that caliber and quality pretty much played as long as they wanted to.
"Now, it's not the case. Certainly economics have played a part in it. I think baseball teams are more budget-conscious and more structured in their budgets than they used to be. I think they would sometimes be impulsive in the past. Now, they stick to the plan more."
There are other factors, too.
The economic crunch has forced teams to look at less expensive options, and that almost always means going younger is better.
Add to that the influence of newer statistics on front offices and it's easy to understand why a club convinced that a 23-year-old straight out of Triple-A is statistically comparable or better than a 39-year-old with more than a decade of big league service time would go with the kid.
For a player like relief pitcher Brendan Donnelly, it's understandable and a bit frustrating at the same time.
Donnelly, 38, pitched 7 2/3 scoreless innings in the 2002 World Series for the victorious Angels and was an American League All-Star and MLB.com's Setup Man of the Year the following season. Since then, he had arm injuries that finally resulted in him having Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery prior to the 2008 season.
By the time the spring of 2009 rolled around, Donnelly was not only a right-handed reliever in his late 30s, but he was viewed as an injury risk. He had to rebuild his health, arm strength and reputation as someone who could get hitters out.
It didn't work in a Spring Training invite with the Texas Rangers, however, so Donnelly worked out on his own until the Houston Astros inked him to a Minor League deal. Donnelly put up a 1.75 ERA in 24 appearances for Triple-A Round Rock before the Marlins signed him in early July. Donnelly did well in Florida, going 3-0 with a 1.78 ERA, striking out 25 batters in 25 1/3 innings, and helping mentor a young pitching staff.
So while he realizes how tough the climate has become for players that fit his profile, he said he's optimistic.
"The sense I'm getting this year is that it's similar to last year in general. But personally, I feel really different this year than last year, because last year I was coming off an injury," Donnelly said. "I feel like last year, when I finally got the chance, I showed people I'm back.
"In that way, I can't imagine having to take a Minor League deal this year. I think I've answered the questions that need to b answered on the field. If I had half a season in the NL with a 3.50-4.00 ERA, if the numbers weren't there -- especially the strikeout numbers -- then I might be singing a different tune."
The problem last year was that numbers didn't seem to matter.
Paul Cohen, the agent for Edmonds, sat by in disbelief when his client -- who had hit 382 home runs, compiled a career .905 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, won eight Gold Gloves and made four All-Star teams in a fantastic 16-year career -- couldn't get a big league offer.
"And this was after he had hit 20 homers [for San Diego and Chicago] in the last four months of the previous season," Cohen said.
Edmonds didn't want to take a Minor League deal and ended up walking away from the game, presumably for good, although Cohen says Edmonds, "is in the best shape he's been in in 10 years," so never say never.
But for the veterans who might be forced to quit early before the 2010 season, it would serve them well to take a view similar to that of Edmonds when they exit the ballpark for that final time.
"Look, Jim made a lot of money in the game, and when it was his time to step away from the game, he moved on," Cohen said.
"There are no regrets. He's got a great life now."
Doug Miller is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.