2012 Season Preview: Fighting Father Time

The Nick Swisher Situation
It's official: Eric Chavez is back

With Spring Training fully underway, it’s time to begin our season preview. We’re going to change things up a bit this year, focusing on various aspects of the team rather than individual players. You’ll see most players in multiple posts, but the concepts will all be different.

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

“The Yankees are old.”

“Age will catch up to them.”

“Too many old and declining players at key positions.”

Those three statements and countless variations have been as much a part of Yankees Spring Training as batting practice and PFP and the Florida sun over the last half-decade or so. We’ve been waiting for the age problem to manifest itself in the standings for years now, but if you ask some media types and non-Yankees fans, this will surely be the year it happens. Maybe it will, who knows.

According to ESPN, the Yankees currently have the third oldest 40-man roster in the big leagues with an average age of 28.6 years. The Phillies (29.2) and Diamondbacks (28.7) are the only clubs ahead of them, and the next closest AL team is the Red Sox at 27.7. The Yankees have the oldest man on a 40-man roster protecting leads in the ninth inning, the oldest everyday shortstop, and the third oldest third baseman. Here’s a look at the team’s most veteran of veterans, with the listed ages being as of Opening Day, April 6th.

Derek Jeter, 37
The Cap’n is about to begin his 17th full season as the Yankees shortstop, which blows my mind because it still feels like his rookie year just happened. Jeter finished last season like a madman after missing close to a month with a calf injury, hitting .331/.384/.447 in 314 plate appearances after coming off the DL on Independence Day. It was the Jeter of old rather than old Jeter, the guy that hit .267/.336/.357 overall and .246/.309/.311 against righties in his previous 1,032 plate appearances dating back to the start of 2010. He cited a mechanical fix realized during his rehab as the cause, which helped him get the ball airborne rather than be an extreme ground ball hitter…

Green is grounders, blue is fly balls, red is line drives. (via FanGraphs)

Jeter may have been able to fight off Father Time in the second half last year, but doing so again in 2012 will be a tough assignment. This will be his age 38 season, and only seven shortstops in baseball history have posting an OPS+ of at least 90 during a full season at that age (or older). Omar Vizquel (93 OPS+ in 2006) is the only player to do it in the last 40 years and one of only two players to do it in the last 60 years. Cal Ripken Jr. and Barry Larkin — two fellow Hall of Fame shortstops — were done as above average, everyday players by age 37. The Cap’n turned back the clock last season, but with two more guaranteed years and a player option left on his contract, the Yankees are hoping the mechanical fix wasn’t just a mirage.

Alex Rodriguez, 36
The last four years have been quite literally painful for A-Rod. He’s spent significant time on the DL with hip, calf, and knee problems during those four years, not to mention non-DL injuries like a sprained thumb and tendinitis in his surgically repaired hip. Alex hasn’t played in 140 games since winning the MVP in 2007, and he failed to crack the 100-game plateau last season for the first time as a full-time player in his career. He says he plans to play more than 99 games in 2012 (of course he does), but his body may different ideas.

Staying on the field is one thing, but staying productive is another. A-Rod has gone from being a perennial .400+ wOBA guy to just a .360-.365 wOBA player over the last two seasons with a noticeable decline in his power production, bottoming out at a .185 ISO in 2011, his lowest as a full-time big leaguer. The recent history of third baseman in their age 36 season is way better than it is for 38-year-old shortstops, but that really doesn’t mean much. No matter how great of shape he’s been in, A-Rod’s body has betrayed him over the last four years and it will be a surprise if he makes it through 2012 without injury.

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Raul Ibanez, 39
Brought in only because he was willing to take less money than Johnny Damon and various other DH-types, Ibanez is the classic hanging-on veteran giving it a go at DH in an effort to extend his career. His production has declined steadily in recent years, bottoming out at a .306 wOBA last year, his lowest as a full-time big leaguer. The Yankees are only going to use him against right-handers though (.267/.337/.448 vs. RHP last two years), which should boost his performance given his inability to hit southpaws (.244/.277/.391 vs. LHP last two years). Most 40-year-old DHs provide a negligible return simply because their skills have eroded to the point where not playing the field has little benefit.

Hiroki Kuroda, 37
The Yankees finally got their man this offseason, signing Kuroda to a one-year pact after trying to trade for him at each of the last two deadlines. Not only is the right-hander going to have to adjust to a smaller ballpark and tougher lineups than what he faced during the last four years with the Dodgers, he’s also going to have to combat a 37-year-old body with nearly 2,400 career innings on his arm. Kuroda’s ground ball rate declined in a big way last year (43.2% after 50.8% from 2008-2010), which is due in part to him throwing fewer sinkers than ever. With old battery-mate Russell Martin behind the plate, the Yankees are hoping those strong ground ball rates return because his walk rate has held constant while the strikeout rate has improved during his four years in the States, not declined.

Productive 37-year-old starters are not unheard of, and in fact the Yankees have had three pitchers at least that age post a better than average ERA in the last four years (Bartolo Colon, Andy Pettitte, and Mike Mussina).

Mariano Rivera, 42
Number 42 turned 42 back in November, and has already hinted at retirement early in Spring Training. Unlike the other four guys in this post, his performance hasn’t wavered at all in recent years, and in fact you can argue that the last three or four years have been the best of his career. The cutter still cuts and Mo repeats his delivery like a robot, allowing him to the paint the black on both sides of the plate and induce weak contact like no other.

Rivera isn’t just a great player, he’s a historically great player like Jeter and A-Rod, but one that has shown none of the usual side effects of age. He’ll have his one bad week in April and one bad week in August, prompting questions about whether the baseball grim reaper has finally come for the Sandman. This year will be no different, and despite his age, it’s impossible to have anything but the utmost confidence in Mo at all times. He won’t just stave off Father Time for another year, Mariano will strike him out looking while he bails out on an inside cutter.

* * *

The Yankees do have a number of older and declining big name players, but their importance to the team is generally overstated. Jeter and A-Rod are no longer leading the offense, that responsibility belongs to Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, and Mark Teixeira these days, none of whom are older than 31. Ibanez is as replaceable as it gets and the Yankees do have the depth in Triple-A to replace Kuroda, either internally or via trade. Rivera is still unparalleled in the ninth inning, but the club has a stable of quality relievers and the means to weather the storm. Age is a valid concern for a few members of the team, but it will take more than the decline of the five players above to sabotage the season.

The Nick Swisher Situation
It's official: Eric Chavez is back
  • JohnC

    Those that make those predictions about the Yanks being too old and age will catch up with them sound like they are wishing and hoping more than predicting

  • Rich in NJ

    That’s why it’s so important for Tex to stop hitting RHP like he’s an prematurely aging player.

    • Reggie C.

      Yeah. Your observation on Tex should be analyzed further with comparisons perhaps bc I too fear that Tex’s contact and driving power has slowed. Tex is ONLY 31, but bc he’s not particularly “athletic”, age could have started to rear itself a year ago.

      Baseball players are hitting their conditioning and baseball primes in their early twenties, especially those guys who’ve played three years of college baseball. Could be these guys are exiting their primes earlier as well.

      • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

        Only his batting average dropped last year, mostly due to the shift and increased number of fly balls. His power and defense were still off the charts ridiculous. I don’t think a drop in batting average is evidence of age-related decline. When the power starts to go, that will be a real indicator.

        • jsbrendog

          mo forbid.

        • Dave M

          I think the drop in BA is a result in his attempt to hit more homers. He’s trying to pull everything. Even pitches he shouldn’t be trying to pull

      • Manny’s BanWagon

        Maybe Tex is really Juan Carlos teixeira Ramirez from the Dominican and he’s 35.

  • Manny

    Thank you for changing it up a bit, content was getting a little repetitive. very refreshing.

  • GardnergoesYardner

    Age is but a state of mind, right? I think the only way that age will affect the players in the article is if they let it. Players like Alex, Derek, and Mariano have indicated that being older means more work needed to be put in. We’ve seen Jeter and Rivera adjust reasonably well to old age, while Alex still needs to overcome the injury bug (Aside from last year, which could have been MVP like as we saw before the injuries, he had been producing at a star caliber level). But the big variable here is the work they put in, and it seems like, barring injuries, these players have a great shot to put up decent numbers or better thanks to their work ethic.

    Of course, to the rest of us, 37 is still reasonably young, which makes it funny that we always refer to them like they are old men.

    • jsbrendog

      work ethic is, thankfully, one thing none of us have ever had to question about jeter, arod, or mo. praise be to rivera

      • GardnergoesYardner

        Amen to that. Hopefully Kuroda and Ibanez bring some of the same motivation. They both seem like commited people, and they could be veteran keys to our team.

        • Cris Pengiucci

          they could be veteran keys to our team

          Yes, but do they bring veteran presents? :-)

      • Cris Pengiucci

        Unfortunately, even a strong work ethic doesn’t completely offset the fact that as the body ages, it tends to break down a bit more frequently. Their work ethic will hopefully keep this from happening as frequently, but if they go down, recovery time may be a bit longer than it was when they were younger.

  • jsbrendog

    so let’s say worst case scenario. jeter and arod get hurt and ibanez is godawful. cut ibanez ans put nunez at short. what do you do about 3b? laird? this is figuring without a trade because bringing that into it there are too many variables to even discuss.

    I think the yankees could weather the storm for a month without arod and jeter and nunez + whoever at 3b…

    • GardnergoesYardner

      I think Laird’s one option, as he manned third occasionally after A-Rod’s injury but before Chavez’s return. I think it’d more likely be Chavez, as that’s precisely why they signed him.

      I’m not endorsing Chavez, just saying that Joe and his staff do (for reasons unknown to us mere mortals) and would use him first.

      Your scenario would certainly not be that bad. We need to be more concerned about who could play second if Cano went down, as I’m not sure Nunez’s defense could play acceptably there for an extended period of time.

      • jsbrendog

        the problem with chavez is there is no way in hell he can stay healthy plying 3b daily. also wasnt he told if he has one more bck injury or spinal injury and he will be confined to a wheelchair? i feel like i read that somewhere last spring traiing before they signed him. or offseason i guess if it was before they signed him but whatever.

        if cano goes down…who is there? adams? who is the 2b in aaa? joseph? maybe bill hall is still around. that is why i wanted to keep hall a the utility guy instead of chavez cause when chavez inevitably gets hurt there will be nothing. ugh, ramiro pena? can we get jorge to come out of retirement to play 2b?

        aaron miles is still out there haha

    • TomH

      It’s more than a matter of X or Y being injured and out of the lineup. I took the point of the article to be that it’s a matter of OLD, i.e., suddenly they can’t cut it any more. E.g., Dimag in 1951 or Mantle after 1964, or Musial in 19XX, and so on. Injured or not, they just get old. When it happens to multiple guys on whom a team has depened, it usually means calamity.

    • gordybravo

      I think with our pitching we can withstand one or two of our players missing playing time.With 4 runs a game I think we win most of them.

  • Kosmo

    Maybe Jeter has a little Luke Appling and Honus Wagner in him.

    • Paul VuvuZuvella

      FWIW, and I know that is very little, but I think Jeter is going to have his Last great year this year (something close to 2009.)

  • steve s

    The real issue here IMO is liklihood of performance decline from the entire line-up. Curtis can still have a pretty good year in 2012 but who really thinks he’s going to put up the outrageous numbers he did in 2011? Similarly Cano is a tremendous offensive force but his performance declined in 2011 when compared to his peak in 2010. Will that decline (however slight) continue? When the potential age related declines of the guys mentioned in the post are combined with the potential minor declines from the peak years of the younger offensive stars (Cano; Grandy) and the fairly significant decline of Tex from his peak (although still a good producer) exactly how will the Yanks offensive performance stay the same or improve? Perhaps the pitching has gotten so much better it will compensate for the unavoidable offensive decline vis a vis W/L results but for the first time in years I fear the 2012 Yanks are not likely to be a Yankee team that can bludgeon their way to the post-season.

    • BigDavey88

      I’m not worried. And about Cano, I hardly call last season a “decline”. Dude’s not even 30 yet. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves with the doooooom here.

  • nsalem

    Is Tex’s “lack of athleticism” rap due to his lack of speed and grace on the base paths? If so is it valid to hang that tag on him? He seems to have defensive skills that his predecessor and many other first basemen do not possess such as quickness and the ability to convert the 3-6-3’s. Like Giambi he seemed to use all fields before joining the Yankee’s and both, after having one successful year as Yankee’s which mirrored their old stats, became dead pull hitters with decreases in both BA and OBP. Were these changes due to age or the seduction of the right field wall in Yankee Stadium(s). Of course there are other factors for the Giambi decline, but I don’t know if PED usage (or the stopping of it) could be held totally responsible for such a drastic change in someone’s hitting approach.

  • LarryM.,Fl.

    This article does not in any way change my confidence level at 9. This is a team effort from Hal on down to last man on the bench. With an improved starting rotation and excellent bullpen our old guys and younger guys should have enough D and O in them.

    Its imperative that Girardi gets Arod, Jeter and Martin enough rest. If we can get 75-80% games played out of these guys. I’m fine. With our strong bench my concerns are minimal. Boston, Tampa and Blue Jays have issues. So, we sit pretty and avoid injuries. No tire muscles from players overworked.

  • Preston

    The thing is if you take all of these guys off the roster we still have a really good team. Put Nunez at SS, Laird at 3B, Dickerson at DH, Robertson as the CP, and Phelps/Warren in at 5th starter (since this is a hypothetical about how old players will succumb to injury I assume we’re counting Jones/Chavez/Garcia in that group as well). That wouldn’t be the best team on paper. But certainly a competitive one. So as long as we get some production (especially from A-Rod) we’re still going to be a relevant playoff contender no-matter what age related injury/regression we have.

    • gageagainstthemachine

      I agree with this to a certain point. Those dynasty teams of the latter part of the 90’s were not built from top to bottom with a super-star list of players. As mentioned on another thread, the Yankees have won WS rings with guys like Ricky Ledee and Chad Curtis (among many other names) donning the stripes on a regular basis. It’s about a well structured ENTIRE team, not a bunch of big -name, big-buck players (look at 2001-2009..how many WS rings?). And of course, you have to catch lightning in a bottle like Scott Brosius who, let’s face it, was not much to shake a stick at prior to being a Yankee and wasn’t even that good at the end. But we were lucky enough to have him when he was at his best. Well built and balanced team + LUCK = WS rings. You can’t control everything, no matter how hard you try.

      • BigDavey88