It shouldn’t have been difficult for Kenny Lofton to find work after the 2007 season. He hit .296/.367/.414, played decent defense and tallied right around 3 WAR. He stole 23 of 30 bases, posted his first walk rate at 10 percent or higher since 2002, and managed to play in 136 games despite being 40 years old. His batting line was almost identical a year earlier with the Dodgers, and he posted 4 WAR a season before that with the Phillies. Age wasn’t slowing Lofton down, but as with any player that age, his performance could crater at any moment.
For that reason, teams were hesitant to offer Lofton a lucrative major league contract, if even for just one season. Though he was still potentially a very productive player, none of his offers made sense and he chose to retire. The Rays were interested but nothing materialized, and Lofton walked away after two seasons in which he averaged a .299/.364/.408 slash line, a .347 wOBA, 27 stolen bases and 2.2 WAR.
His forced retirement was indicative of a changing game. Players were being viewed under a different lens, and to most, guaranteeing a 40-year old a major league roster spot was too risky. Whether teams were off-base with that assessment of Lofton is certainly debatable, but it signified the end of a trend.
Older players couldn’t simply use their name power to get a guaranteed gig, and the teams that might have expressed interest are those the players likely wouldn’t consider to begin with. The choices left on the table were retirement or to accept a minor league deal and vie for a spot in spring training. At least four veterans, two of whom are going to the Hall of Fame, fit similar bills this offseason. Skills and remaining talent vary across the quintet, but they represent the type of player who would have been signed to a contract at this point no fewer than five or six years ago. Will any of Johnny Damon, Derrek Lee, Ivan Rodriguez, or Vladimir Guerrero latch on somewhere this year?
Simply put, Damon and Lee probably have a little left in the tank, while Pudge and Vlad are likely done. Only Lee remains a viable fielder, but his bat is weak for first base and he can’t play anywhere else. As a defensive replacement and bench bat he could have some value, but it’s tough to tell if he would rather retire than accept a lesser role. Lee has reportedly considered retirement, but while he still projects as a league average player, his numbers don’t project markedly better than various prospects within different systems.
From a cost-benefit standpoint, there isn’t much risk in going with the upper echelon prospect over Lee. If it works out, the team spent the league minimum to get above average production. Whereas Lee isn’t a true home run threat anymore and may not play more than 125 games. He is the perfect example of a player that could start for some bad teams — like the Orioles and Pirates, his two most recent destinations — but he isn’t going to land a significant role on a team of his choice.
The lack of interest in Damon is somewhat surprising. He produced 1.5 WAR last year and has averaged 2.8 WAR over the last four seasons. Then again, his 2008-11 marks show a gradual decline, and it’s unlikely that he will turn it around at 38 years old.
Despite the decline, he is still a very durable player with a league average bat, great baseball IQ and baserunning ability. He’s also 277 hits away from 3,000, which is attainable if he hits similarly to last season over the next two, stays healthy, and is given consistent playing time.
Guerrero hasn’t completely lost his hitting skills, but he just doesn’t have much to offer anymore. He absolutely cannot play the field, and he isn’t a significant threat at the plate. He walked in just 2.9 percent of his plate appearances last season and hit 13 home runs. And that was over a full, 145 game, 590 PA season. He still hit well from 2008-10, putting up wOBAs of .373, .343 and .360, respectively, but his .318 mark last season may be enough for teams to justify their lack of interest. It’s hard to sell a 37-year old non-fielder who hits below the league average. Vlad’s only hope is if some team decides he can get back to some semblance of his 2008-10, and that his name still carries some recognition power. Neither is really likely at this juncture.
Pudge seems like he’s been getting by on name recognition for the last few years, but he’s fared better than I remembered, posting right around 1.5 WAR from 2007-09 before half-win seasons in 2010-11. Catcher defense is still a rather murky analytic area, but scouting reports suggest he remains a decent defender. He absolutely cannot hit anymore but loves to play the game. That love is all that separates him from retiring and receiving his HOF-induction phone call in five years. Given the lack of interest in his services, he might not have to wait much longer.
None of these four players is in a situation analogous to Lofton’s, as he was still technically playing at an all-star caliber level. But that probably says more about his extremely bizarre situation than those of Damon, Pudge, Vlad and Lee. Five or six years ago, all four of these guys would have signed major league contracts for at least one more season. Now, it’s more likely than not that spring training invites on minor league deals represent their best offers. The game continues to evolve, and as focus shifts to developing younger players, the aging veterans with perhaps a little bit left in the tank are left out in the cold.
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