DUNEDIN, Fla. — At 35 years of age and with a Sept. 12 birthday, Clayton Richard is the third-oldest player at spring training with the Toronto Blue Jays, trailing only John Axford and Kendrys Morales, by a matter of months rather than years. On a team aggressively turning to youth in a game trending younger, the 10-year veteran of 265 big-league games — 200 of them starts — is a rarity in camp, one of only 11 players in his 30s among the 61 invited.
To put that in context, last year the Blue Jays used 20 players 30 or older in the big-leagues, and 24 the year before that. One way or another, they’ll be serving a whole lot of youth in 2019.
“I noticed how young some of the guys are and that sticks out more than the lack of older guys,” says Richard, acquired in a trade with the San Diego Padres to pitch in the rotation. “When you look at the birthdays, you see a lot of ‘92, ’94 (birth years), that type of thing.”
Told that Rule 5 right-hander Elvis Luciano has a 2000 birthday, he raises his eyebrow and replies, “That’s crazy. But that’s the trend, baseball seems to be going with younger guys.”
The youth movement is why veteran leadership has been a hot-button topic so far this spring around the Blue Jays, even before Marcus Stroman’s passionate advocacy for the addition of experienced free agents.
Joining Richard, Morales and Axford are roster incumbents Justin Smoak, Kevin Pillar and Ryan Tepera, free-agent additions Matt Shoemaker and David Phelps, and non-roster invitees Eric Sogard, Javy Guerra and Ryan Feierabend. Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Kevin Pillar and Randal Grichuk and Freddy Galvis are in their mid-to-late 20s, and will also be counted on to be part of the leadership group.
Phelps, 32, echoed several of his new teammates suddenly elevated into the role of sage mentor when he says, “it’s an interesting situation for myself now being one of the older guys on the team. It’s a new feeling. But it’s a welcomed experience.”
As the Blue Jays transition the kids expected to form the core of their next contender — those already to have touched the majors like Ryan Borucki, Danny Jansen, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, Billy McKinney, Anthony Alford, Tim Mayza; and those coming like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio — they need to ensure the kindergartners aren’t running the class.
From showing youngsters the ropes, to putting an arm around them when times are tough, to keeping them in line when behaviour strays, experience means something, so there’s certainly a fine-line to walk.
“I don’t think that people understand how valuable having those guys in the game are,” says Stroman. “I would have never been the pitcher I am today if I didn’t have the likes of Mark Buehrle, LaTroy Hawkins, Casey Janssen, Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Bautista, Eddie Encarnacion, Melky Cabrera. I came up with unbelievable guys.
“I love that the team’s young, but I do think there needs to be a balance because I think it’s a great way for these young guys to learn from the veterans who have been doing this year after year after year. Like I said, I have no problem being that guy. I love it. But should I honestly be that guy in the clubhouse?”
Increasingly, the data-driven decision-making inherent to modern-day baseball front offices doesn’t seem willing to pay for, and devote a roster spot to players that fit the traditional mould of the veteran leader. In the push toward objectivity, and with growing efficiency in valuing performance, there still is no meaningful way to quantify subjective intangibles.
How much is, say, the guidance and wisdom Mark DeRosa imparted on the 2013 Blue Jays actually worth? The veteran infielder renowned for his clubhouse presence delivered a 0.0 WAR for a team went 77-85 and finished last in the American League East, but six years later, Pillar is just one player who still references the influence he had.
Morales, earning $12 million in the final year of a $33-million, three-year contract, is unlikely to deliver enough on-field value to justify that salary. But if he positively influences Guerrero, Gurriel and others, providing guidance that serves players for years and years to come, what would that be worth to the Blue Jays?
“I think it is crucial — crucial — to keep that older veteran force,” argues Stroman. “Not only do they perform on the field and know how to perform on the field because they’ve been doing it so long, their insight and their knowledge and their mental — you can’t teach. That’s something that that these guys, they want to spew that information. I’d sit down and talk to Troy Tulowitzki for hours about my mental and how to get my game right post-bad start. Those are things you can’t teach so I think the game needs to do a better job of putting in these players who don’t have jobs.
“These guys should have jobs. These guys should be in clubhouses. These guys, they’re able to move the game and help the younger wave of players incrementally. I think that needs to get back to where it needs to be.”
The thing is, the quote-unquote ‘right influences and messages’ are completely subjective, and one person’s leader can be another’s annoyance.
In a group of 25 alpha-male, Type-A personalities, it’s easy to get eye rolls. Not everyone is going to connect. Interests rarely always run parallel.
Even Curtis Granderson, universally acknowledged as one of the best teammates in the sport, couldn’t land a guaranteed job, securing a minor-league deal that will pay him $1.75 million if he makes the Miami Marlins. Last year, the Blue Jays gave him a $5-million, one-year deal and he produced a 0.9 WAR between Toronto and Milwaukee, but will be 38 on opening day, so no one would give him a major-league contract.
Another factor is teams more than ever look to milk production out of each roster spot more aggressively than in the past, which makes carrying someone primarily for intangibles difficult, if not impossible.
All of which transfers those mentorship-like responsibilities to younger players on the roster.
“You don’t see it as commonly across baseball, just going out and signing veterans to kind of show the young guys the ropes,” says Pillar, who just turned 30 last month. “But with that comes a new opportunity for guys like me and Stroman and Smokey and Sanchez, guys that have been here for a while, to step up and be leaders. We need to rely on each other as guys we could turn to when us as older veteran guys get a little lost in this game (too), which is going to happen.
“But we need to be the resources for these younger guys to lean on to ask questions, to be there for them like these veterans were for us when we first came up.”
The shift towards youth also has an economic dynamic, with the impact felt most forcefully in free agency, where the market behaviour has shifted rapidly over the past three winters. Even with Manny Machado reportedly agreeing to a $300-million, 10-year deal with the San Diego Padres, it’s still remarkable that a player of his stature didn’t sign until a week into camp.
Bryce Harper, who may very well exceed Machado’s record free-agent deal, remains out there, as do Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel, Marwin Gonzalez, Gio Gonzalez, James Shields and a host of other players who could at least help a team, if not substantially change their fortunes. But younger players with between zero and three years of service time earn the major-league minimum, or close to it, making teams unwilling to pay for older players if the performance isn’t much better than what a cheaper youngster can provide.
A window into how teams think came Sunday during a spring training media in West Palm Beach, Fla., where commissioner Rob Manfred fired a shot across the bow of players when he replied to a question about the market by saying, “There are 11 players who had a WAR above 1.0 last year that are unsigned.”
“I think it’s important to remember that the Major League Baseball Players Association has always wanted a market-based system, and markets change, particularly when the institution around those markets change,” Manfred added later. “We’ve had a lot of change in the game. People think about players differently. They analyze players differently. They negotiate differently.”
Translated: The players in the market aren’t that good, they’re not worth what they’re asking for, and their representatives haven’t kept up with the times.
The next day, union head Tony Clark responded in kind, saying the commissioner’s “attempts to shift blame and distract from the main issues are unconstructive and misleading at best.”
“Players’ eyes don’t deceive them, and nor do fans,’” he continued. “As players report to spring training and see respected veterans and valued teammates on the sidelines, they are rightfully frustrated by a two-year attack on free agency. Players commit to compete every pitch of every at-bat, and every inning of every game. Yet we’re operating in an environment in which an increasing number of clubs appear to be making little effort to improve their rosters, compete for a championship or justify the price of a ticket.”
David Phelps, a free agent for the first time this past winter, hit the market with the double-whammy of coming off Tommy John surgery that cost him all of 2018, and being in his 30s. In spite of that, his experience was similar to that of many others, in which there’s lots of conversation, but little action.
In his case, his agent negotiated a clever contract of incentives and escalators that guarantees him $2.5 million but includes a 2020 option that can be worth as little as $1 million but as much as $8 million based on 2019 performance. The Blue Jays, he said, were the first team in and the first one willing to get a deal done.
“The free-agent process is interesting enough when you’re not hurt. When you are hurt, it’s not an ideal situation,” he says. “Early on teams were like, ‘Yeah, we’re interested, keep us posted on how he’s throwing.’ We had a number of teams interested and then that interest just kind of stayed the same. From talking to other guys who were also in the market, kind of the same conversations, we’re interested, keep us posted if anything happens and the offers don’t ever come.
“We were ready to pounce as soon as we got something that was fair, and it’s certainly an interesting contract, but there’s protection on both sides. … As complicated as it is, I’m not really worried about that. I want to get healthy and help this team win ballgames, everything else will take care of itself.”
Clayton Richard’s experience was a little different.
Designated for assignment by the Padres, he was unsure what would happen, but the Blue Jays ended up working out a trade for him, getting $1.5 million from San Diego with the lefty to help cover his $3-million salary, for Canadian minor-leaguer Connor Panas.
“In situations like that, I typically set my expectation levels pretty low because it’s something I have no control over,” says Richard. “To anticipate getting traded somewhere and to have as good of an opportunity as I do here, I didn’t want that to be my expectation. I was, alright, set it low, and if something great happens we’ll roll with it, and if not, I’ll be ready for the worst-case scenario. Fortunately, Toronto saw value there and I’m super excited for the opportunity.”
As a result, he avoided free agency and its harsh outlook on players his age.
Last year, only 35 players aged 35 or over pitched in majors, including emergency position-player fill-ins Morales and Jose Reyes. Only six produced a WAR above 1.0, led by Justin Verlander’s 6.8 and J.A. Happ’s 3.2, per FanGraphs.
“I can’t control my age — that’s going to continue to elevate,” Richard says with a grin. “But there are things I can control and that’s what I focus on. I know if I’m doing my job at a high enough level, I’ll continue to get opportunities.”
Seemingly more so than ever, those opportunities for players his age seem harder to come by.