Nicholson-Smith: Aging players still producing

A.J. Burnett and Mariano Rivera are among the MLB players who are succeeding on the field after the age of 35.

Up-and-coming young players routinely captivate fans’ attention in a way that established veterans rarely do. The successes of older players are nowhere near as intoxicating to the casual observer.

While limitless possibilities surround Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Manny Machado, there’s limited intrigue when it comes to, say, Jeff Francis, Brett Myers or Kelly Johnson (all former first rounders themselves).

Yet some players continue playing at an All-Star level long after they turn 35. Others defy conventional wisdom and actually improve as they age. Here’s a look at five MLB players who are making major differences on the field even after turning 35.

Carlos Beltran, St. Louis Cardinals OF, 36

The Cardinals don’t rely heavily on free agency — Ty Wigginton was probably their most prominent acquisition last off-season — but they have successfully complemented their core players with occasional free agent acquisitions under general manager John Mozeliak. Carlos Beltran ranks prominently among Mozeliak’s top free agent signings after a productive 2012 season and a strong start to the 2013 campaign.

The switch-hitter has 10 home runs and a .292/.327/.519 batting line in 162 plate appearances as the Cardinals’ right fielder in 2013. Beltran already has a case for Hall of Fame induction and he can strengthen it by capping off his career with a couple more seasons like this.

Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates RP, 36

Strikeouts are just about the most desirable outcome for a relief pitcher, and Jason Grilli is among the best in the sport and generating strikeouts. Consider:

  • Grilli already has 31 strikeouts — more than 14 qualified starting pitchers including Jon Niese, Bartolo Colon and Wei-Yin Chen.
  • Grilli has faced 73 hitters and struck out 31 of them (42.5%) for the second-highest strikeout rate in MLB.
  • His strikeout rate has increased for seven consecutive seasons.
  • Grilli’s average fastball velocity has increased for the third consecutive season (93.8 m.p.h. in 2013).

Grilli, the fourth overall selection in the 1997 draft, was traded, selected in the Rule 5 draft and released before enjoying success at the MLB level.

Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees RP, 43

When Mariano Rivera tore his ACL at the age of 42, there were no guarantees that he would recapture the form that enabled him to save 600-plus games on his way to becoming the greatest relief pitcher of all time. Yet he’s looking as sharp as ever at the age of 43.

Rivera has a 1.47 ERA with 14 strikeouts and just two walks this year, to go along with a league-leading 17 saves. His cutter continues generating swings and misses and, of course, breaking bats. Rivera’s final MLB season may prove to be one of his best.

A.J. Burnett, Pittsburgh Pirates SP, 36

After the 2011 season, A.J. Burnett’s days as an All-Star caliber MLB pitcher seemed over. He had posted a 5.20 ERA for 2010-11 — second-worst among all qualified starting pitchers for that two-year period.

But Burnett pitched well after being traded to the Pirates in 2012, posting a 3.51 ERA in 202.1 innings. The success has carried over through the first part of the 2013 season. After 10 starts he has a 2.57 ERA and ranks second in MLB with 79 strikeouts for a 26-18 Pirates team.

Hiroki Kuroda, New York Yankees SP, 38

From the moment Hiroki Kuroda arrived at the MLB level in 2008 he did a lot of things well, limiting walks and home runs while generating ground balls. Now 38 and in his second season with the Yankees, he’s at it again.

Kuroda has provided much-needed production for a Yankees team that has faced numerous early-season injuries. He has a 1.99 ERA with 39 strikeouts and 14 walks through 58.2 innings — more than enough to make his one-year, $15 million contract look like a bargain for New York.

Honourable mentions: Marco Scutaro (37), Travis Hafner (35), David Ortiz (37), Lance Berkman (37), Andy Pettitte (40).

BLUE JAYS UPDATE: Josh Johnson’s first rehabilitation start went well Monday. The right-hander began a rehab assignment as he looks to return from right triceps soreness.

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