In the post-steroid, post-amphetamine, post-supplement era, older players have lost much of their appeal in the free-agent market. Teams are increasingly wary of being burned by 36- or 37-year-old players whose abilities on defense are eroding and whose speed on the basepaths is declining.
Bobby Abreu could barely get a sniff last winter. Former Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon seems to have overplayed his hand this winter.
FanGraphs, among others, has started to wonder if older players are going to become the next market inefficiency.
The idea of a market inefficiency, after all, isn't to find the best players. The "Moneyball" Athletics worshipped at the altar of on-base percentage not because it was the only way to win games but because it was the way to get the most bang for their buck. The Seattle Mariners got better through improved defense because no one else knew who Franklin Gutierrez even was.
The goal of any team should be to maximize contribution per dollar. The more bang for the buck, the better. Even for a deep-pocketed team like the Red Sox, bang for the buck means something -- and it'll mean even more in coming years when the salaries of Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis all start to climb past $10 million a season.
The issue with older players, of course, is the fear of getting burned. The Detroit Tigers faced this issue with the $18 million option for Magglio Ordonez they tried halfheartedly to keep from vesting. Ordonez OPS'ed .804 last season, a respectable number but certainly not one worth $18 million a season.
According to FanGraphs, Ordonez was worth 1.8 wins above replacement last season. Abreu was worth 2.5 wins above replacement last season. Damon was worth 3.0 wins above replacement last season -- and he hasn't been worth less than 2.2 since the statistic started being compiled eight years ago.
Ordonez is an example of the danger in paying too much to older players. Abreu and Damon are examples of the danger of shying away too much from older players.
Damon still can hit. The 37-year-old outfielder thrived in the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium last season but still OPS'ed .795 on the road, including an on-base percentage of .349. His walk rate stayed above 10 percent for the fourth straight season. He saw more than 4.0 pitches per plate appearance for the fourth straight season.
Damon might be 10 years older than Jeremy Hermida, but the odds are pretty good that he would outproduce Hermida in the same amount of playing time. Even better, he'll probably earn about the same salary. One would like to believe that if the contract of David Ortiz had expired, Theo Epstein already would have snapped up Damon to be his designated hitter next season.
The contract of Ortiz does expire after the 2010 season, and there's almost no chance the Red Sox pick up the $12.5 million team option for 2011. That's when Epstein will have a chance to exploit the new market inefficiency.
Epstein by then might have made a trade for San Diego's Adrian Gonzalez or Detroit's Miguel Cabrera. Instead of investing $100 million in one of those two sluggers, though, it might be worth trawling for older players on one- or two-year contracts, players who can provide two-thirds of the production at one-third the cost.
One such player, actually, could be Ortiz himself.
Adam Dunn could be another. Much like Abreu and Damon, Dunn will be on the wrong side of 30 and bring little defensive value when he hits the open market after the 2010 season. Predicting the market is next to impossible, of course, but there's a good chance Dunn and Ortiz both get the Abreu/Damon treatment in the new defense-is-paramount age of baseball.
Dunn has OBP'ed better than .380 in five of his last six seasons. He's slugged better than .500 in five of his last six seasons. His OPS of .928 last season ranked him ahead of Jason Bay, J.D. Drew and Matt Holliday.
He's been worth just 1.2 wins above replacement in each of the last two seasons, but that number factors in his miserable defense. If an American League team -- say, the Red Sox -- needed a designated hitter, Dunn could provide tremendous production at a fraction of the cost of Cabrera or Gonzalez.