Baseball has generally been trending younger.
Since testing for steroids began in 2003 and amphetamines were banned three years later, the productivity and durability of players over 30 have sharply declined. The economic model has adjusted accordingly. Executives in the off-season shied away from spending big on free agents, who tend to be around 30, and favored younger (that is, cheaper) players.
Except the Mets.
Lacking enough assets to plug holes through trades, the Mets spent $88.5 million in the off-season on six players 30 or older: first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, 35; third baseman Todd Frazier, 32; right fielder Jay Bruce, who will turn 31 on Tuesday; relief pitcher Anthony Swarzak, 32; starting pitcher Jason Vargas, 35; and Reyes.
“It was about availability and being somewhat opportunistic,” General Manager Sandy Alderson said.
All but one of the contracts the older players signed were for one or two years, and at manageable prices, Alderson said.
“It’s a changed game,” said Frazier, who held out until the week before spring training began to sign a two-year, $17 million contract at a price lower than some people had once expected. “Teams want the younger guys, but we’ve still got it. I know we do.”
The players joined a cast that included the relief pitchers Jerry Blevins, 34, and A. J. Ramos, 31; the oft-injured team captain, David Wright, 35; infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, 32; and left fielder Yoenis Cespedes, 32.
“There’s always room for the blend of ages,” Bruce said. “It’s important to have experience, but bottom line, it’s important to have good players. And if good players happen to be 30 to 35 years old and show they can stay on the field, I don’t think the age matters.”
The Mets do have some youth, mostly on their pitching staff, with standouts like Noah Syndergaard, 25; Steven Matz, 26; and Jeurys Familia, 28. Unfortunately, they have been getting injured a lot. Other younger players include shortstop Amed Rosario, 22, and catcher Kevin Plawecki, 27.
The Mets will lean on youngsters like Brandon Nimmo, 25, and Juan Lagares, 29, to share center field until the Mets’ young star Michael Conforto, 25, returns from shoulder surgery.
Still, the older players will fill important gaps, which is fine with them.
Several argued that experience could help them overcome hitting slumps, the nerves of a potential playoff race and the deficiencies of age. Their lack of speed is a weakness, so the manager, Mickey Callaway, emphasized sound base running in spring training. The Mets, which had one of the worst defenses in the majors last season, will take into account data and players’ experience to better position them in the field.
“You get by on your guile more than muscle, brute strength and speed,” the team’s bench coach, Gary DiSarcina, said.
Older players’ bodies have more mileage on them and tend to be hurt more often. Poor performance and injuries among players of all ages derailed the Mets’ 2017 season. Some infirmities are inevitable, but Callaway and the new medical staff vowed to be vigilant about preventive measures, such as regular days off.
With age, Frazier has toned down his weight lifting and limited dining on the Italian food he loves. Cespedes incorporated yoga this winter in hopes of keeping his legs healthier.
When he was younger, Gonzalez rolled out of bed ready to play. Now, the pregame routine for his back is two hours. After averaging 159 games a season for over a decade, Gonzalez played in only 71 last year because of three bulging disks and posted a career-worst .642 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with his last team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I can still adjust my swing to someone throwing harder or someone throwing softer,” he said. “That’s something that experience will give you that nothing else will. I probably can’t hit a 450-foot homer to the opposite field like I used to, but I can still hit a home run.”
Bruce, a consistent power hitter, sounded hopeful when he said that future innovations in training or strategy might help players in their 30s stay productive and buck the aging drop-off.
“You’re going to see a lot of people that are able to play longer because they take care of their bodies better since there’s more information out there,” he said. “The ‘youngness’ is going to be relative.”