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March 27, 2012

Western Front

No Country for Old Pitchers

by Geoff Young

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Kevin Millwood is 37. Bartolo Colon is 39. Jamie Moyer is 49 and coming off Tommy John surgery. Each signed this winter with a team that should be looking to rebuild with young players. What do these teams hope for—or expect to gain—by adding these old pitchers? What should they expect?

With the common and easy argument being that such pitchers block youngsters from getting a chance, why are the old guys here? Will they mentor the kids, soak up innings, or help make fans feel younger? All of the above and more?

11th-Round Gold
The Atlanta Braves selected Kevin Millwood in the 11th round of the 1993 draft. Others big-leaguers taken in that round in 1993 include Glen Barker, Steve Rain, and Tom Fordham, who combined for 201 plate appearances and 129 2/3 innings pitched. Millwood first appeared in John Sickels' Minor League Scouting Notebook in 1997, nestled between Doug Million and Doug Mirabelli. Millwood, who henceforth shall be called Doug, merited a C-plus grade from Sickels. Millwood jumped to a Grade B the following year, with Sickels noting that he “projects as a solid starter, and considering the Mazzone factor, he may have ace potential.”

The Braves had a strange draft in 1993. They got almost nothing of value in the first 10 rounds, then struck gold with Millwood in the 11th, Jermaine Dye in the 17th, and John Rocker in the 18th. Millwood won 18 games for the 1999 National League champion Braves, and Rocker notched 38 saves. Dye, for his part, was traded to Kansas City for Keith Lockhart and Michael Tucker, both of whom contributed to those late-'90s Braves teams. Tucker was later dealt for Bret Boone and Mike Remlinger, who played alongside Millwood and Rocker in 1999.

What do Dye, Rocker, Lockhart, Tucker, Boone, and Remlinger have in common? Aside from having played with Millwood in Atlanta and having never set foot in my kitchen, all are retired from baseball. Point being, Millwood has been around a while. He played with Wally Joyner, Dan Plesac, and Dennis Martinez. He played with Ozzie Guillen, Otis Nixon, and Bobby Bonilla.

So, naturally, the Seattle Mariners, coming off a 67-95 season and playing in a division that just added Albert Pujols and Yu Darvish, jumped all over Millwood. He’s the final piece in a puzzle that nobody would bother to solve, or some such.

It is easy to forget just how good Millwood's career has been. He showed so much promise at such a young age (a la Andy Benes) that everything since is viewed as a disappointment. And yet, aside from a disastrous 2010 campaign that left him unable to find gainful employment the following season (until the Rockies finally rescued him from Triple-A in August, which baffled me at the time), he has been a guy that can be counted on to make his complement of starts and not stink.

On the one hand, this sounds like an awfully low standard. On the other hand, Brad Penny made 31 big-league starts last year. And when you consider that the Mariners have lost Michael Pineda and Erik Bedard, who between them started more than a quarter of the team's games in 2011, signing Millwood to a minor-league contract begins to make sense.

What about the prospects? As Kevin Goldstein has noted, the Mariners have some good young arms. But given that they've combined for a total of 39 innings above A-ball, Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and James Paxton shouldn't be counted on to help right now. Besides, when they are ready, they aren't likely to be “blocked” by anyone, let alone Millwood.

What a veteran pitcher offers a team like the Mariners, who don’t appear to be headed anywhere in particular this season, is the luxury of not having to rush the young guns. He gives them innings, and even if they aren't brilliant innings (they won't be), they are good enough and cheap enough not to keep anyone awake at night.

Millwood has won the fifth spot in the rotation and will be paid $1 million to do his thing and buy the kids a little time. He won't be great, but neither will he be Brad Penny, who will pitch in Japan this year. Amusingly, the Mariners start their season in that country, but Millwood won’t make the trip.

Cy Youngs and Stem Cells
Bartolo Colon is perhaps most famous for three things:

He also, as Julia Roberts' character might have said in Ocean's Eleven (had that film needed an obscure reference that few people would have understood), occasionally pitched.

Colon was well-regarded coming up through the Cleveland Indians’ system alongside such future big-leaguers as Russell Branyan, Sean Casey, Einar Diaz, Danny Graves, Marcos Scutaro, Richie Sexson, Enrique Wilson, and Jaret Wright. In his 1997 book, Sickels gave Colon a grade of B-plus (same grade as in the 1996 version), praising the young hurler for his velocity, command, and work ethic. Sickels called Colon “a terrific prospect” who, if healthy, “can be an effective pitcher in any role,” but also cautioned that in the wake of elbow problems that plagued Colon in 1995 and 1996, “someday, that strained ligament is likely to blow out.”

After making 17 starts for the big club during the Indians' 1997 championship run (that team also featured Colon's current teammate Manny Ramirez, as well as Phillies DH Jim Thome and Blue Jays fossil Omar Vizquel), the injury-plagued Colon did something that went against his minor-league track record. He became a workhorse, making 30 or more starts in each of the next eight seasons. For most of this period, he wasn't just an innings muncher, either.

Then came the curious Cy Young Award in 2005, and ever since, things haven't been so good. Colon failed to log as many as 100 innings in a season for five straight (including zero in 2010) before qualifying for the ERA title last year with the Yankees at age 38. If we artificially divide Colon's career into three phases, we get this:

Bartolo Colon through the Years

Years

Ages

GS

IP

ERA+

WARP

1997-2005

24-32

278

1,819.2

117

25.4

2006-2010

33-37

47

257.0

89

0.5

2011

38

26

164.1

111

2.2

Not exactly your classic career trajectory, but there it is. And although wins may not count for much, it's amusing to note that thanks to the eight he was credited with in 2011, Colon now has 22 over the past six years... or one more than he had when he won the Cy Young Award.

So, what's a pitcher like Colon doing in a place like Oakland? The A's went 74-88 in 2011. They don't appear to be any closer to contending than the Mariners. On the other hand, Seattle's staff is much more stable by comparison. Where the Mariners lost a quarter of last year's starters this offseason, the A's lost well over half. This means that while Millwood had to scratch and claw his way into the final spot of his team's rotation, Colon is slated—blister on his right middle finger permitting—to start Oakland's second game of the season in Japan.

Who might Colon be keeping in the minors? Well, there's Jarrod Parker, acquired in the deal that sent Trevor Cahill to Arizona. Parker is a talented fellow (Goldstein has him as the 50th-best prospect in the game), but he is 23 years old and has one big-league start to his name. His big accomplishment last year was making it through the season healthy after missing 2010 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. There is no real hurry to get Parker into the rotation; he'll be there soon enough.

Brad Peacock (acquired in the Gio Gonzalez trade)? Okay, fair enough. He has worked 185 very effective innings in the high minors and might have made the team if not for Colon. At the same time, Peacock was brutal this spring and struggled with his command. And like Parker, he'll be up at some point during the season. If these kids are close to being as good as advertised, they won't remain blocked for long. Talent does that.

Sonny Gray? Sure, he pitched at Double-A last year after being taken with the 18th pick overall, but he still has only 22 professional innings under his belt. A.J. Cole? He’s even younger and further away.

In theory, Colon—like Millwood—absorbs innings that might otherwise be forced on guys who aren't quite ready. Another point to consider is whether it is desirable to place young players in an environment where winning isn't likely to occur all that often. At the recent SABR Analytics Conference (covered in greater detail by Jay Jaffe), Cleveland Indians President Mark Shapiro stressed “you want to develop players who expect to win,” adding that a club's “Triple-A team has to be a point of personal pride.” This is a nice sound bite that certainly is open to debate, but it's difficult to imagine that there isn't at least some truth in it.

(Shapiro, incidentally, was the Indians GM who extracted Lee, Phillips, and Sizemore from the Expos for Colon. Or as the wire services reported the trade at the time, Bartolo Colon for Lee Stevens and three minor leaguers.)

Finally, in the meaningless but interesting department: Since 1901, a total of 76 pitchers have qualified for a league ERA title during their age-38 season. Of those, 23 (30 percent) are in the Hall of Fame, so that excludes those who were active in 2011 (Colon, Derek Lowe, and Tim Wakefield) as well as those who aren't yet eligible—among whom Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz are mortal locks for enshrinement (well, maybe not Clemens, but that's a different issue). The best age-38 season (in terms of ERA+) belongs to Johnson, while the worst belongs to Huck Betts. The closest matches to Colon are Clarence Mitchell, Eppa Rixey, and Sal Maglie.

Select Age-38 Pitchers

Player

Year

GS

IP

ERA+

Randy Johnson

2002

35

260.0

197

Clarence Mitchell

1929

22

173.0

112

Bartolo Colon

2011

26

164.1

111

Eppa Rixey

1929

24

201.0

110

Sal Maglie

1955

23

155.1

108

Huck Betts

1935

19

159.2

69

We could examine these players more closely to see what they did in their age-39 seasons, but I'm not convinced that Mitchell's 1930 stats tell us anything meaningful about Colon's chances in 2012, so we'll skip all that. (Mitchell pitched about as well as he had the previous year, albeit in 40 fewer innings, if you must know.)

Before There Was Paper
Moyer never appeared in any of Sickels' books for the very good reason that Sickels wasn't writing books back then. Also, paper hadn't been invented. Get it? Because Moyer is old.

He did get a mention in the 1988 Bill James Baseball Abstract; he was ranked as the 23rd-best left-handed starting pitcher in baseball, behind Bruce Ruffin (whose son, Chance Ruffin, pitched for the Mariners last year; Moyer spent a few seasons in Seattle, the first of which came during his 11th major-league season and Ruffin the Younger's eighth year on the planet) and ahead of Neal Heaton (who, as far as I know, is not related to Patricia Heaton, whose father was a sportswriter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but I digress). If you want to feel old (and who among us doesn't?), others on James' list include Frank Tanana (10th), Tommy John (17th), Mike Flanagan (27th), Rick Honeycutt (30th), Steve Carlton (36th), and Jerry Reuss (37th).

I also have a personally vested interest in Moyer. Last year, MLB saw three players that are older than me get into at least one game: Matt Stairs, Omar Vizquel, and Tim Wakefield. With Stairs and Wakefield officially retired, and Vizquel well past his expiration date, the time when I am older than every current player is fast approaching. And although Moyer's continued presence would only delay the inevitable, if my reaction to the retirement of Ken Griffey Jr. (the first player younger than me to reach the big leagues) is any indication, I'm liable to get all weepy-eyed when he and Vizquel are gone. It won't be pretty.

Moyer's advanced age has been pretty well covered by now. He needs 33 more wins to reach 300, which means he should get there by the time he's eligible for social security. A lot has changed since Moyer first arrived on the scene. For instance, Roberto Alomar—who was 18 years old when Moyer made his debut—is now in the Hall of Fame. So is Carlton, against whom Moyer made said debut. The first batter Moyer faced was Ron Roenicke, who now manages the Milwaukee Brewers.

We could spend all day spouting trivia (e.g., our own Bradley Ankrom notes via Twitter that 21 percent of players to suit up in 2011 were born after Moyer's debut). It would be great fun, but there is a practical question begging to be asked: Why is Moyer competing for a spot in the Rockies’ rotation? Millwood seemed too old for last year's model, and he was in elementary school when Moyer delivered his first big-league pitch.

The fact is, Colorado has a lot of young arms and not all of them are ready. Jhoulys Chacin has shown that he belongs (his second-half slide last year notwithstanding), and Juan Nicasio looked good before his horrific injury. But beyond those two, questions abound. Gone are Jason Hammel and Aaron Cook. The team doesn't expect Jorge de la Rosa to return from Tommy John surgery until May at the earliest, but more likely July.

Drew Pomeranz, who came over in last summer's Ubaldo Jimenez trade, could contribute and is expected to make the rotation. Still, at age 23 and with 120 professional innings to his credit, the hard-throwing southpaw is hardly a sure thing. Alex White, who also arrived in the Jimenez trade, is even less certain after serving up three homers per nine innings in his seven starts with the big club.

Moyer is in Denver to supplement Chacin, Nicasio (who has made a remarkable comeback from the broken neck he suffered last August), newcomer Jeremy Guthrie, and Pomeranz. Maybe the old left-hander shows the young left-hander (Pomeranz) a trick or two in the process... like, say, how to throw strikes with some degree of consistency. That could come in handy.

In his most recent Cactus League start, last Thursday, Moyer tossed four perfect innings against the San Francisco Giants. Granted, it's spring training and the Giants fielded a split squad, but that isn't too shabby for a 49-year-old coming back from elbow reconstruction.

Heck, it isn't too shabby for anyone.

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