March 8, 2001
The Daily Prospectus
One of the central tenets of performance analysis is the idea that position players generally peak between the ages of 25 and 29. The evidence for this is a study initially published in the 1982 Bill James Baseball Abstract There are exceptions, and there is some evidence that players may be peaking later (or declining more slowly), but in general the study's conclusions are a good guideline.
So when teams try to build champions with a team full of thirtysomethings, skepticism is in order. Older players tend to be more expensive, they carry a greater risk of injury and the tendency is for them to decline. While individual players who are past their peak can have unusual career paths, relying on a group of them to do so is dangerous at best, and a recipe for disaster at worst.
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks:
SS Tony Womack Age 31 2B Jay Bell Age 35 1B Mark Grace Age 37 LF Luis Gonzalez Age 33 3B Matt Williams Age 35 CF Steve Finley Age 36 RF Reggie Sanders Age 33 C Damian Miller Age 31
The 2000 Diamondbacks were the oldest team in the National League, then they signed a 37-year-old to play first base and a 33-year-old to play right field. Depending on who wins jobs on the bench--and there are going to be people like 31-year-old Greg Colbrunn on it--this team has a fairly good chance of being among the oldest in baseball history.
Now, this isn't the Orioles. Two of the players in that lineup, Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez, have been much better players in their mid-30s than they were prior. Both were very good last year. Jay Bell and Matt Williams played well for the 1999 division-winning team, and Williams, at least, can be expected to bounce back a little from an injury-plagued 2000.
But there's just no upside here. There are no players who you can comfortably project to be among the best in the league at their position, and there are a few who carry the specter of a decline to replacement level. Frankly, all of these guys could hit exactly what they're expected to and the Diamondbacks wouldn't be very good. Yesterday, we noted that the Wilton projections in Baseball Prospectus 2001 pegged the Astros' starting lineup as worth about 577 runs. That same exercise for the Diamondbacks yields 474 runs. Ten percent of the difference is park effect, but that's still an inadequate number for a starting lineup.
The idea of an age-27-centered career path applies to hitters, not pitchers, but it's worth noting that the Diamondbacks' rotation can discuss Woodstock and Watergate, too:
Randy Johnson Age 37 Curt Schilling Age 34 Brian Anderson Age 29 Todd Stottlemyre Age 36 Armando Reynoso Age 35
Bobby Witt and Mike Morgan, each coming off a strong 1988 season, are hanging around camp trying to win jobs. The staff is the D'backs strength, but other than Randy Johnson, there's no one here who's a good bet for 200 innings of league-average ball.
Veteran teams can and do win--Yankees, anyone?--and I'm certainly willing to admit a bias towards younger teams, but the Diamondbacks aren't just a veteran team. They're an old one, they're making themselves older and they don't have the younger players that a team needs for cheap production and long-term success. Given the financial commitments to the guys on this page and the stripped farm system, the D'backs may be on the brink of one ugly stretch, beginning right now.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.