Eight years ago, the class of major-league catchers were older than they had been at any time in the last 60 years. In 2003, the average major-league backstop was over 30 years old. In the early- to mid-1990s, there had been an influx of strong catchers into the majors, among them Javy Lopez, Jorge Posada, Jason Kendall, Jason Varitek, Charles Johnson, Mike Lieberthal, and Ivan Rodriguez, all of them except for Kendall born between November, 1970 and July, 1972. A few years after the turn of the millennium, those players were now in their early 30s, but the next generation had largely failed to arrive in the interim.
Whatever catching gene had been circulating between amorous couples had gone dormant with Richard Nixon’s reelection. Older catchers who were already veterans when Pudge-Rod and pals came into the league stayed on waiting for the players that would push them into retirement, and the gap between the haves and have nots grew large. This is not at all unusual; baseball has always gone through cycles in which a position suffers through a dearth of qualified applicants. There was even a moment in the American League of the late 1940s when shortstops outhit the first basemen—somehow the circuit just couldn’t find any solid mashers to stand at the gateway.
Though these shortages have always provoked a great deal of handwringing in the press—“Are second basemen extinct?” and that sort of thing—they have always been transient. The question is not the “if” of when a position gets reloaded, but when. As such, for teams in possession of quality players at a short position, the major issue becomes how they react to the scarcity of resources.
For example, during this period of catcher undersupply, the Rangers had to make a decision as to whether to re-sign free agent Ivan Rodriguez after the 2002 season, a year in which the then-30-year-old had hit .314/.353/.542 in a season shortened to 108 games by a herniated disc in his back. The Rangers demurred, allowing Rodriguez to go to Florida on a one-year contract. During that one year, and for the year after with Detroit, Rodriguez continued to perform at a high level, helping the 2003 Marlins win the World Series and pushing a moribund Tigers franchise back towards respectability.
Although Rodriguez declined rapidly after that second year, he remained a useful player relative to the class of catchers for most of the five-year contract he signed with the Tigers subsequent to the Marlins championship. Had the Rangers been able to re-sign him to a five-year contract after 2002, they would have been substantially better off than what they got instead—one year of Einar Diaz and Todd Greene (aggregate: .247/.282/.379), followed by three years of Rod Barajas (.253/.294/.444), and onward through a malaise at the position that lasts to this day.
The Rangers’ decision was not an easy one given Rodriguez’s age, injury status, and the incredible catching workload—nearly 1500 games—he had been under since reaching the majors as a 19-year-old in 1991. Though Mets owner Fred Wilpon tried to make what seems to be a decision not to retain shortstop soon-to-be free agent Jose Reyes an easier call in his now-infamous remarks in the most recent New Yorker—"He thinks he's going to get Carl Crawford money. He's had everything wrong with him. He won't get it."—the call is anything but. Reyes is the most attractive shortstop in a period so devoid of good young players at the position that no matter who the Mets acquire in a potential Reyes trade, their value will be dramatically offset by the inevitable hard decline at the position.
Because the position demands speed, quick reflexes, and agility, shortstop has always been a job for the young—until now. The graying of the shortstop position is unprecedented, a dramatic indicator that teams, once encouraged by the “Holy Trinity” age of Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Derek Jeter, that even this primarily defensive position could be the home to slugging superstars, have nowhere to turn. This year, the average age of shortstops throughout the majors is 28.8, the oldest the class as a whole has been at any time since 1950, and nearly two years older than the average age over that that 60-year period.
Derek Jeter, 37 and dying by inches on the biggest stage in sports, is emblematic of a declining class of middle infielders. The Giants opened the season trying to get by with Miguel Tejada, also 37. The man he replaced, Edgar Renteria, now with the Reds, is 34 (at least officially; as we said in Baseball Prospectus 2011, we will never know his actual age until they open him up and count the rings). The Red Sox began the year with a 35-year-old shortstop, Marco Scutaro. Jamey Carroll, who the Dodgers substituted for the injured Rafael Furcal, 33, is 37.
Even seemingly younger shortstops who have lately received playing time in place of these decrepit graybeards, like Jed Lowrie and J.J. Hardy, have already celebrated their 27th birthdays, meaning they will soon pass the prime age for the position as baseball has defined it for at least half a century.
There is little help on the way from the minor leagues. There are only a few apprentice shortstops who would seem to have anything like impact-level abilities, and several of them, such as Dee Gordon of the Dodgers, Grant Green of the A’s, and Manny Machado of the Orioles, have failed to convince scouts they will be able to defend the position at the big-league level. The Mets do have a promising player who is, at least, ostensibly a shortstop, an already-hulking teen named Wilmer Flores, but he is currently playing at High-A St. Lucie, meaning that he is at least two years from the majors. In any case, given his size, scouts believe he will outgrow short and be forced to third base or an outfield corner.
Reyes, currently hitting .316/.366/.455 with a league-leading six triples (some of which would surely have been home runs in parks other than Citi Field, where all of them have been hit), is already 28, but his speed, which manifests itself not only in those triples but in 17 stolen bases as well, should age well, as his speed should allow him to remain a viable defender for longer than the average player. His long-term work at the plate is more questionable given the way his patience has ebbed over time, but the capability is there.
Despite Wilpon’s claim that Reyes has, “had everything wrong with him,” he has had only one serious injury year in the last seven, that coming in 2009. Last year’s thyroid imbalance was an unusual, off-field medical problem that seems unlikely to recur with proper medical care. Whoever acquires Reyes should find themselves in possession of a reasonably durable player.
The Mets need to rebuild, but Reyes can and should be part of that rebuilding. Without him, the path will be significantly longer and more difficult as the team struggles to find a replacement at a position where there are none to be had. It is almost impossible to trade a star player for an appreciable return—a contending team won’t give up a star to get a star, and however highly prospects are rated, the odds are always against their achieving more than transient success. That’s why the star was valuable in the first place—his rarity. In Reyes’ case, that rarity is doubled by the current drought at his position.
As this column was being closed, it was reported that the Mets sold a chunk of the club for $200 million. This seems unlikely to obviate the financial difficulties into which the club has been placed due to ownership being embroiled in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. Regardless, if the club is ever to regain its financial footing, whether for Wilpon or some other owner, it is important for it to maintain attendance and television ratings, something impossible without fielding a winning team. That task will be significantly easier with Reyes than with the Cesar Izturis-type nonentity that will surely have to replace him should he be traded.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .