Several veterans still looking for work
Johnny Damon and Raul Ibanez among aging hitters who remain unemployed
It's not much fun being 35 years old and looking for work in late January, when the wife and kids are getting nervous, your agent can't get his phone calls returned and the unemployment rate for fading baseball stars is significantly higher than the national average of 8.5 percent.
While Prince Fielder and Scott Boras hold clandestine meetings with MLB owners in pursuit of an elusive 10-year, nine-figure deal -- and Carlos Pena, Cody Ross, Juan Pierre and others wait in line behind him -- a lot of aging, accomplished players are hoping to avoid being forced into retirement because of lack of interest. They don't want to fall victim to the malady known as "Jermaine Dye syndrome.''
We've listed below nine 35-and-older position players with a combined 51 All-Star appearances and 28 Silver Slugger Awards and no jobs. Here are three reasons why they're still looking for work:
• The price (or perceived price)
"Some of these guys have made so much money in their careers, the $2 million-and-less contracts don't sound very appealing,'' an American League executive said. "They don't jump at those early, and the next thing you know, you have this population of guys 33 and older waiting for the music to stop. It's a supply and demand issue. When you have a lot of guys out there, the prices are going to get driven down.''
• Positional flexibility
The Red Sox (David Ortiz), White Sox (Adam Dunn) and Indians (Travis Hafner) are paying their designated hitters big money, but more teams are warming to the idea of using the DH on a rotating basis so that it can be an occasional rest stop for veterans.
The Yankees, for example, like to set aside some DH at-bats for Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter. It's possible Brian Cashman will go out and sign a veteran to fill the void left by the pending trade of Jesus Montero to Seattle. But the Yankees have the option of divvying up their DH at-bats among Andruw Jones, their cadre of veterans and Jorge Vazquez, a former Mexican Leaguer who hit 32 homers for Triple-A Scranton last year. It's their call.
• No better living through chemistry
This comes as no great surprise, but managers, coaches and MLB executives are skeptical that aging veterans can endure the rigors of a 162-game season in the midst of more stringent drug testing.
"Between the testing for amphetamines and human growth hormone and some of the other stuff, it's put a lot of older players in a tough position,'' one big league manager said. "A lot of people don't want to take a chance on the veteran guys anymore because they've been breaking down so much.''
So where could all these hitters land? The Indians, Rays, Orioles, Mariners, A's, Yankees and Red Sox are among the American League teams that could be looking for help at DH, first base or a corner outfield spot. In the aftermath of Victor Martinez's stunning, season-ending knee injury, you can add Detroit to that list as well.
In this Hot Stove edition of Starting 9, we touch base with some high-profile bats still hoping to land contracts between now and spring training. They've learned to be patient out of necessity.
Johnny Damon (career earnings: $110 million)
A lot of front-office people were surprised when the cost-conscious Rays spent $6 million to sign Luke Scott to play DH and/or first base. They had company in Damon, who called it an "unhappy day'' when Tampa Bay spurned him to go in a new direction.
"Didn't realize the DH and 1B brought the offense down,'' Damon said in a text to Rays beat writer Marc Topkin. "Thought we would've had an offer.''
Damon brought his usual effort and energy to Tampa Bay's wild-card run in 2011. He surpassed 140 games for the 16th straight season and ranked third among designated hitters (behind David Ortiz and Edwin Encarnacion) with 16 homers. But he made only 11 starts in left field, and he becomes more of a non-factor defensively each year.
"One thing Johnny has always done is play hard,'' a National League scout said. "He's a fiery son of a gun, he keeps himself in shape and he still runs better than most of us thought he would. If I were him, I'd grab a first-base mitt and take some ground balls there, just to do it. He's athletic enough, so why not?''
With 2,723 career hits, Damon has a personal incentive to squeeze out another season of full-time play and some part-time duty beyond that. He has only two career All-Star appearances and has never cracked the top 12 in MVP balloting, so it's hard to envision him garnering more Hall of Fame support than, say, Bernie Williams. But if Damon reaches 3,000 hits, he'll be in a very select club and make a major statement to the Hall electorate.
Damon is already traveling in some elite company. He passed Lou Gehrig on MLB's career hit list in September and will tie Roberto Alomar for 56th place with his 2,724th hit.
Vladimir Guerrero (career earnings: $125.5 million)
After hitting 29 homers and driving in 115 runs for the 2010 Rangers to win the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award, Guerrero showed the same decline in skills that prompted scouts to wonder if he was finished two or three years ago. Guerrero hit 13 homers in 590 at-bats with the 2011 Orioles, and that just won't cut it when you're exclusively a DH.
Guerrero's knees are bad, and the Orioles thought he was 15 pounds overweight last season. But Vlad's supporters in the game think he has another productive season or two left in him. Maybe that's not enough time to carry him from 449 career homers into the 500 club, but Guerrero just might be the type to disregard money, milestones and pride and accept a make-good offer simply because he wants to play.
"He has a huge heart,'' a major league manager said. "If I'm a betting man, he's going to get in better shape and sign a deal and help somebody. Everybody is quick to bury this guy. But because of his heart and how much he loves to play, I just can't imagine him saying, 'The heck with it. I'm done.'''
Pudge Rodriguez (career earnings: $122.5 million)
It's been an eventful winter for catching mainstays. The Red Sox signed Kelly Shoppach, apparently signaling the end of Jason Varitek's run with the organization. Jorge Posada is reportedly close to announcing his retirement after 15 seasons in the Bronx. And raise your hand if you've come across a decent Jason Kendall rumor lately.
Rodriguez, by all accounts, isn't ready to retire. He ranks second to Jeter among active players with 2,844 hits, and he has a strong desire to reach 3,000. Unless he gets dragged down by the same steroid speculation that helped scuttle the candidacy of former Texas teammate Juan Gonzalez, he's a surefire Hall of Famer.
Rodriguez can still gun down base stealers, and by all accounts the Washington pitchers enjoyed throwing to him during his two-year run with the Nationals. But those 2,349 career starts behind the plate have taken a physical toll, and Rodriguez has trouble staying healthy. He's strictly a singles hitter now, with a penchant for grounding into double plays.
Unless Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria gets all warm and fuzzy and decides to bring Rodriguez back to Florida for old time's sake, it's hard to find a fit for Pudge. The Nationals have moved in a different direction with Wilson Ramos and Jesus Flores. The Dodgers, Mets, Rays and Athletics are among the teams that could stand to upgrade their catching -- even with the addition of a backup -- but they've all taken a pass.
If Rodriguez is really driven to collect the 156 hits he needs to reach 3,000, chances are he won't be happy playing once or twice a week. And even if a team is interested in signing him as a backup, it won't be for anywhere near the $3 million he earned last season.
Derrek Lee (career earnings: $91.4 million)
After signing a one-year, $7.25 million deal with Baltimore, Lee struggled with the transition from the National League to the American. He logged a .706 OPS in 88 games, prompting the Orioles to send him to Pittsburgh in a July deadline trade. Lee caught a second wind in Pittsburgh and hit .337 with seven homers down the stretch but declined the Pirates' salary arbitration offer in December and became a free agent.
Lee, 36, isn't the Gold Glove defender he once was, but his ability to play a serviceable first base gives him an edge over several players on this list. The question is does he want even to play anymore? Lee hinted at retirement last season, and his dealings with clubs this winter haven't exactly dispelled the notion that he's on the fence about suiting up in 2012.
"If he wants to play, he'll be able to play,'' said an executive for a team that's inquired on Lee. "But it has to be the perfect situation and the perfect fit at the right dollars. Do you really want to have to convince a guy to get off his couch to come play for you?''
Raul Ibanez (career earnings: $59.7 million)
There were 42 outfielders on the free-agent market this offseason. Of that group, Ibanez ranked third in home runs last season (with 20) behind Josh Willingham and Carlos Beltran. He also topped 30 doubles for the 10th consecutive season.
But those surface power numbers came with some yellow caution flags. Ibanez hit 15 homers and slugged .516 at Citizens Bank Park, compared to five homers and a .317 slugging percentage on the road. His walk rate declined significantly, and that's never a good omen with aging players. Scouts generally take it as a sign that hitters have to "cheat'' and start the bat sooner because it's tougher for them to catch up with high-octane fastballs.
The Phillies plan to increase John Mayberry's at-bats in left field in 2012 and Ibanez wasn't ready for a drastically reduced role, so GM Ruben Amaro Jr. went out and signed Laynce Nix to a two-year, $2.5 million deal in December. Mayberry and Nix will fill the position while top prospect Domonic Brown adds some polish to his game in Triple-A.
Ibanez won the Good Guy Award in Philadelphia, and he's going to be a plus in any organization. He keeps himself in tremendous shape, and the people close to him say he's motivated to play. But he'll turn 40 in June, and at this point he is best served signing with an AL team for which he can mix in some DH at-bats.
Manny Ramirez (career earnings: $206.8 million)
After tarnishing his legacy and his Cooperstown chances with two failed drug tests and the usual hijinks, Ramirez is intent on salvaging his image and his career. During a sit-down with ESPN's Pedro Gomez last week, Ramirez pronounced himself ready to be a role model. He got misty during the interview, and was seen cavorting in a pool with senior citizens during an aquatic exercise program. It was just another case of Manny being well you know.
"I want to show people that Manny can change, that he can do the right thing,'' Ramirez said.
Manny might not be able to hit a 98 mph fastball anymore, but it's heartening to know he still has a flair for referring to himself in the third person. Keep in mind that Ramirez still has to serve a 50-game suspension before he can play in another big league game. It used to be that writers would jump through hoops concocting scenarios and whipping fans into a frenzy with the mere mention of Ramirez's name. Now Manny barely elicits a shrug.
Last week, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Ramirez would "not be a good fit'' in Chicago, and Indians general manager Chris Antonetti ruled out a Ramirez reunion because the Tribe already has a full-time DH in Hafner. And that was that.
Magglio Ordonez (career earnings: $133.4 million)
Ordonez, 38, faces a major challenge staying on the field. He's appeared in 176 of a possible 324 games with Detroit over the past two seasons. Fittingly enough, Ordonez's 2011 season ended when he drew a walk against Texas in the American League Championship Series then had to be lifted for a pinch runner because his surgically repaired ankle was throbbing.
Amid some positive offseason reports about Ordonez, potential suitors remain skeptical.
"It's easy to say, 'He feels good in his winter workouts,''' an AL scout said. "That's because he doesn't have to put the same stress on his foot that he does when he's playing.''
Even when Ordonez has been healthy, his skill set has gone south in recent years. He's a base clogger and a defensive liability in the outfield, and he produced a mere 15 extra-base hits in 329 at-bats last season, for a slugging percentage of .331.
Carlos Guillen, Ordonez's former Detroit teammate, is also available as a free agent this winter. Like Ordonez, he's a true professional with some sketchy medical reports. Guillen has appeared in 81, 68 and 28 games, respectively, over the past three seasons because of injuries.
Hideki Matsui (career earnings: $83.2 million in the U.S.)
The A's signed Matsui to a one-year, $4.25 million deal last year, and he couldn't even replicate Jack Cust's production at DH. Matsui was downright Godzilla-like in July, with an OPS of 1.009. But he failed to post an OPS above .680 in any of the other five months.
"He didn't seem to have much left in the way of bat speed,'' an American League scout said. "If he's going to find [a job], I think it has to be with a veteran team that's trying to contend. He might have to wait a month or two.''
The A's plan to give more at-bats to Chris Carter, Michael Taylor and recent acquisitions Collin Cowgill, Josh Reddick and Seth Smith, so Matsui's time in Oakland has come and gone. His name has already come up in speculation with the Yankees. But various reports have also mentioned Damon, Guerrero, Ibanez and Pena, to name a few. Can you say "buyer's market"?
Omar Vizquel (career earnings: $62.4 million)
Vizquel, still spry at 44, has 11 Gold Gloves and 2,841 career hits. Based on his output with the White Sox last season (42 hits in 58 games), he might have to become the Jamie Moyer of middle infielders to reach 3,000.
By all accounts, Vizquel enjoyed mentoring Elvis Andrus in Texas and Alexei Ramirez in Chicago, so he would be right at home tutoring a young shortstop and filling in as a utility infielder for a contender. Vizquel recently expressed some frustration on Twitter when opportunities failed to materialize in Cleveland, Boston and Miami -- three of his preferred destinations. The White Sox aren't interested in re-signing him, so Vizquel's agents, Adam Katz and Arn Tellem, have had to expand their search. But Katz made it clear that Vizquel still wants to play.
"Omar is committed to it,'' Katz said. "He's dedicated to it. He's going to play.''
Vizquel isn't the only aging middle infielder still looking for work. He's joined by Miguel Tejada, who was released by San Francisco in September.
A person close to Tejada said he's "working out like crazy, and he's in the best shape he's been in years.'' Tejada is also 37 years old, which means he might be in for a harrowing few weeks until pitchers and catchers report in February.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick
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