Players begin to decline due to age and/or a loss of physical ability, including hand-eye coordination, brain quickness, strength, movement and flexibility. In most cases, the brain power remains the same, the mental toughness is still there, and the winning attitude is as strong as ever. Unfortunately, when the physical capabilities diminish, so do the player’s talents.
There is no set age when the decline occurs. For some players, it can be age 31, while for others it could be 35 or even 40 and older. However, it’s part of the game, and it happens to every player at some point in his career. When a player begins to decline, the GM and the field manager have to make difficult decisions. Sometimes, it’s an initial position change. Other times, it results in a reduced role on the team, moving a player from a starting role to a platoon role to a bench role and then, inevitably, to their unconditional release, unless the player realizes he is declining and retires before you have to make that decision.
Players deal with this stage of their career in three different ways:
1. Denial -- These players don’t believe their ability has digressed even with overwhelming statistical and scouting data as well as fans and media observing and evaluating their decline in performance. They tend to blame everyone around them and don’t take responsibility or recognition of the truth.
2. Acceptance -- These players accept and understand that they can’t do what they used to do and agree to lesser roles, including but not limited to a platoon role or even a job on the bench as a pinch-hitter. They want their careers to continue as long as possible. When it’s over, they’ll step away and understand it.
3. Comeback -- If they haven’t been preparing or working as hard as possible over the previous few years, they will be obsessed with a comeback. They will change their way of life in terms of eating, drinking, working out, hitting in the cages, playing winter ball, spiritual healing, heeding the advice of wise leaders, and they will legitimately give everything they have to make it back. Some do. Some don’t.
One of the most difficult responsibilities as a major league general manager is dealing with an All-Star player who starts to decline. That's when the sleepless nights begin. In 2003, Barry Larkin had been my shortstop every year during my tenure as GM. He was the Gold Glove winner, Silver Slugger, MVP, and team captain in addition to being the face of the franchise, the player you turned to in times of need, the one who called the team meetings, and the one who helped you recruit other free agents. No other player wore No. 11 but Larkin during my 14 years in Cincinnati. He represented everything positive about the Reds. Give me 25 Barry Larkins, and I'll show you a World Series ring every year.
After 2000, we started seeing some decline in Barry's abilities. He never hit .300 again after that season. Barry never had an OBP over .350 after 2001. He never stole more than eight bases after 2002. He never scored 50 runs or more after the 1999 season. The 12-time All-Star made it to the Midsummer Classic only once after the year 2000.
Barry had a difficult year in 2003. Besides the sliding offensive numbers, his range to both sides was diminishing. Balls up the middle that used to be caught became base hits, and balls hit right at him were dropped at times and sometimes he would fall down. He could still make the occasional special play, but he wasn’t the same Gold Glove shortstop. My read on Barry was that he was in denial. My manager and coaches read on me was that I was in denial. But they weren’t in denial. They were ready for Barry to make a position change, brainstorming that we should ask him to move to center or left field. They were concerned that it would be tough for us to win if we didn’t address his diminishing range up the middle. My heart got in the way. I took the position that Barry Larkin at 80 percent was better than the alternative at 100 percent. I was relieved of my duties in July of 2003, and the issue of addressing Barry Larkin's decline would fall on the next general manager.
After moving on to ESPN, I accepted a job to run the Washington Nationals for Commissioner Selig and Bob DuPuy. I brought Barry Larkin with me, first giving him a shot to comeback as a player, but later signing him as a special assistant to the GM. I love Barry Larkin. He’s a winner, an MVP, a future Hall of Famer. The one and only benefit I got from leaving the Reds prematurely was that I didn’t have to be the one to ask Barry Larkin to change positions or retire, and it was just a few years away of happening.
The following six former All-Star players are in decline this year: Derrek Lee, Hideki Matsui, Magglio Ordonez, Jorge Posada, Raul Ibanez and Javier Vazquez. The numbers are all down, and the hand-eye coordination is not quite the same. Some are learning new leagues, some are learning new positions, and some are holding on for dear life. However, clearly, the end is soon for some of them, maybe even all six. Here is a statistical breakdown of the players about whom their teams should be the most concerned: