2009 will celebrate the young player

January, 3, 2009
During the 2008 ALCS, a Red Sox player said, "I've had to use a cup five times in the last three weeks. Drug-tested five times in three weeks -- imagine if I had hit anything! I know the system is random, I know they're serious, I'm actually glad they're doing it. But I'm the wrong guy to be tested."

He laughed, but in baseball's post-Canseco, post-BALCO, post-Mitchell world, the game is different. The game cannot escape its past, not as long as Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds remain media fixations 16 months since their last games, not as long as the Hall of Fame ballot remains a moral issue. We all know that chemists get paid to create better stuff than testing chemists can detect, but the game is different. Back in May 2005, Theo Epstein told his scouting folks, "The game is going to change, and we'd better be prepared for it." Two of the players drafted weeks later, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie, were key elements in a Boston team that won 95 games in 2008.

You could put Jimmy Rollins on Dustin Pedroia's shoulders and they might not be taller than British actor Neil Fingleton, and they have won MVP awards the past two years. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there were 2.01 home runs hit per game in 2008, down 9.4 percent since 2006 and the lowest number since 1993. Miguel Cabrera led the American League with 37 homers; the last time the AL home run leader hit less than 40 was 1989, and that includes the strike-shortened 1994 season, when Junior Griffey led the AL with 40 homers and Matt Williams the NL with 43.

An increasing number of teams now seriously study defensive data in their evaluations. The fact that Tampa Bay went from the worst defensive team in defensive efficiency to one of the American League's two best makes the Rays a model for other clubs, like the Marlins, who know that with their offense and brilliant young pitchers, a measurably improved defense will add to their win total and could make them legitimate contenders in the NL East alongside the Phillies and Mets.

While speed isn't used as much for stolen bases these days, it has renewed importance on defense and baserunning. Anyone who has ever been to Maury Wills' leadoff hitter/bunting/baserunning academy at what once was Dodgertown can appreciate where the next level of teaching may go.

In this post-amphetamine, post-HGH, post-steroids, post-whatever era, 35 is the new 40, or, as Hall of Famer Jim Bunning said in the congressional hearings three years ago, "When I played, when you turned 35, you were old." And it may be that way again, no matter how much better the nutrition and the training, or how many more players are devotees of Athletes Performance Institute and its ilk.

Dave Studenmund has a great piece in this year's Hardball Times Annual about how the game is getting younger. Studenmund points out that the decline in average age between 2007 and 2008 was the largest in major league history and that 24 of the 30 teams got younger between 2007 and 2008. The Twins were the youngest team in the major leagues at 25.5, and won 88 games -- one fewer than the New York Mets -- without the great Johan Santana.

Tampa Bay is testament to the power of youth. The Angels led the majors in wins (100) last season with a constant influx of young players mixed in with Vladimir Guerrero, et al. Boston won 95 games with its best pitcher (Jon Lester), closer (Jonathan Papelbon) and middle-of-the-field players (Pedroia, Lowrie, Ellsbury) all recent products of their farm system.

The best pitcher in the world in October, Cole Hamels, was 24 when he won the World Series MVP; the Dodgers had a half-dozen young stars (and Clayton Kershaw isn't far from being the next Hamels); the Mets' foundation of David Wright and Jose Reyes played the 2008 season at 25; Geovany Soto wasn't just the rookie of the year, he changed the Cubs; and Tim Lincecum just looks like he's 18.

So in 2009, we focus not on the names and the celebrity value of additions to clubs, but what Jay Bruce, Ian Stewart, Dexter Fowler, David Price, Cameron Maybin, Max Scherzer, Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, Gordon Beckham, Adam Lind, Justin Upton, Tommy Hanson and other extraordinary young players will do for their teams. Ask the Phillies and Mets about Florida's Josh Johnson (24) and Ricky Nolasco (26). The Marlins had nearly the best 1-2 punch in the NL East down the stretch in 2008, so where does that take them this season?

This season is also the first since the most recent major recession struck the world. Sure, the Yankees could afford $423 million for three players, with a market in which two teams each drew 4 million fans, a management that had tons of money coming off the books and substantial government aid in the building of its Taj Mahal stadium. But January has arrived and there are dozens of good players whispering collusion, and while clubs likely do have an information bank, the economic reality is that the roaring inflationary days of summer may be tempered. From Bernie Madoff to Arizona land prices, several owners have been affected, and in cities like Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Houston and Miami (where the average cost of a home is down 30 percent), entertainment dollars are going to be harder to excuse for a while.

As Major League Baseball has gone from a $1.3 billion to $7 billion industry in a dozen years, attending a baseball game is a luxury item. The cost of living index showed that attending a game at Fenway Park for a family of four -- grandstand seats, a few concessions items -- was $250, and that didn't account for the $30 to $50 it costs to park within a 20-minute walk of the self-proclaimed "most beloved ballpark."

As schools, fire, police and human and social services are slashed, how can taxpayers abide by politicians pumping subsidies into entertainment entities owned by billionaires so they can afford millionaire players? Can a state legislature justify financing a new stadium in lieu of rusted infrastructure that inevitably will cause some tragic bridge collapse? It's going to be increasingly difficult to get stadium financing in the near future, with good reason.

Attendance in 2008 was down, albeit slightly, but even with the expected bumps at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, MLB knows it will be hard to keep attendance at the 2007 level, and that's before addressing corporate box write-offs and those $2,500 tickets behind home plate. Some big-market general managers who have been restrained this fall believe that come June, there will be several big-ticket players available because their owners want out of the contracts.

There are small-market executives who weep that the Yankees' spending is the beginning of a new era in which championships can be bought, as if the good old days from World War II to the 1960s didn't see power concentrated in New York and teams in St. Louis and Kansas City as virtual 4A realities. The Yankees are going to be really good, but as Joe Posnanski points out, for all the talk of a salary cap, only twice in the past 30 years has a team won the World Series with a $100 million payroll: the 2004 and 2007 Red Sox.

In those 30 years, 20 different teams have won World Series titles, and it would likely be 21 without the 1994 strike that cost the sport's best team -- the Montreal Expos -- a chance to win it all. In those 30 years, 14 different teams have won the Super Bowl, 13 have won the Stanley Cup, nine have won the NBA championship.

So the end hasn't come. But as Sam Cooke reminds us, a change is going to come.

• Give Andruw Jones credit. He went to the Dodgers and asked out, so Scott Boras, knowing that Jones needs a good year to re-enter the market next winter, is working on the rewriting of his contract. Memo to Frank McCourt: Don't finance the deferral with Madoff.

• During the GM meetings in Dana Point, Calif., in November, Cubs GM Jim Hendry drove to L.A. and dined with Milton Bradley. Since then, Bradley has been an inevitability for the Cubs, who need his left-handed bat in their righty-heavy lineup, and his fire, passion and productivity (Bradley led the AL in OPS in 2008). Hendry still wants another starting pitcher and hasn't given up on Jake Peavy, but that may be an ownership issue.

• Ten days after the GM meetings, Epstein called Marlins GM Larry Beinfest and asked him if he were interested in trading Hanley Ramirez for a package including Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz. "No," replied Beinfest. End of discussion. "The entire conversation," says one club official, "lasted all of 20 seconds, a week before Thanksgiving."

• Our listening tastes keep evolving. Buddy Guy's "Skin Deep" was my favorite release of 2008; hopefully he'll perform the title song before the inauguration, as he did on David Letterman (try YouTube). Our cars have brought us the wonder of satellite radio, which gives us Little Steven's Underground Garage, and for those who listen to sports, ESPN radio, Bill King on Rivals Radio and Mad Dog Radio within four clicks on the dashboard. Now, since Morning Joe has become the single most important television destination -- until Willie Geist is given his own show, Comedy Channel or no Comedy Channel -- can we please have that in radio format?



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