Older free agents offer risks, rewards

Older free agents offer risks, rewards

Outfielder Manny Ramirez turns 37 in May, but agent Scott Boras still wants a four-year contract, comparing the enigmatic slugger at this stage of his career to Barry Bonds.

John Smoltz turns 42 in May, but his agents are passing out videos of him throwing, hoping to get somebody to bite on his services. The Brewers, Red Sox and Tigers are all at least intrigued.

Randy Johnson? He turned 45 in September, but he still wants to pitch. He is five wins short of 300, and there are several teams intrigued by the possibility of him achieving that milestone in their uniform. The Rangers like the idea of Johnson being a mentor to their young pitchers.

So far, the big paydays in the free-agent market have gone to players in their perceived prime: CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Francisco Rodriguez. Mark Teixeira is next and could earn $20 million per year right now by saying yes to any one of several offers.

But as this offseason plays out, teams looking for creative ways to improve their fortunes may turn to a large group of elder statesman who are still interested in playing.

Use 37 as the minimum age, since that's where Ramirez is headed. If you don't mind Chris Gomez as your third baseman, then you would still have a tremendous team -- 10 years ago. Try this: Ivan Rodriguez at catcher, Jason Giambi at first base, Jeff Kent at second base, Omar Vizquel at short, Gomez at third (unless Nomar Garciaparra gets a two-year age exemption) and an outfield of Moises Alou, Jim Edmonds and Ken Griffey Jr. Designated hitter? Luis Gonzalez.

Rotation? Get serious. You have five Cy Young Award winners if you can convince Greg Maddux not to retire. He would join Johnson, Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez. Closer? Trevor Hoffman of course.

The question is how many teams are willing to take a chance on a future Hall of Famer in the twilight of his career. They may not be looking at the same contract as Sabathia, but Hall of Famers don't work for minimum salaries either.

"It comes down to the individual and what his attitude is about conditioning," Rangers president Nolan Ryan said. "To me, if you're going to make any kind of commitment on a player, you really have to know and understand his makeup."

Hot Stove
That goes for players who aren't in the twilight of their careers, but could be once they get to the back end of their current contract. Burnett will be 36 and Sabathia will be 35 when their new contracts run out. Derek Lowe is 35 right now and is expected to get a three or four-year contract from someone soon.

"If you sign someone for a year, two years, five years, even guys within your rotation now, your biggest concern is keeping them on the field," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "And we had issues doing that last year, and it hurt us. When you look at a guy's track record of injuries, there is some concern if they have had a fairly large track record. But there's no guarantee if they have not been hurt that they are not going to get hurt."

Clubs do have some concerns about injuries. Otherwise Ben Sheets would be at the head of the free-agent class. But these big contracts do take a leap of faith that the player will hold up through the life of the deal.

"I think players today play longer," Maddux said. "I think they are able to pitch when they are a little bit older now, just because they take care of themselves better."

The risk vs. reward has highs and lows. Still want to use 37 as the cutoff point?

Johnson has pitched seven seasons since turning 37, and his average record is 16-9 with a 3.35 ERA and 250 strikeouts in 220 innings. He also had two major back surgeries.

Glavine was 61-56 with a 3.97 ERA in five seasons (including 15 wins in 2006) after turning 37 and then broke down this past season. He was limited to 13 starts because of a hamstring injury and torn flexor tendon, ending up on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

Jamie Moyer has notched 128 of his 246 career victories since turning 37, including 16 for the Phillies in 2008. Mike Mussina, who just turned 40 last week, won 20 games in 2008 for the first time in his career, then retired. Curt Schilling won 21 games in '04 after turning 37 but has been plagued by shoulder problems since then. He faces an uncertain future.

Then there is Kevin Brown. He was 33 when he agreed to a seven-year, $105 million contract with the Dodgers in November 1998. It was the first $100 million contract in baseball history. Brown won 18 games in 1999 and led the National League in ERA in 2000.

A series of injuries then plagued him over the final five years of the contract. He won just 41 games over five seasons, while going on the disabled list 10 different times. He spent the last two seasons of the contract with the Yankees, then literally disappeared from the game after getting clobbered in Game 7 of the 2004 American League Championship Series.

Position players are not immune to the highs and lows of advanced age. Boras compares Ramirez to Bonds, who was 37 on the night he broke Mark McGwire's single-season home run record. That was in 2001, when he won the first of four straight MVP Awards. He then missed almost all of 2005 because of knee surgery.

But Griffey, who just turned 39, hasn't aged as successfully. He has struggled to maintain his productivity over the past eight seasons, a stretch in which he averaged just 105 games and 370 at-bats per season along with 21 home runs and 63 RBIs.

Frank Thomas was 37 when he was cast aside by the White Sox after the 2005 season. The best he could do was a one-year deal with the Athletics, but he came back strong, hitting .270 with 39 home runs and 114 RBIs. The Blue Jays gave him a two-year deal and he led them with 26 home runs and 95 RBIs in 2007. But he started off terribly in 2008 and was released before the first month was over.

Gary Sheffield hit .291 with 34 home runs and 123 RBIs at age 36 for the Yankees in 2005. But over the past three seasons, he has hit a combined 57 home runs and driven in 157 RBIs while dealing with wrist, shoulder and rib injuries. His .225 batting average, .326 on-base percentage and .400 slugging percentage in 114 games for the Tigers in '08 were his lowest since '01.

Comparing Ramirez to Bonds is best-case scenario. There are other scenarios that may not be as pleasant for somebody thinking about signing a $20 million check.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.