Stark: At the 2022 MLB Winter Meetings, it’s just like ‘old’ times for big-budget free agents

Stark: At the 2022 MLB Winter Meetings, it’s just like ‘old’ times for big-budget free agents

“Don’t trust anyone over 30.” -Famous quote from the ‘60s

SAN DIEGO – Wasn’t it the Coen brothers who wrote that fabled movie, “No Country for Old Men?” Well, obviously, the Coen brothers were not in attendance at these 2022 Winter Meetings.

Just when you thought that paying big bucks for old dudes was a thing you’d never see again in baseball, the dollars, the deals and the back-end years started flying this week. And next thing you knew, even those sabermetrically savvy Yankees were saying: “Aw, what the heck. Why not pay Aaron Judge 40 million at age 39.”

Let’s recap the biggest, sport-shaking deals of the last week or so. See if you see a trend here.

Xander Bogaerts – 11 years, $280 million (Padres). Last year of deal: age 40.

Aaron Judge – nine years, $360 million (Yankees). Last year of deal: age 39.

Trea Turner11 years, $300 million (Phillies). Last year of deal: age 40.

Justin Verlandertwo years, $86.6 million (Mets). Last year of deal: age 41.

Jacob deGromfive years, $185 million (Rangers). Last year of deal: age 39.

Willson Contrerasfive years, $87.5 million (Cardinals). Last year of deal: age 35.

Get the picture? It wasn’t just the size of those deals. It wasn’t just the length of those deals. The true shocker here was the ages of the players who raked in those deals. What a time to be alive – and in your 30s.

“It’s insanity,” grumbled an executive of one analytically inclined team. “It’s irrational people operating in an illogical market.”

But in baseball, the definition of “irrationality” is often: “What everybody else is doing.” So always factor that into any discussion of any baseball spending spree. Nevertheless, what happened at these Winter Meetings, and what’s gone down in this sport this month, is a fascinating development.

It goes against an onrushing trend line that had swept across baseball in recent years, the 30 is the New 50 trend. And that thinking wound up driving many veteran players right out of work. Meanwhile, it was turning others from well-compensated contributors to underappreciated “interchangeable parts,” who were just supposed to be grateful if they came away from free agency with a minor-league deal and an invitation to camp in Port St. Lucie.

So this week was definitely a dramatic departure from that. But it was also a week that shook Rob Manfred’s house just nine months after the end of a labor dispute so tense and contentious that it came way closer than you might think to shutting down the sport for months. So how did baseball go from impending fiscal disaster to this in less than a year?

“We’re living in a silly-season world,” said one longtime executive Wednesday. “I can’t believe we almost lost a season because of all the teams whining about the same old stuff – and now here we are, back to the same insanity.”

So what exactly was this Old Dudes Are Cool Again thing all about? Let’s see if we can make any sense of it whatsoever.

It’s hard to stay disciplined at times like this

“We’re not operating in a vacuum,” said an executive of one middle-market team Wednesday. “So when you’re sitting on the sidelines and watching deals go down, you have this fear that you’re going to miss out on all the premium players. And that’s a hard feeling to cope with.”

It’s especially hard for those middle-tier teams that may not be the Yankees or Dodgers – but aren’t exactly the Rays or Athletics, either. These are franchises that do spend. They just pick their spots – for the right player in the right time, in the right position, in the right stage of the window for winning. And those teams are simply being honest when they say it’s tough to stay disciplined when it feels like nobody else is staying disciplined.

“We talk about this all the time,” the same exec said. “Are we hunting good deals? Or are we hunting good players? The whole idea is to hunt good players. There’s a cost to that. And we don’t always get to control that cost.”

Depending on how you view the Rangers, only one other team from outside the monster-market tier has plunged into this spend-a-thon and added a star on the other side of 30. And that, naturally, is those star-chasing Padres. But at this point, it feels as if they’ve nudged themselves into a tier all their own. Doesn’t it?

On one hand, they play in the fifth-smallest media market in baseball. On the other hand, they now have three players with contracts of at least $280 million (Bogaerts, Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr.), plus Juan Soto. So they seem to have at least convinced themselves that they’re one of the behemoths, even while other teams keep asking: Where are the Padres getting all this money from?

So let’s just put them aside and wonder where this all goes from here. It’ll be interesting to see if other smallish-market teams now follow the Padres’ lead and get caught up in the frenzy of the moment. But an exec who has worked mostly for small-market teams shot down that idea quickly. Asked if he could see any clubs from his payroll tier diving into this pool, he immediately shook his head.

“No,” he said emphatically. “It’s all about the margin for error that the larger markets have and the small markets just don’t have it. That margin for error just does not exist in the small markets. And it’s a very small margin in the mid-markets.

“So when that player that’s being paid, 10 years from now, as a $30-million player but he’s performing as a $10-million player, that’s crushing to a small market. But in a major market, they just put it in the corner and move on.”

But do even small-market shoppers find it hard to stay disciplined when teams they’re competing against are handing out deals that don’t fit their view of what’s “logical?” Again, the same small-market exec shook his head. They can’t afford to lose that sense of discipline, he said.

“You watch the larger markets sign the premium free agents, and you’re working on a different list,” he said. “You’re trying to squeeze every ounce of value out of the fridge, and you’re not playing in the middle of the field. You’re playing on the edge of the field.

“It comes back to the fact that your margin for error is miniscule. So mostly, the small markets just watch these meetings from the sidelines. Occasionally, you find the right trade. Occasionally, you find the right player and the right fit. But more often than not, for the small markets at the Winter Meetings, it’s not your turn. It’s not your pool. It’s not your fish. And it’s not your net.”

Take a look at that Winter Meetings transactions rundown and you’ll see how right he is. It may have been a week of fiscal “insanity.” But almost all of that insanity was generated by teams that can afford it, no matter how messy these deals may turn out on the back end.

Or maybe ‘aging’ isn’t what it used to be, either

You don’t need to know the life story of Tom Brady – or Jennifer Aniston – to know that not everyone ages the same. So despite all those studies about how the average baseball player ages, isn’t it possible that all the ongoing progress in sport science can help players – and particularly star players – age more gracefully than they used to?

Let’s start by paying attention to the sage thoughts of Dan O’Dowd, the longtime Rockies GM and current MLB Network analyst, who also happens to be one of the smartest and most insightful people I know.

“Listen, I’m not saying that it’s not a risk anymore to give a guy a long-term deal in his mid-to-late 30s,” O’Dowd said. “But I think the game is changing. So I think age-regression models are dramatically different in today’s game than they were in previous generations.”

So how can that be? It starts with all the high-performance departments teams are now funding and empowering, to maximize players’ health and longevity in every way imaginable. And increasingly, he said, players themselves are “taking some of the personal wealth they get from these contracts and they’re pouring them into a lifestyle that will allow them to sustain health.”

But also, remember, we’re just in the beginning stages of these sorts of innovations and the science that is making them possible. Every cutting-edge team is buying into that science, literally. So in five years, 10 years, 20 years, who knows what that might mean?

“I think it’s crucial,” O’Dowd said, “because of the biomechanics in our game and the way they’re being studied. I think certain types of movement patterns are going to be rewarded, versus other movement patterns. Guys that are rotationally stiff – that’s a red flag. But for certain guys like Trea Turner, whose bodies move exceptionally well – it’s less of a red flag.

“And clubs are going to be spending so much time and energy on this. So the models that have been talked about, that show you don’t get Player X past a certain age – in my humble opinion, those models are outdated, because the game has evolved from when those models have been developed.”

Let me assure you, he’s far from alone in how he sees that. You know who else sees it? A guy who just dropped $387 million on three free agents this week – Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski.

I asked him Wednesday if the wave of signings this week defy the recent conventional wisdom that it’s a bad idea to invest significant money in players with contracts that take them deep into their 30s or beyond. Without commenting specifically on any of his own deals, Dombrowski pushed back forcefully.

“That is generally the philosophy, right,” he said. “But you also have seen that some guys have continued to perform well. You look at a Verlander, and you get some reassurance there. But the other thing I think you have to look at is, we’ve also improved our conditioning, our nutrition, our integration of all that. So there’s a lot of things that lead you to believe that the top, most talented players can continue to play longer in their careers.”

And the best example of that, he said, was not even the best baseball players in the world.

“Look at the top tennis players and how much older they are now than they used to be,” Dombrowski said. “So there’s a reason. There’s a reason why that’s happening. … Those players never used to last until they were 40 years old. But they’re finely tuned athletes that train well, that commit to doing it. And again, I’m not saying that it happens with everybody. But when you have elite athletes, they’re a little bit different than the average athlete.”

That has always been true of certain, special players, Dombrowski believes. Henry Aaron is one Dombrowski has cited a lot, for many years. Randy Johnson is another. Derek Jeter is on that list. Later, after our conversation had ended, he shouted one more name across the room: “Ichiro!” he added, with a forceful point of his index finger.

Trea Turner (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

And those players all came before the era of high-performance departments, which his team is now providing with a major investment in dollars and brainpower – in part to help players like Turner and Bryce Harper keep producing deep into their 30s.

“That’s exactly right,” Dombrowski said. “That’s what hopefully will happen. If you’re on top of it and you do enough work, you can hopefully give yourself as good a chance as possible.”

But when I laid out this line of thinking to the small-market exec quoted above, and asked if the view of aging has evolved in the world of teams like his, he pushed back, as many teams still do.

“It’s a great question,” he said. “But I am not aware of any research that’s changed with respect to what players project to be in their late 30s. We are more aware of nutrition. We are more aware of recovery. We are more aware of so many things that we can help players age more slowly or more gracefully.

“But 38 is still 38,” he pronounced. “And 40 is still 40. And I don’t think we’ve found a way for skills not to decline. We can slow the decline, but I don’t think we’ve found a way to stop the decline.”

So are old dudes now cool or not? Is the science working or not? Are the Bogaerts/Judge/Turner deals guaranteed to be disasters by the year 2030 – or is the world of aging in sports about to transform itself in ways we hadn’t comprehended until this week?

Oh, some things have changed, said one longtime executive. But here’s what hasn’t changed: If you hand out the kind of contracts these teams doled out this week, it’ll be really helpful if there’s champagne and ticker tape coming on the front end. Or else the heat is coming on the back end.

“There’s an old quote I remember from Kevin Malone (the former Dodgers GM) after he signed Kevin Brown,” that longtime exec said. “He said, `If this deal goes well, it’ll be a good contract for me….And if this deal goes bad, it’ll be a bad contract for someone else.”

(Top photo: Elsa/Getty Images)

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