Commentary

Players tend to produce less as they enter mid-to-late 30s

Originally Published: November 15, 2007
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

It took less than an hour after the Red Sox won the World Series for the fan base to issue its primary offseason objective to the front office.

Standing on the infield of Coors Field, readying for a live interview with a Boston TV station, general manager Theo Epstein heard the words, loud and clear.

[+] EnlargeMike Lowell
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesMike Lowell followed a superlative regular season -- career highs in batting average (.324) and RBIs (120) -- with an outstanding October.
"Re-sign Lowell! Re-sign Lowell!" chanted the masses who had traveled from Boston to Denver.

(In case Red Sox management was mulling a more costly Plan B, the fans made their opinion known on that, too, adding as a subtext: "Don't Sign A-Rod!")

Fan sentiment, however, won't determine the Red Sox's course of action. Yes, the team would like to retain Lowell. What's not to like about someone who provides Gold Glove-caliber defense at third, a valuable power bat behind the tandem of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, and serves as a critical clubhouse link between the team's Latin and Anglo players?

But there's a limit to the Red Sox's devotion. Fearful that they may be paying premium money for declining performance -- Lowell turns 38 in 2011 -- the Sox have, to date, resisted going beyond a three-year commitment for Lowell, valued at $40 million.

It's the same tack the Red Sox took with Pedro Martinez following their first title in 2004, and the same approach they took with Johnny Damon a year later. Both times, the Red Sox held their ground; both times, the players left town.

History has helped validate -- at least somewhat -- the Red Sox's decision-making, unpopular as it was at the time.

The Sox were convinced that, given Martinez's history of shoulder issues, he would not hold up for the life of a four-year deal. Indeed, it was with some reluctance -- and at the insistence of team president and CEO Larry Lucchino, who feared a fan backlash over the potential loss of the charismatic Martinez -- that the Sox committed to a third year.

Three years later, Martinez has made just 59 starts for the New York Mets and averaged nine wins per season. He underwent rotator cuff surgery in October of 2006 and missed all but the final month of the 2007 season.

Damon's career has also begun a downturn. This past season, a variety of injuries limited him to just 141 games, the lowest total of his 13-year major league career. By his own admission, Damon can't play center field on a regular basis anymore. The Yankees envision him as their everyday left fielder for 2008.

Coming off a .270-12-63 campaign and due another $28 million for the next two seasons, Damon must be considered overpriced.

Lowell doesn't have the physical wear and tear that Martinez and Damon had at similar stages of their careers. Martinez had documented fraying in the labrum, while Damon's reckless and gutsy playing style had resulted in some chronic shoulder issues of his own. Since going to New York, he's developed a painful foot condition that has further reduced his speed and limited his effectiveness.

But studies by the Red Sox's baseball operations staff have shown that players are at risk for a drop-off in production as they enter their mid-to-late 30s.

The lone exception the Sox were willing to make in this regard came in their decision to grant Jason Varitek a four-year deal after 2004 despite the lack of another bidding team. Varitek, who turned 33 shortly after the start of the 2005 season, was deemed invaluable for his handling of the pitching staff. The general paucity of front-line catchers entered into the equation, too.

Should the Sox lose Lowell, who turns 34 in February, to free agency, they lack an obvious in-house replacement. Although their inventory of minor league prospects has been greatly upgraded by the last three drafts, the Sox don't have a third baseman anywhere near ready to play at the big league level.

Their most likely fallback position would be to switch Kevin Youkilis back to third, his original position, and deal for a first baseman. The thinking: It's easier to find a first baseman than a third baseman.

But such a move would reduce the Sox defensively at two positions in the infield. Youkilis worked to make himself the Gold Glove winner at first this past season, a level he's unlikely to attain at third. Either way, he won't provide the range at third that Lowell did. And none of the potential trade targets at first (Conor Jackson, Dan Johnson) would be the equal of Youkilis at first.

The Red Sox remain resolute. Better to take a short-term hit in 2008, they believe, than to commit to a deal which will hamper them down the road.

There are other risks involved. Losing Lowell would leave a gaping hole in the fifth spot in the order. Lowell offered more than protection for the dynamic duo last season. When Ortiz battled infirmities and didn't get untracked until the final two months and Ramirez, by his own admission, never clicked at the plate until October, Lowell carried the team for much of the season, leading Boston in RBIs.

Still, the Red Sox remain resolute. Better to take a short-term hit in 2008, they believe, than to commit to a deal which will hamper them down the road. They need only look to Baltimore (Miguel Tejada, Melvin Mora), and yes, the Yankees (Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina) to find teams who fell in love with aging players -- only to see them become expensive anchors, weighing down the payroll and limiting flexibility.

The core of the Sox remains under the organization's control for years to come, and the player development system continues to yield young, inexpensive help (Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz).

And if the Sox have to take a temporary step back in order to reload again? Well, that's been done before, too.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.

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