WASHINGTON -- Veteran value has been visible in this World Series. The whole world has watched a 35-year-old Ryan Zimmerman take the previously impenetrable Gerrit Cole deep and a 36-year-old Kurt Suzuki cut down a runner on the basepaths before smacking a go-ahead dinger for a Nationals team that has taken a 2-0 lead in a Fall Classic that continues Friday night at Nationals Park.
But the Series, while undeniably important, is but one small segment of the seven-month schedule, and it is replete -- as all postseason series are -- with extra days off that let “Los Viejos” (as the Nats lovingly refer to “the old guys” in their clubhouse) rest their aching bones and bodies more than usual.
“I've got energy now,” Suzuki joked after the Game 2 triumph. “This is the last series of the season now, no matter what. We're playing for it now.”
It would be best, therefore, not to draw any big, brash conclusions about veteran value just from these games. While it is interesting that the Majors’ oldest roster by average age (30.2 years) has put the Nats within two games of the franchise’s first title, and it is trivia-tastic that this is the first World Series since 2001 (D-backs vs. Yankees) to feature the oldest roster from both the NL and AL, October is its own animal. Always.
But what if we look beyond the small sample that is this World Series and focus more on the gory glory that is the 162-game grind? How does that look for MLB’s viejos?
Well, per ESPN’s roster analysis, this is where the 10 postseason teams ranked in terms of average age this season:
1) Nationals, 30.2
2) Braves, 29.8
3) Astros, 29.7
4) Yankees, 29.6
5) Dodgers, 29.0
6) Cubs, 28.8
7) Cardinals, 28.8
8) Brewers, 28.6
9) Mets, 28.4
10) Giants, 28.1
11) Red Sox, 28.1
12) Rays, 28.0
13) A’s, 27.9
14) Twins, 27.8
15) Angels, 27.5
If you’re scoring at home, the only teams that finished above .500 that aren’t on that list are the Indians (who ranked 16th) and the D-backs (who ranked 22nd).
But those are averages, not medians, and they are not weighted by a metric like Wins Above Replacement that demonstrates where much of the premium value was. The Nationals might be “old,” but one of their best -- if not their best -- players is Juan Soto, who turns 21 on Friday and is the second-youngest player in the Majors.
Really, the list shouldn’t be a surprise. The teams that are in their competitive window are more likely to add finishing pieces who have been around the block. The clubs that aren’t making an earnest competitive effort are more likely to play their kids and give them the opportunity to grow.
But with all of those necessary caveats established, you’d better believe many people in the game are relishing in the victories of “Los Viejos” almost as much as the Nats are.
“One hundred percent,” Nats 32-year-old reserve infielder Brian Dozier said. “I can guarantee you that, because I know a bunch of them.”
It’s hard to imagine, even in a copycat industry like baseball, that teams are going to build their offseason plans around the goal of ranking first on the age list in 2020. And while controllable stud stars at their athletic peak are where a roster’s bread is buttered in the modern game, the Nats have spent the last five months demonstrating that veteran players with some life left in their bats and arms, and good advice to impart in the clubhouse can still prove worthy of investment.
Last winter, the Nationals’ big-ticket investment was starter Patrick Corbin. But their unusually busy winter also included the signing of five players 32 or over -- Game 3 starter Aníbal Sánchez, Dozier, Suzuki, Jeremy Hellickson and Tony Sipp. The total 2019 commitment to those five players was $21.5 million. The club continued to go down the old road as the season evolved, adding 42-year-old reliever Fernando Rodney (baseball’s oldest roster needed baseball’s oldest player), 32-year-old infielder Asdrúbal Cabrera, 32-year-old utilityman Gerardo Parra (whose “Baby Shark” walk-up song is an ironic anthem for this squad) and 32-year-old setup man Daniel Hudson.
When industry-wide evaluations of players start to look alike (as a byproduct of WAR-like evaluations guiding decisions), it is only natural that some subset of players will be undervalued.
The Nats found undervalued assets in their viejos, and it applied both in the regular season and postseason. The proof is in the pennant.
“As opposed to bringing up a kid from Triple-A, they’re relying on guys who know how to play the game,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “You see a lot of teams going to a bench of guys they’re paying the minimum. The better teams are getting veteran guys for those spots. Like a [Howie] Kendrick. The Nationals didn’t know he was going to be a regular when they signed him. Or Dozier. Or Cabrera.”
The Astros’ roster age is a product of the maturation of their core, combined with a go-for-the-throat mentality in the trade market. Ultimately, not many clubs can afford to go all-in on a mid-30s Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke within two years of each other, so it’s not as if theirs is a practice that can be held up as a model for all.
Ultimately, it’s the margins of the roster where the weighing of experience vs. upside is a difficult exercise, and it’s worth wondering if clubs side with the latter too often. While stifling the opportunities of a young player with measurable, applicable skill sets out of deference to a viejo on his last breath is malpractice, speeding up development timetables at the Minor League level and creating consistent errors in execution at the big-league level is dicey, too.
Not every kid is Soto, after all.
The game will expand to 26-man rosters in 2020, and perhaps that will create some more opportunities for the viejos of the baseball world. Given the success the Nats have enjoyed going all the way back to May 24, their approach to roster-construction is not to be ignored.
“If people want proof that guys over 30 can play,” said Dozier, “this is the perfect example of that.”