For the Chicago Cubs, age is a tale of two stories: Youthfulness and all the young positional players paired with aging veterans and elder pitching staff. This formula of roster construction proved successful in 2016, but will it continue as a trend around the league?
Age is a number that references a point of time in one’s life. For the most part, that spectrum of time generally spans between 0 and 100 years old. Looking at just age alone, someone in their 30s is usually considered younger, but not youthful by any means. Yes, being 30-years-old does feel old at times (imagine that), but I’ll admit, in the grand spectrum of time, it’s almost like we’re just getting started.
Unless, of course, you’re in Major League Baseball, where the number of 30-something-year-olds has dropped steadily within the past decade. This week in The Athletic, Jayson Stark took a fascinating deeper dive into the one stat that is guaranteed to rise year-to-year, that being age. Stark’s findings bring several interesting nuggets to life, including one pretty obvious one: Players 35-years-old and over hardly exist in today’s game. In 2005, 82 players played 50 or more games at 35-years-old or older. That number has dropped dramatically since then, in 2018 only seeing 36.
Stark goes onto say that by surveying a handful of MLB front office executives, there seems to be a general consensus as to why teams are getting younger; Advanced data in real-time, analytics, and speed of play.
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Stark also cites rumblings from execs that say some veterans are in “denial” of their performance (a.k.a. what the analytics are showing them) – More to come on this topic shortly.
"“So when you tell me that the average age, the average performance, is supposed to happen this way,” said 35-year-old Cubs pitcher Cole Hamels. “I don’t associate myself with being in that category. And I think you could probably ask somebody like [Justin] Verlander the same question. And I don’t think he puts himself in that category.“Yes, I understand there’s a mathematical average,” Hamels said. “But there’s a lot that makes you average. And I don’t think I’ve ever put in the same amount of time as an average person when it came to this sport. I’ve always tried to go above and beyond. So I feel like that should decategorize me and what I can actually do.”"
Let’s face it, today’s game is faster, and the players are stronger because they are more athletic than ever before. The heavy use of analytics and other data channels are persuading teams to look one way when allocating funds (youth), rather than investing in an “aged” and/or “aging” asset 30+ years old that is not jumping off the charts, per se.
So where does the Chicago Cubs fit in the grand scheme of age? Well, it’s an interesting construing of a roster if you ask me.
Entering the 2019 season, the Cubs foster 14 players on their 40-man roster OVER 30-years-old. It’s worth noting the Cubs have six players right at 29-years-old as well. Mike Montgomery has a Thirtieth birthday this summer (July 1), which got me thinking, what more can a guy get “present wise” than earning the save to end Cubs World Series?
Barring any other trades or signings of Craig Kimbrel, by the conclusion of this year’s World Series sometime early November, the Cubs will have 17 players over 30-years-old (and by New Year’s Eve, 20 total!). Tyler Chatwood, Kyle Hendricks and Taylor Davis all turn 30 at the end of the year.
While the Cubs feel and appear as a youthful team, the reality is there is a lot of veteran presence as well. Of the 14 players over 30, five are 35-years-old and older (Ben Zobrist is 38!). There are grumblings this could be Zobrist’s last year in uniform, so here’s to riding out on a high note Ben!
With that said, it’s obvious to see what Theo’s long-term plan has been to re-build this roster. He completely gutted the roster to draft and develop positional players while trading for and signing-up free agent pitching.
Has that been considered successful? I would argue yes. Even though the roster allocation of dollars seems a tad imbalanced (Cub Pitchers $136.2M vs. Cub Position Players $69.3M), you’ve got plenty of young established (and emerging) hitters still playing under arbitration money contracts. (And, well, Theo brought the Cubs a ring and secured his spot in the Hall).
Speaking of financials and on the heels of another baseball Opening Day, the Cubs enter the year with the 2nd highest payroll in baseball ($209.5) according to Spotrac. A sizable chunk of the $209.5M is being put towards our 30-year-old and older players, roughly $126M or 60% of the projected payroll. It’s safe to say the Cubs will be investing significant dollars towards their roster in the coming years; making Theo & Co’s decision to keep 2020, 2021, 2022 and even 2023 as flexible as possible to re-sign stars like Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Hendricks.
For now, while the Cubs are in this unique window with their position players to pay under $70M a year to field an infield and outfield, they need to rely heavily on their premium-priced pitching staff (Cubs are currently spending the most money on pitching in baseball).
“I still look and feel young,” said the 35-year-old Hamels. “You walk around [outside of baseball] and nobody even thinks anything of it. But when people find out [you’re in baseball], then they try to put two and two together. And then they’re like, `You have been around. You’re old.’”