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Monday, January 30, 2006

 

Youth Culture

"Rejoice O young man in thy youth..." -Ecclesiastes The specter of age chases, and catches, us all. In sports age is one of the few constants. It helps observers understand and predict the many factors associated with performance; only in pro sports can you be considered old at age 35. Despite the heavy Biblical quote above, the same one that appears ominously in the opening of Oliver Stone's Vietnam epic, Platoon, youth is a valuable commodity in baseball. Age and the team's lack of youth weighs heavily in discussions about the Cardinals and their fortunes for the 2006 season and beyond. Let's take a look at age for the Cardinals. I lumped players (hitters only this time) into four groups which represent the young, those in and close to their prime, past their prime but still capable of performing, and the old. My groupings are somewhat random, but based around the general consensus that age 27 is when hitters are at their prime, and performance typically declines noticeably each season after age 30. In addition to looking at players' ages, I also wanted to take stock of the guys that are most likely to start and be the prime bench/replacement guys for the 2006 team. This list doesn't include Travis Hanson, Brendan Ryan, etc. from the 40-man roster because they are not likely to play in the majors outside of September call ups. Final note: I went with a player's age at the start of the season, except for the three players I noted below whose birthday falls in April. Rejoicing in their youth: Molina, 23 Chris Duncan, 24 Luna, 26 Pujols, 26 Ankiel, 26 Skip Schumaker, 26 At the top o' the mountain: Michel Hernandez (3rd catcher), 27 John Gall (April b-day), 28 Bigbie, 28 Rodriguez, 28 Aaron Miles, 29 Mid-life crisis: Encarnacion, 30 Rolen (April b-day), 31 Eckstein, 31 Spivey, 31 Cruz, 33 Old man take a look at my life: Gary Bennett (April b-day), 34 Edmonds, 35 Taguchi, 36 Looking at the list, it's clear that age for the overall team isn't the problem. The problem is the age of several key cogs in the team, and the lack of young talent to step in for the aging ones. The most important gray beard is Edmonds, without whom success figures to be hard fought. Super-sub Taguchi's age isn't huge factor given his role (remember Julio Franco is on someone's payroll), but it could be more of an issue if he starts for the Cards this year or even if we have to rely on him for extended playing time during the season. With his history of injuries and style of play, Rolen can be called an old 31, but he's probably got a few good seasons left for the Cards. In my opinion, the lack of talented hitters in their prime is the most glaring red flag for the team related to age. With the notable exception of Pujols, there's not a bat under thirty that could be considered a player in the top third of the talent scale, much less a suitable offensive replacement for Edmonds or Rolen. Bigbie or Rodriguez, the lone (probable) starter is the best of the bunch in the 27-29 year-old category. None of those guys are better than third outfielders or platoon players. You can really laugh at me for saying this, but I think that Ankiel is probably the best outfielder on that list of guys under thirty. We'll see about Gall, but it's telling that the 28 year old has never spent much time in the bigs. Of course Molina is only 23, and he looks to be a backstop that can post above average numbers for a guy at his position. That's definitely a bright spot. Is age an issue for concern? Yes and no, but it hardly poses the threat of undoing the hopes of the 2006 team. That said, if Jocketty does make a big move for a position player, he'd do well to find one under 30 that could be an important part of this year's team and the next several.

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