Not for nuthin’: When the face ages

In an age of free agency and mobile players, few major leaguers last enough with one club to earn the venerable status of “face of the franchise.” The kind of players I’m referring to not only have been with a team for at least a decade, but also have become the cornerstone of the organization through acts of goodwill and exceptional performance on the field.

Fans fortunate enough to have such a player on their favorite team’s roster probably feel grateful to have them represent their ball club and city. But, what happens when that face begins to lose his luster and show his age?

Depending on the emotional equity that the player has earned through the years, it’s reasonable to believe that most fans will be willing to fail to notice their natural decline. Look no further than the Bronx for a most recent and prominent example of such a phenomenon.

Number two
On the last day of the 2014 regular season, New York Yankees great Derek Jeter was facing Clay Buchholz of the Boston Red Sox in the top of the third inning at Fenway Park. After falling behind one ball and two strikes to Buchholz, Jeter plated Ichiro Suzuki with a high chopper to third baseman Garin Cecchini.

During previous years, Jeter’s single may have affected the postseason fortunes of either club, but not in 2014. Both the Yankees and Red Sox were well out of contention and just playing out the season on that sunny day in Boston. That’s not to say that Jeter’s single wasn’t significant; his plate appearance against Buchholz would be the last of his storied career.

When Yankees manager Joe Girardi — a former teammate of Jeter’s — replaced the future Hall of Famer with a pinch runner after that run-scoring single, the team’s captain received a poignant send-off from the Fenway crowd. It had been an emotional week for Jeter, who had previously announced that 2014 would be the last season of his 20-year career.

Just three days prior, the veteran shortstop’s last hit at Yankee Stadium was a dramatic walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth inning after his team had blown a three-run lead to the Baltimore Orioles in the top half of inning. Would you expect anything less from a player nicknamed “Captain Clutch?”

The truth hurts
Although fans succumbed to the nostalgia surrounding the Jeter farewell tour, the media wasn’t necessarily as captivated during his final year in the majors.

Early in the season, Ted Berg of USA Today predicted that Jeter’s defense would cost the Yankees. Joel Sherman of the New York Post opined in early September that Girardi needed to reduce Jeter’s role. That’s just a small sample of the criticism that columnists and bloggers delivered during the retiring shortstop’s final season.

 Some fans may not have liked reading those kind of comments, but the pundits were correct to point out that Jeter’s star was no longer shining brightly.

Yankee lovers — and baseball fans in general — can find a measure of comfort in one clear-cut certainty. By the time Jeter is formally enshrined at Cooperstown in the summer of 2020, the thrilling conclusion to his magnificent career will be all that anyone remembers about his last year in the majors.

Irreconcilable differences
Although fans are happy when a player of Jeter’s ilk finishes his career where he started, they want their teams to win championships. Having a face of the franchise on the decline taking a roster spot could hurt the team, as both Berg and Sherman suggested about Jeter.

One could make the case that a sense of misguided sentimentality prevented the Yankees from finishing closer to a wild card berth during Jeter’s last season. The rationale being that a little less Jeter could’ve led to a few more wins and postseason play. That’s a tough sell for me.

Remember, management never found an adequate replacement for departed free agent Robinson Cano. They didn’t have one in 2015 either. Carlos Beltran had a sub-par year — worse than Jeter’s. Finally, let’s not forget that Alex Rodriguez missed the entire season due to suspension. In the end, I don’t think that the casual Yankee fan cared; they just wanted one more year of Captain Clutch.

Next farewell tour
Boston’s David Ortiz will end his career with “the Sawx” after this coming season. “Big Papi” didn’t start his career in Beantown, but he’s now considered a community ambassador, especially after his remarks at Fenway after the Boston Marathon bombing.

The R-rated comment delivered by Ortiz during that brief speech further elevated his already iconic status throughout New England. Only time will tell whether he’ll be able to replicate Jeter’s season-ending heroics. Without doubt, his last trip to Yankee Stadium and his last home stand will be “must see” events.

  What if Ortiz gets off to a slow start in 2016 or struggles as the season progresses? How will the media react? Probably in the same manner as they did during Jeter’s last season — by telling the truth.

How about fans? If Papi is scuffling and Boston is in a pennant race, would fans prefer to see him play or ride the bench? This quandary is always possible when the face of the franchise gets long in the tooth.

I suspect that Boston fans will treat Ortiz the same way as Yankee fans did Jeter; they’ll shower him with an outpouring of affection of support regardless of his performance. Both players helped provide many extraordinary moments — and World Series rings – to their respective towns. That helps fans overlook a few blemishes at the end of the line.

The next wave
It’s easy to see how fans would tolerate the decline of stars like Jeter and Ortiz — their final season was at age-40. But, what about franchise faces who’ll see their contracts expire at a younger age? The decision to retain these players won’t be as easy for their respective organizations. Is it possible that fans would be less enthusiastic about keeping a fading star in his mid-thirties, compared to a 40-year-old?

Here are a few players who could fall into the category that I just described. All will be age-30 or older during the upcoming season and are considered the face of their respective franchise.

Player Age Tm 2015 WAR Contract terms Contract ends at age
Dustin Pedroia 32 BOS 2.0 6 yrs / $85M (2016-21) 37
David Wright 33 NYM 0.5 14 yrs / $192M (2007-20) 37
Yadier Molina 33 STL 1.4 10 yrs / $96.5M (2008-17)   34*
Joe Mauer 32 MIN 1.5 8 yrs / $184M (2011-18) 35
Felix Hernandez 30 SEA 4.4 7 yrs / $175M (2013-19)   33*
* Team or player holds an option for an extra year after this age

Diminishing returns
The heir apparent as Boston’s torchbearer is second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who suffered through a tough 2015 season due to injury. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s about to take a nose dive, although the Boston media has already begun to ask whether the “Laser Show” has started to decline.

Pedroia’s hard-nosed playing style has made him an endearing figure in the eyes of Boston fans, but that same gritty approach could eventually accelerate the deterioration of his outstanding skills. The 10-year veteran is under contract with the Red Sox through his age-37 season.

New York Mets third baseman David Wright only played in 38 games last season due to a spinal stenosis diagnosis and has averaged just 95 games during the last three years. Some scribes have already asked whether “Captain America’s” stenosis could affect his career length and, consequently, his Hall of Fame chances.

Two players who started out as catchers — St. Louis Cardinal Yadier Molina and Minnesota Twin Joe Mauer — have begun to show the negative effects of wearing the tools of ignorance for so many years. Molina’s offensive numbers have dropped over the last three seasons and he was limited, due to a thumb injury, during the 2015 postseason.

Mauer — a St Paul, Minnesota native — no longer catches due to concussion problems. Now, he patrols first base for the Twins. Like Molina, he’s seen his offensive stats decline since 2013.

Long live the King?
Seattle Mariners’ ace Felix Hernandez is one of the best pitchers in baseball and he took less money to stay with the only team that he ever knew. Why wouldn’t a fan base love this guy?

Hernandez — whose contract expires after his age-33 season — hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, but he’ll be on the “wrong side of thirty” by the Mariners’ first home stand ends this season. It’s inevitable that the former Cy Young award winner will start to lose his edge. But, what should the club do when his deal expires?

The Mariners hold an option that they can exercise if Felix spends more than 130 consecutive days on the disabled list due to surgery — or any other procedure — on his right elbow. Basically, he’s a free agent after 2019 if he stays healthy. If he has elbow issues, the team can keep him for 2020 at a very team-friendly price.

It takes two to tango
In 2010, re-signing Jeter probably seemed like a “no-brainer” to the typical Yankee fan. Although he was starting to show signs of decline at the plate and his fielding numbers were below average, he was still a valuable contributor. But, that doesn’t mean everything went swimmingly between management and the player.

Reportedly, Jeter wasn’t a happy camper during his contract extension negotiations with the Yankees. Although he eventually stayed in the Bronx, it’s been reported that the negotiations led to a chill be between Jeter and general manager Brian Cashman.

Affairs of the heart
As we saw with Jeter, the aging face isn’t necessarily smiling when the business of baseball tramples on a decade of goodwill. Pedroia, Wright, Molina, Mauer, and Hernandez could face a similar tact from their respective organization’s management. “Thanks for the memories. But, we reward production.”

Both Pedroia and Wright will be 37-years-old when their deals expire. What happens if they want to continue being a starter, but their team prefers to use them in a more limited role? Maybe, they’re blocking the progress of an up-and-coming prospect. How will Red Sox and Mets fans want their team to handle their franchise icon?

Molina’s and Mauer’s contracts conclude after their age-35 season. From a baseball business perspective, both the Cardinals and Twins would be wise to move on from their long-time stars at that time or — at the very least — lessen their role with the ball club. As with Pedroia and Wright, would the players be willing to accept less playing time?

Say for a moment that Felix maintains his health and is a free agent in the autumn of 2019. Should the Mariners retain him and at what cost? The emotional response is an emphatic “yes!”

After living in the Pacific Northwest for the last seven years, I understand why Mariners fans would feel so strongly about Felix. When his deal expires, he’ll have been with Seattle for 15 seasons; that would rank second to should-be Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez (18).

Despite the love affair that the Emerald City has with their King, the team could potentially face a challenge with re-signing their star pitcher. What happens if his contract demands exceed the value of a 34-year-old pitcher with 15 big league seasons under his belt?

I know that sounds cold-hearted, but it’s a factor to consider. As we saw with Hisashi Iwakuma, the Mariners had a predetermined limit on years and dollars that they wouldn’t exceed. In Iwakuma’s case, the team wasn’t comfortable with three guaranteed seasons due to his health history. Could Seattle reach a similar impasse with the face of their franchise?

This tidbit may make Felix fans cringe a little. In the last 50 years, only five of 29 Hall of Fame pitchers have spent their entire career with one team — Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Whitey Ford. Only Palmer played during in the free agent era.

The sad goodbye
A somber truth awaits fans; their favorite baseball player could hang up their cleats for the final time in a different city. Team supporters want to believe that their icon wouldn’t leave, but history shows that even the greatest players will occasionally leave as the end nears.

Iconic names like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, and Hank Aaron all finished their memorable careers in an indistinguishable manner with another team. If they could end up somewhere else, why couldn’t Felix Hernandez or Dustin Pedroia?

Does that mean that the players I’ve mentioned are destined to leave the only team that they’ve known? Of course not. However, it’s worth noting that it takes two things to happen for a player to remain with a team; the player has to want to stay and the team has to want to the player to stay.

On the surface, that sounds like an easy proposition. However, agreeing to terms when millions of dollars are involved isn’t necessarily easy. Refer back to the aftermath of the Jeter negotiations as an example of how long-standing relationships can go sideways when factors such as ego and economics come into play.

My advice to baseball fans is simple. Enjoy your stars while you have them and wish them well if they opt to leave. Professional sports has been — and always will be — a business first. That’s why good organizations don’t feel the tug of heartstrings — like their fans do — when it comes to making these tough decisions. Even if an aging face of the franchise is involved.

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