This morning when I was checking on the status of Kenny Lofton, I couldn't help but notice that those Major League Baseball players who still don't have a roster spot with any team are players who aggressively held key positions throughout their careers that were incredibly hard on their legs.
News of Javy Lopez retiring rather than being sent back to the minors only confirmed my long held suspicion about professional baseball--once your legs go, there isn't really a place for you. Unfortunately, this truth isn't news. The game has become more and more competitive, constantly seeking records, and always shining the spotlight on the youngest standouts. Very rarely will you see a headline about a veteran player unless he is retiring or has hit a milestone in his long and successful career. There just aren't front page stories about guys like Julio Franco who wants to play until he is fifty or guys like Javy Lopez who was a hero of mine growing up.
This season alone I have spotted thirteen players still listed as active, but without a roster spot. Thirteen guys who have contributed quite a bit to the game of baseball and its history.
Barry Bonds' name makes the thirteen, but given his perjury trial, the steroid mess, and news about Jose Canseco's new book, I can't say there aren't reasons for which Bonds is without a roster spot. The only way Barry can stay in baseball is if a team with more money than sense needs a DH that will bring out the camera crews.
Sticking with outfielders, I was surprised to see that nobody picked up Steve Finley. I guess GM's think forty-three is too old for an outfielder. The only choice with Finley is to move him to a position less hard on the legs, mainly first base, but I wouldn't be surprised if Finley is done.
I've mentioned Kenny Lofton's situation previously. It seems to me that what Lofton doesn't bring to the lineup in numbers he brings to the clubhouse in experience. You can't pass up an option like Lofton when you're looking for a veteran to bring the younger guys together. Lofton is forty-one, not young for a baseball player, and has a baby face that tricks you into thinking he is twenty-something.
Other notable outfielders without team assignments include Sammy Sosa (despite the Rangers pulling him in last season), Preston Wilson, and Ruben Sierra. Wilson, being the youngest of the three, is puzzling to me. Either he hasn't put up good numbers or he has been riddled with injuries. I can't seem to remember which it is. There is the chance with Sosa that somebody will pick him up as a DH. I just don't see him fielding again if he does snag a roster spot.
There was only one third baseman I spotted on the list that I thought enhanced this category of older ballplayers with exceptional careers and no team assignment this season--Jeff Cirillo. Cirillo has been a great addition to many lineups and has solid numbers. He's thirty-nine and looking at the terminal end of his career. With third basemen, I can't exactly say what causes a career to end so quickly. I don't suppose it has anything to do with diving for the ball...
First base has become the place all beat up ballplayers go to finish off their careers. More and more teams are looking for first base talent in the draft and more and more they are getting away from the philosophy that has always been--when the legs go, send the guy to stationary first base. Interesting that two first basemen fell into this category of assignment-less actives. Both Shea Hillenbrand and Ryan Klesko have had shining careers with various teams. I watched Klesko come up with Atlanta and was always amazed that they let such a young kid start out at first base. Once he joined up with the Giants I couldn't help but think he and Will Clark would have made an amazing team. At not quite forty, it's perplexing. Seems Klesko has a few more seasons in him. And Shea Hillenbrand? Here, too, I'm going to guess injuries are involved.
Last, but perhaps the most telling, are the three catchers (excluding Lopez) who may see the end of the careers sooner rather than later. Mike Piazza hasn't been catching in awhile. Mostly holding DH slots, Piazza's knees went awhile ago. Being a catcher is physically the hardest of the positions (aside from pitcher). Once the knees go your career is over, period. They aren't going to move you to first base. They might keep you around as a DH. But they aren't going to keep you around for moral support. Speaking from personal experience, there is no pain like the pain of knowing your days behind the plate are numbered. And for a guy like Mike Piazza it must be brutal. This guy is one of the greatest catchers in the history of the game and his worth now comes down to whether or not he can get a big hit. It wouldn't surprise me if he announces he's going to way of Javy Lopez here shortly.
Two other catchers on the list include Doug Mirabelli and Todd Pratt. Both are old, in catcher terms, nearing forty, if not over, and they've both suffered injury. After thirty-five a catcher has to be on a three-man rotation at best. Varitek and Kendell may be exceptions to this rule and I suspect they may last a little longer in the game. It just isn't pleasant watching as two very talented guys wait around hoping somebody might give them a shot.
It isn't easy watching some of the best players in the game waiting for one last chance and one last roster spot. Not when we all know their legs went long ago and they're only hanging on for the love of the game.