What We Can Learn From Vladimir Guerrero This Off-Season

By Eriq Gardner //

Over the past few years, thanks to tight purse strings and perhaps the waning influences of PEDs, there’s been a youth movement in baseball. More than ever, teams are reluctant to lock up older superstars to big contracts.
Nevertheless, we all tend to get a little too down on older players coming off of bad years.
Take Vladimir Guerrero, for instance.
One year ago today, Guerrero was coming off injuries and a lousy season. In 2009, he appeared in only 100 games and hit just 15 HRs and 50 RBIs. The Los Angeles Angels didn’t express much interest in re-signing the one time American League MVP. Neither did fantasy owners.
We all know how that turned out. Signed to a one-year deal by the Texas Rangers, Guerrero had a tremendous comeback season. He hit 29 HRs and 115 RBIs with a .300 batting average.
Many attribute his newfound success to the favorable hitting environment in Texas. But Guerrero wasn’t the only veteran coming off a disappointing year who shined in 2010. Other 30-year-olds who provided a nice dividend included Adrian Beltre, Coco Crisp, and Brett Myers.
If fantasy owners tend to underestimate older players, I can think of three good reasons why.
First, while it’s true that player performance tends to gradually deteriorate for thirty-somethings, the slope from superstardom to retirement is rarely a smooth downward descent. One bad season doesn’t have to follow the next. Yes, the macro-trends may support lesser performance in a player’s 30s, but in the micro-sense, predicting what’s going to happen one season to the next is not as pat. 
Second, a season’s worth of baseball is an arbitrary sample set. And a small one, too. Even 162 games of baseball can’t tell us whether a ballplayer is responding to the influence of Father Time or is just having a bad year. 
Third, bad seasons by older superstars tend to soak up a lot of bad press. This is especially true of those whose contracts are up and who are searching for a new job. Athletes make tens of millions of dollars, and we’re all very sensitive to washed-up ones who don’t earn their paycheck.
Fortunately, all this provides a nice buying opportunity. As a “value investor,” I’m watching older players especially closely this off-season. 
I’m definitely curious where Lance Berkman ends up this off-season. He’s nowhere near the hottest commodity in the free agent market, but he’s only a couple seasons removed from 29 HR. 18 SB, and being selected in the second round of most fantasy drafts. This season, he only hit 14 HRs, but was plagued with some bad luck. If there’s any player who screams, “the next Vladimir Guerrero,” it might be Berkman.
Similarly, Magglio Ordonez, Derek Jeter, Derrek Lee, Manny Ramirez, and Javier Vazquez are all potential values heading into 2011. These players could fall victim to overreaction to their poor seasons and could be attained cheaply heading into the next season. No, I wouldn’t sign any of these players to a long-term contract, if I was sitting in a major league front office, but fortunately, most fantasy owners only have to make single-year analysis. Given that, I like the odds.
For more on Lance Berkman and other older free agents, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.

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