Second of two parts
As Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz waited for a contract offer last fall, general manager Ben Cherington went through what he describes as a careful risk assessment — weighing a proven record of production against age and a recent history of injuries.
He had to set aside, for the moment, the fact that this was the most popular player in recent team history.
“You take Big Papi out of the equation, take the franchise icon out of the equation, take out all of the things he’s done for us in the past,” said Cherington. “And you start with: Who is this player now?”
In that harsh light, Ortiz was a 37-year-old DH dealing with a slow-to-heal Achilles’ tendon injury. But for much of the disastrous 2012 season, Ortiz was also “highly productive in a way that didn’t look a fluke” and “didn’t look like a guy who was declining as an offensive force,” according to Cherington.
Last November, the Red Sox signed Ortiz to a two-year, $26 million deal, with a bigger payday due if he stays healthy.
“When you have a guy David’s age, you can’t completely eliminate risk,” said Cherington. “That’s not possible with baseball players, certainly not with ones in their late 30s. But despite his age, there’s no one we would bet on to produce at DH in 2013 more than David Ortiz.”
So far, it seems to have been an extremely smart bet. After missing the first few weeks of the season nursing sore heels, Ortiz has produced home runs and RBIs at an impressive clip. He is, by a clear margin, still the most productive player at his position.
Like Cherington, all team executives go through some version of this risk assessment when acquiring or re-signing older players. The process is both objective and subjective, weighing performance against cost, age against experience, injury history against intangibles such as locker room presence.
Executives for Boston teams know this better than most. In recent years, Cherington, Celtics president Danny Ainge, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, and Bill Belichick, the Patriots coach and de facto general manager, have faced key contract decisions on veteran stars. The big names securing big deals included Ortiz, Tom Brady, Kevin Garnett, and Zdeno Chara.
Next up, Ainge must make a tough decision regarding 35-year-old Paul Pierce before a June 30 deadline. Does Ainge pick up the team option for the 2013-14 season? Negotiate a contract extension? Buy out Pierce for $5 million? Trade him? The decision looms as talk quiets of a potential megadeal that could send Doc Rivers and Garnett to the Los Angeles Clippers for young building blocks. At one stage, as rumors and reports of a trade swirled, Pierce was mentioned as another piece.
While the call on Pierce comes down to much more than age, the fact that Pierce has shown the effects of 15 years in the NBA, of 40,360 career minutes, inevitably enters the equation.
Additionally, his future is tied to the roster Ainge hopes to build this summer. Ainge doesn’t want Pierce to have to carry the offensive load. The Celtics president also understands the difficulty of replacing what Pierce has been giving the Celtics, even at an older age. The forward led the team in scoring average and total minutes played this past season.
“We have all the knowledge we need about Paul,” said Ainge. “Paul and Kevin Garnett don’t come around very often.
“Listen, Paul Pierce is coming off a year where he averaged almost 19 points a game. How many players in the entire NBA, how many players walking in ready for the draft right now can do that? Do you know how much I’d love to draft a player that could get me 19 points a game?”
As Ainge added that the Celtics consider small roster changes before big ones, the careful assessment with Pierce goes on. And so does the comparison shopping.
“All decisions are based on alternatives,” said Ainge. “It’s not, ‘What can they do compared to what they used to do?’ But the comparison is, ‘What can they do against the players that they’re playing against?’ ”
Today, as older teams win championships and older players contend for MVP honors, the marketplace for seasoned athletes is changing.
The Mavericks won the 2011 NBA title with a starting five that averaged 31 years of age, led by then-38-year-old point guard Jason Kidd. In the NFL last season, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, 37, finished second in MVP voting after his return from neck surgery. In the ongoing NBA Finals, the Spurs’ roster features six players over 30. The Bruins, with 10 players 30 or older, are competing for the Stanley Cup against the Chicago Blackhawks, who have eight.
Still, the typical pro career remains relatively short for the majority of players. Many athletes struggle to stay in the game until 30, never mind beyond. But for those with all-star talent, with superstar credentials, there are more opportunities to play longer. In the NFL, the average career length for a first-round pick is 9.3 years, for a player selected to, at least, one Pro Bowl it’s 11.7 years. In the NBA, first-round picks who’ve played, at least, one game average 8.1 years in the league. Baseball players who started the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park enjoyed, on average, 18-year careers.That group included Curt Schilling, Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome, and Cal Ripken, who played 20 or more seasons. And skaters selected in the first round of the 1990 NHL draft, along with Bruins forward Jaromir Jagr, have averaged 14-year careers.
As more older players prove their worth, teams are taking more calculated risks when building rosters. Teams are also more invested in learning which substitution patterns, practice habits, and mental approaches best serve veterans.
“It’s about trying to find guys who are on the cusp of understanding, ‘Hey, I can’t do the things I once did, but I still want to win a championship,’ ” said Don Kalkstein, a sports psychologist who works with the Mavericks and Texas Rangers and consulted for the Red Sox from 2006-11.
“It’s trying to find guys who are on the downslope, who have done everything as an individual, who have taken care of their families, but still have that insatiable urge to compete. Athletes who are later in their careers who fit that mold are advantageous to the rest of the organization.”
‘Air in the tires’
When asked if he ever tracked how his speed has slowed, how his vertical jump has decreased, how his recovery time has changed over the years, Pierce laughed.
“No, I haven’t,” he said. “And I don’t want to, either. I don’t want to see the decline.”
Still, Pierce recognizes that he is not the same player he was even a few years ago. Despite his regular stints in his personal hyperbaric chamber — which forces more oxygen into sore muscles — a healthy diet, and a quiet family life away from the court, he cannot fight off the effects of aging.
When evaluating older players such as Pierce, Ainge focuses more on what is there than what isn’t. First, he looks at a player’s body, how his ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders line up. From years spent evaluating talent, he has seen how athletes with well-proportioned, properly-aligned bodies tend to play years beyond the norm. Then he considers work ethic and injury history, relying on the Celtics medical staff to point out any surprising findings, good or bad.
Above all, Ainge looks to see if older players have “air in their tires,” namely the ability to move briskly around the court, stay with defensive assignments, and launch high-arcing, on-target shots. Asked if the Celtics do year-to-year testing to determine whether older players are reaching “low-air” levels, Ainge said, “No, it’s pretty easy to see.”
Ainge added: “Paul does have air left in the tires, absolutely. The great players, like the ones that we’ve had here in the last few years with KG, Paul, Ray [Allen], Jason Terry, all of those guys, you could tell that they were on their way down because they don’t have that same energy every single night throughout the course of an entire season. But you could still see how great a player they were because they were able to pump it up for big games and big moments.
“Their experience and the quickness of their minds gives them a little bit of an edge over those that might have a little bit more air in their tires. What I’m saying is that those guys have the ability to go back in time for stretches.”
Cherington, too, takes careful stock of an older player’s body, as well as his body of work. Ortiz more than satisfied the Red Sox on both scores. And comparison shopping came out in the DH’s favor.
“There is no one data point that we use to determine risk with older players,” said Cherington. “But there are rare occasions, and David Ortiz is one of them, where we’ll take the ‘risk’ of signing an older player who’s been really productive as opposed to a younger player who might fit more neatly into an age window but isn’t as talented or hasn’t proven that they can be as good as someone like David. In the end, it’s case-specific.”
It helps if a team has a long track record with a player.
The Celtics know Pierce might play a poor game one night, then come back the next night and score 30 points. According to Ainge, Pierce and Garnett “come up with air that you didn’t know they had, just when you’re wondering what they might have left.”
Whether or not the Celtics keep Pierce in the fold for a year or more also depends on another critical variable: the players around him.
“If Paul has to carry our team by himself, even for quarters, and be the Paul Pierce of three years ago and score 41 points in a Game 7, that’s not what we should expect of Paul,” said Ainge. “If Paul can be our third-best player, then we can be a really good team.
“I know Paul has air left in the tires, as does KG. The question is, what can we get to save some of that air?”
After all, if teams have aging superstars under contract, they want to protect them. The Patriots understand that better than most.
The familiarity factor
Brady, 35, is an aging quarterback driven to win another Super Bowl. After closing out the 2012 regular season, Brady said, “I feel as good as I possibly can now.”
From what Brady displayed on the field last season and what a statistical analysis conducted by Yale economics professor Ray Fair yielded, Brady appears poised to age particularly well, perhaps better than most quarterbacks. With a recent extension that will keep Brady under contract until the year he turns 40, the Patriots appear to think so, too.
But Brady knows that an athlete’s longevity depends in no small part on how a team does business.
“It always ends up being, if the owners think that they can make money with a particular player, then they keep you,” said Brady. “Usually, they make the money if fans want to see you play.”
Some players are easier to decide to keep than others, especially when it comes to names such as Brady, Ortiz, and Garnett who are closely associated with a team’s brand. Team executives acknowledge that fan loyalty, as well as familiarity with a superstar, can influence contract decisions on aging players.
With Ortiz, Cherington called it “an organizational element,” where the team took into account the fact that “David’s done a lot for the Red Sox over a long period of time” and “meant a lot to the team on and off the field.”
With Pierce playing for the Celtics his entire career, Ainge said, “We’re all naïve if we don’t believe that it’s a factor of some kind. At the same time, I can’t let that drive decisions about what’s best for the franchise in the long term.”
Last July, similar thinking went into signing Garnett, 37, to a three-year, $34 million contract extension.
“KG is such a good player that we couldn’t replace him with just anybody,” said Ainge. “I’d much rather take the risk with somebody I know.
“I trust his basketball mind, his work ethic, and all the things that KG brings to the table. And KG is a guy where if there is a decline, he still has great value. He shows young guys how to work on their games, how to prepare themselves to be professionals. It’s hard to put a monetary value on those things, but I certainly don’t take those things for granted.”
Ortiz provides the Red Sox value there, too.
“All the young guys come to me whenever they feel like there’s something that’s stopping them from doing what they do,” said Ortiz. “They want to see what can I do because they know I’ve been through everything. They want to learn how to deal with it. That’s another thing that an organization has to keep in mind.”
Chiarelli also values familiarity with a player, pointing to the seven-year, $45.5 million contract extension reached with Chara in October 2010. The deal will keep Chara employed until he is 41. Chiarelli said he “can’t figure out the risk exactly” with such a deal but believes he can “do a better job figuring it out” because he knows Chara well.
Sometimes replacing a well-known, well-liked older player with a younger, unfamiliar player is a greater gamble. Yet, a decade ago, such multiyear deals for aging players such as Ortiz, Brady, Garnett, and Chara would have been considered foolish, if they were even considered at all.
Time will tell if they are smart decisions.
“There’s some success stories with [signing older players to big contracts], and that’s why it gives people more thought to doing it now,” said Ainge. “But you’re going to get bit by it if you do it too often.”
Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com.