The Yankees' pursuit of Carlos Beltran has been pretty widely reported over the past few weeks. They're willing to offer two years and $28 million to the switch-hitting outfielder, who'll turn 37 on April 24th of next year. Beltran's holding out for three years and if we all know the Yankees as well as we think we do, then that offer's probably on its way.
This isn't meant to disparage Beltran. He's had a fantastic career and he can still play - or still hit, at least. His .296/.339/.491 line with St. Louis last year blows away the .251/.296/.358 slop that Yankee right fielders, headlined by Ichiro Suzuki, combined for. But signing a player of Beltran's age to a three-year or a two-year or even a one-year deal and calling it a solution means falling back on the same tired approach that stuck the team in the quagmire of ill health and ineffectiveness it couldn't free itself from in 2013.
The Yankees weren't the oldest team in baseball last season, but their average age was brought down by sub-replacement-level twenty-somethings forced into action by injuries. Going into spring training, their projected starting shortstop was 38, their right fielder was 39 and their designated hitter was 35. 37-year-old Alex Rodriguez was out for the first half and was to be replaced by 34-year-old Kevin Youkilis. Meanwhile, a 40-year-old and a 38-year-old made up two fifths of the rotation. Throughout the spring and the season, the Yankees managed to bring in Lyle Overbay, 36, Vernon Wells, 34 and Alfonso Soriano, 37. Of those nine players mentioned, five are under contract for 2014 and Hiroki Kuroda, the 38-year-old member of that pitching tandem, has been invited back.
Trying to force one last burst of energy out of the dying embers of former stars is a strategy the Yankees have employed for some time. Since the late 90's, Tim Raines, Darryl Strawberry, Chili Davis, Ruben Sierra, Raul Ibanez, Ichiro and many, many more are examples of geriatric fixes the Yankees sought out with varying degrees of success. Over the years, Yankee fans have been treated to some unexpected spurts of brilliance, but they've also watched accomplished baseball lives end in slow, painful deaths. Using late-thirties and early-forties types to supplement a roster flush with in-prime talent is one thing. Asking those guys to contribute every day - to bat third, fourth and fifth - well, 2013 was a cold reminder of how that can turn out.
Baseball's changed over the past decade but the Yankees' philosophy hasn't. With steroid and amphetamine use somewhat curbed, players are getting less and less productive late in their careers. In 2003, thirteen players aged 37 and 38 - the age Beltran will be if the Yankees sign him to a two-year deal - managed to earn 300 plate appearances or more. They combined for a .361 OBP and a .487 slugging percentage. In 2013, just seven from the "37-38" group hit the 300 PA plateau. They OBP'd .332 and slugged .423. Today's older hitters play less. They get on base less and they hit for less power.
The Yankees have passed on Beltran twice. In the 2004-05 offseason, he was so disappointed with their failure to pursue him that he reportedly offered to take significantly less than what the Mets paid him, to play in the Bronx, with his close friend Bernie Williams. In 2012, the team could have signed him again, before he agreed to terms with St. Louis. Instead, it started Ibanez, Andruw Jones or both in the outfield 131 times and saw its left fielders OPS .727 to Beltran's .842. Why is he suddenly such a must-have at age 36 when he wasn't at 34 or at 27?
Shin-Soo Choo is a 31-year-old on-base machine. If he gets a six-year deal, he'll still be younger at the end of it than Beltran will be after a two-year pact. The difference in their AAV will amount to less than the $5 million the Yankees have already frivolously spent on Brendan Ryan's salary and Derek Jeter's courtesy raise. If they have the funds available for a high-cost right-fielder, there's an obvious better option than the prehistoric Beltran staring them in the face.
To rebound from the disaster that was 2013, the Yankees don't just need to get better players - they need to change their thought process for picking those players. Replacing old dudes with more old dudes really isn't doing that.