At an average age of 28.1, the Chicago Cubs are the 10th-youngest team in baseball. But they could easily get even younger if they were to acquiesce to the desires of so many fans by promoting Kris Bryant (22) and Javier Baez (21), not to mention several other future Cubs in waiting.
Of course, calling up prospects means getting rid of veterans, something the current front office has had no problem doing in the past. And I'm pretty sure there wouldn't be many tears shed over the departure of Eli Whiteside (34) or John Baker (33), 2 of only 3 Cubs position players currently over 30 (Justin Ruggiano, 32).
But at the same time, Tom Loxas has written about Jed Hoyer's desire to bring in more experienced leadership. That would seem to put the Cubs at a bit of a crossroads; do they get younger by calling up prospects in favor of vets, or get older by spending in free agency?
I wanted to take a look at both the majors and the minors to see what the average player ages were and to find out whether and how that translated to success. While it's slightly outdated, this SB Nation post charts the declining age of MLB players over the past 8-10 seasons.
I have a strong hunch the increased focus on PEDs has a hand in this trend, but I've got neither the time nor the resources to suss that out at this point. I would also assume that the accuracy of, and growing reliance upon, advanced metrics in scouting players has helped. And there's always the growth in travel and year-round sports, improved international training facilities, yada, yada.
Let's first take a look at the average age of MiLB players, even if it's just for esses and gees. Fangraphs has the full layout available, so you can certainly feel free to jump over there and review all the leaderboards, sorting to your heart's content. But a cursory glance shows us that the average of a AAA player (28.2) is actually greater than that of the Cubs.
I suppose that may lend a bit too much credence to those who lament the fact that the Cubs are essentially fielding a minor league team, but it's true in at least that one facet. I found it interesting that the age gap from Rookie ball (19.4) to AA (23.8 ) was the same as that between AA and AAA (28.2).
I'm not exactly sure what this means, but I'm sure much can be attributed to the fact that AAA serves as a rehab destination for vets and also as purgatory for those players who can't quite break through. It also means that a player like Javier Baez is still far younger than his average competition, which would help to explain his struggles early in the season.
Conversely, Kris Bryant came to the Cubs organization after a few years of college ball and his proximity to the average age and experience of his fellow AA players could translate to his gaudy numbers. Then again, when you're good, you're good, and both Bryant and Baez are very good. Relative age shouldn't be used as a strong barometer for a player's advancement, but it's certainly something to note.
Besides, we've all talked quite enough about the individual players, but I'd prefer to look at how age translates to success at the major league level for teams. After all, it doesn't mean much if a 22-year-old is mashing homers and flashing his thousand-watt smile if his team is going over like a dumpster fire.
Since MLB consists of 30 teams, I was able to break them into convenient groups of 10 to more easily digest the numbers. Looking at the 10 youngest teams (average age 27.8), we find an aggregate record of 312-328, with one 1st-place team (Atlanta Braves, NL East) and two 5th-place squads (Houston Astros, AL West and Cubs, NL Central). Overall, not a bad group.
Among the 10 oldest teams (29.7), we see a slightly better, if still mediocre, record of 320-321. Again, we have one team atop a division (San Francisco Giants, NL West) with another two sitting at the bottom (Tampa Bay Rays, AL East; Philadelphia Phillies, NL East).
Both of those latter teams have records that are equal to or worse than the Cubs, which is a small consolation I suppose. It's interesting that Rays have long been thought of as a young team too, though their average age (29.4) has them as the 5th-oldest group in the majors. Time to start trading those vets and getting young guys to whom Joe Maddon can relate, huh.
And now for the middle-aged teams (28.8), a group whose standings you can largely determine by elimination at this point. The 5th-place teams were evenly distributed throughout the groups, as we have another two here (Minnesota Twins, AL Central; Arizona Diamondbacks, NL West). Of note: these are the two youngest teams (both 28.6) in this block.
In fact, all four division leaders in the group reside in the upper 60% of this middle group. Those teams (Detroit Tigers, AL Central; Milwaukee Brewers, NL Central; Toronto Blue Jays, AL East; Oakland Athletics, NL West) carry an average age of 28.9, just barely over the total average of 28.7.
In perusing another slightly dated post, this one from Sporting News, I found that the average age for World Series-winning teams from 1986 to 2012 sat just a bit above the league average (.8 years, from roughly 29.5 to 28.7) during that same time. So it would appear that my limited research on the standings thus far in 2014 might still be fairly accurate once extrapolated over a full season.
So what does this tell us? Does it tell anything at all? Well, yeah, I think so. First, we see that the window for success is fleeting. From the youngest team (Astros, 27.4) to the oldest (Boston Red Sox, 30.9) the gap is only 3.5 years. But it's also telling that the best performance resides in the middle group of teams or, more specifically, the older segment of that middle section.
There are great merits to both youth and experience, but it appears to be clear that the best results come from a mix of the two. So while a young player can electrify both the clubhouse and the stands, teams also need to be sure to surround those lightning rods with seasoned veterans who can ground them and show them how to navigate the storms that come with success and fame.
So do the Cubs need to get younger? No. In fact, the numbers appear to indicate that they'd be better off getting a little older. That's not to say they shouldn't be moving Bryant and Baez up in fairly short order (though my colleague, Gunther Dabynsky, provided a compelling argument for Bryant to remain at AA for a while), but that they need to surround them with players who can bring up the team's average age.
That's really an over-simplification though, because, as the late Aaliyah taught us, age ain't nothin' but a number. The Cubs have done a great job of implementing a system to help their prospects acclimate to the Bigs, but nothing can adequately prepare a young man for the experience of playing ball in one the meat-grinder of Chicago sports.
Solid vets would not just round out the lineup, but would insulate the young players from some of the rigors of the job, both from the fans and the media. Baseball history is littered with can't-miss prospects that simply couldn't deal with the stress of the hype for one reason or another.
While they've certainly overcome some issues, one has to wonder whether stronger role models would have helped Josh Hamilton or Miguel Cabrera early in their careers. Even though all indications are that Kris Bryant has the makeup to handle the next level, it doesn't hurt to give him some help.
I wrote not long ago that the Cubs might actually be better than their record indicates, and they've been playing much better baseball since that time (7-5). Young players are knocking ever louder on the door to be let in, but if the Cubs really want to succeed, they need to find some experienced veterans to greet those youngsters when they arrive.
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