Major League Baseball is a tough, tough league to stick around. The vast majority of players drafted or signed by a major league organization never see time on a major league field, and most of the ones that do make it to the show don't stick around long. As of 2007, the average MLB player spent less than six years in the bigs. It's entirely appropriate, then, as spring approaches, that we should celebrate those players who not only beat the statistical average, but did so to such a degree that after more than 40 years on planet Earth, they are still somehow playing baseball at the highest level of competition. (Note: ages below indicate how old these players will be before July of this year.)
Bartolo Colon, 41, New York Mets
Bartolo Colon won't be the oldest player on an MLB 25-man roster this year -- that honor probably will go to Jason Giambi of the Cleveland Indians -- but Colon likely will be the only player over 40 to be his team's ace. Colon signed a two-year deal this offseason that will pay him $10 million in each of the next two seasons, and despite the fact that Colon has demonstrated an affinity for physical fitness and conditioning normally seen only in sofas, he'll be the guy the Mets turn to one day out of every five, looking for a win.
Here's the best part: Colon also will be expected to hit. Most aces get between 60 and 70 plate appearances per season in the NL. Colon will get between 60 and 70 plate appearances next year. I'm honestly kind of shocked that no American League team was willing to bid higher than the Mets for a guy who has thrown 507 innings of 3.32 ERA ball since returning to the league in 2011, but Colon does attach an impressive array of caveats to his statistical performance. He's over 40, he's listed over 260 pounds, he tends to show fatigue and flag late in the season, and he recently served a 50-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. Colon can't keep it up forever, but by the same token, there's nothing saying that he can't do at age 41 what he did at age 40.
Derek Jeter, 40, New York Yankees
The news overshadowing all other news this spring was Derek Jeter's announcement that 2014 will be his final season in the major leagues, capping a 20-season, first-ballot Hall of Fame career that … well, let's get serious. You know who Derek Jeter is. This season probably will test your patience on that front for all sorts of reasons, ranging from the fallout of the massive success of the Mariano Rivera farewell tour to the insane columns sportswriters are already penning about how the Hall of Fame rules should be changed to induct Jeter immediately. Meanwhile, there's a decent chance that he'll be the second- or third-best shortstop on his own team, if he's even able to make it into the lineup consistently. That's just how Hall of Fame careers end sometimes.
Jason Giambi, 43, Cleveland Indians
The casual baseball fan on the street probably is under the impression that Jason Giambi retired sometime around 2008 or 2009. He did not, however. Since his departure from the Yankees in free agency, Giambi's primarily has been a left-handed veteran bat on the bench, first for the Rockies and now for the Indians. There's a consistent undercurrent of teaching and mentorship that follows him around these days; when the Rockies were trying to replace fired manager Jim Tracy in 2012, Giambi not only interviewed for the managerial position while on the Rockies' active roster, but there was talk that he might be the first player/manager the league had seen since Pete Rose.
The Rockies ended up giving the job to Walt Weiss, and Giambi moved on to Cleveland, where it seems like hardly a day has gone by without Indians manager Terry Francona praising Giambi's teaching and leadership skills to high heaven. Given that ex-player managers with no formal managerial experience seem to be highly in vogue these days, this perhaps isn't the worst career move for Giambi to be making -- especially not if keeps delivering game-winning, season-changing hits late in the season, as he did for Cleveland last year.
LaTroy Hawkins, 41, Colorado Rockies
LaTroy Hawkins likely will be the oldest relief pitcher in the major leagues with a steady job this year. He's played for the Minnesota Twins, Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, New York Mets and finally the Rockies for a second time. Since his 30th birthday, he's thrown 633.2 innings of 3.20 ERA baseball, which is perfectly acceptable for the sort of veteran middle reliever who gets signed to one-year deals with a different team each season. Outside of spot duty or seniority on the staff of a basement-dwelling team, Hawkins has never really established himself as a closer, amassing only 101 total saves in 19 seasons. So when the Rockies named him the closer before camp opened this spring, it was a fairly surprising move -- or perhaps not, given the team's confusing offseason and unfortunate spring so far.
Raul Ibanez, 41, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Raul Ibanez's bizarre, late-career power surge will continue this year with the Angels, where he will take over the primary DH duties from Mark Trumbo, who was traded earlier in the offseason. For the moment, Ibanez is the oldest position player in the majors (since Giambi technically is on a minor-league deal with the Indians). Ibanez shown his age over the past few years; despite hitting about 20 HR a season from 2011-2013, both Ibanez's ability to hit for average and ability to get on base via the walk have taken significant hits as his bat speed has decreased and pitchers no longer have to pitch to him as carefully. Then again, given that Ibanez hit 29 homeruns last year in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, maybe pitchers around the American League need to go back to pitching him carefully after all. Ibanez has found a very nice niche for himself with teams able to employ the DH, and he might have another season or two of surprises left in him yet so long as his manager follows one simple, strict guideline: Do not, under any circumstances, allow Raul Ibanez to face a left-handed pitcher.
This isn't an exhaustive list; there are other over-40 bench players and guys fighting for roster spots, such as Ichiro Suzuki and Henry Blanco. These five are simply the most likely to play some sort of important role on their team in the upcoming season, even if in Jeter's case that mainly consists of stadium tributes. Old ballplayers gearing up and signing on for maybe one last hurrah is one of the more engaging parts of spring, narratively at least; now if only we could get all of their games called by Jamie Moyer and Matt Stairs, not just the ones involving the Phillies.