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For MLB veterans, there is much to lose if 2020 is canceled

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What a potentially canceled season might mean for 35-year-old pitchers at the back-end of their careers. 

NLCS - San Francisco Giants v St Louis Cardinals - Game One Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Last week we took a look at age-35+ position players whose back-end careers will be affected by a shortened or canceled season, as they may consider retirement if a season is canceled.

On the pitching side, there are nine hurlers entering their age-35 season, six of whom do not have contracts beyond 2020. Six of whom have contracts expiring after 2020.

Also on the list is Max Scherzer, who is in year six of a seven-year contract with the defending World Champion Nationals, and two Astros, Justin Verlander and Zack Grienke are inked through 2021. Our focus will be on the pitchers who will be looking for a new contract post-2020.

35+ Year Old Pitchers

Player Age Team Free Agent Year
Player Age Team Free Agent Year
Adam Wainwright 38 Cardinals 2021
Justin Verlander 37 Astros 2022
Zack Greinke 36 Astros 2022
Charlie Morton 36 Rays 2021
Anibal Sanchez 36 Nationals 2021
Jon Lester 36 Cubs 2021
Max Scherzer 35 Nationals 2022
Jeff Samardzija 35 Giants 2021
Mike Fiers 35 Athletics 2021
Italics = 2020 Contract Year

Adam Wainwright is a rare breed, having spent his entire 15 year MLB career with one team. Despite being drafted by the Braves, he ended up on the Cardinals in the 2003 J.D. Drew trade.

After a lengthy contract with St. Louis that expired in 2018, he has been going along on one-year deals for both 2019 and 2020. Last season he posted a solid 2.2 fWAR, where he managed a league-average ERA and FIP (99 and 100, respectively).

At the age of 37, he’s the oldest pitcher in baseball that is currently rostered on a Major League club. It’s fairly likely that if 2020 is canceled he’d hang-it-up. It’s one thing to ask a 20-something to get back into shape after an 18 month hiatus, but Wainwright will be 38 at that point, and the Cards may wish to allocate those resources elsewhere.

The next-oldest pitcher in the game is ‘Ground Chuck’ Charlie Morton. The 36-year-old journeyman has played for five teams over the course of his 11 year career, most recently as the excellent starter for the Tampa Bay Rays.

The disruption could not have come at a worse time for Morton, who posted his best career numbers in 2019. His 6.1 fWAR last season accounts for ⅓ of his career wins, and he set a career high in innings, throwing 194 ⅔ innings for Tampa. The ground ball machine set a career high in K-rate as well as his lowest walk rate since 2012.

Projection systems had Morton in the 4-win range for 2020, and considering he isn’t really a power-pitcher, could have set himself up for a two or three year deal.

Max Scherzer isn’t the only Nats pitcher whose contract expires after 2020, Anibal Sánchez is a free agent after this season as well. Joining the Nationals rotation following a 2018 pillow-contract with the Braves, he helped deliver the Nats the franchise’s first World Championship.

Although Washington mainly rode to the World Series on the backs of Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, Sanchez pitched decently in NLDS game three, where he went five innings and gave up only one run via a solo shot. In NLCS game one, he went 7 ⅔ shutout innings, which led Washington to a 2-0 victory. His performance in game six did not go as well, he gave up four runs in 5 ⅓ innings.

Sánchez is still a serviceable pitcher, who at the age of 35, would likely be able to find a home for at least one more year in 2021, regardless of whether or not the season is canceled.

Jon Lester turned 36 in January, is as a cancer survivor, is one of the high-risk players in MLB, should the league and players come to an agreement to play in 2020. Lester signed a six-year deal in 2014 at the age of 31, and will likely go down as one of the best free agent signings in Cubs history.

Lester helped lead the 2016 team to the organization’s first World Series championship since 1908, and he has amassed a ton of value in a Cubs uniform. If he elects free agency, he has a $25 million team option, or a $10 million buyout. Will the Cubs want to pay $25 million to a 37 year old starter who hasn’t pitched in 18 months?

Jeff Samardzija is in the last year of his four-year deal with the Giants after 2020. The 35-year-old posted a reasonable 3.52 earned run average, but his 4.59 FIP tells another story. Bit by 28 home runs in just over 180 innings, he was lucky he didn’t allow more runs to score.

It’s highly unlikely the Giants would want to invest in a veteran pitcher, as they’re at the point where they can throw cheaper, even if it’s lesser, talent on the field as part of their rebuilding plan.

Last on the list is Athletics starter Mike Fiers, who in the last year of a two-year contract, was fighting for a starting spot. Fiers turns 35 in two weeks, and may end up being a fifth or sixth starter for someone in 2021, should he pursue another contract.

If Fiers is open to a long-man bullpen role, there’s a better chance we’ll see him elsewhere in 2021, but the future is murky for the veteran righty.

In addition to the players above, there are two other pitchers who are worth mentioning, neither of whom appear on an active roster for 2020, but both of whom are trying to keep their careers going.

Félix Hernández, has a stated goal to get to the 200-win 3000-K mark before hanging up his cleats. Although he’s younger than anyone else discussed above, he’s also the one whose career has been the most derailed by age. A Seattle icon, Hernández had a terrible 2019, and ended up pitching the fewest number of innings of his 15 year career.

The other pitcher worth mentioning is Bartolo Colon, who at the age of 47, has publicly stated that he wishes to get one last go-round in the MLB circuit.

Both King Felix and Big Sexy are fan favorites, despite not having been at the top of their game for years (or decades, in the case of Colon). A 2020 season may end the bids of both past-their-prime players, as it becomes increasingly unlikely a team will want to roster either player if they haven’t thrown a Major League pitch in years.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano