People like to wax poetic about how baseball blossoms in spring, bringing with it the promise of a new year, and winds down as the October chill portends winter's death grip. Similarly, each season hearkens the arrival of a great new talent, as well as the often ugly end of a storied career.
Last year Bryce Harper and Mike Trout emerged, performing at levels unheard of for 19- and 20-year-olds, and this year there are any number of young stars in the making. And we saw the curtain fall on a few, as well — rare is the ballplayer like Chipper Jones who walks away from the game while still playing at a high level.
Here's a look at five talented veterans for whom the end is nigh and five youngsters who should be keeping us glued to our seats for the next decade or so.
Carlos Beltran, St. Louis Cardinals
Following the 2012 regular season and playoffs, one could make a compelling argument that Beltran is one of the 10 best center fielders in the game's history, as well as one of the all-time great post-season hitters (2006 be damned), but the party's over in 2013. He's still got some pop, as witnessed by his 32 home runs in 2012, but that number feels flukey -- it represents a five-year high, and his third-best total ever. In the second half of 2012, he hit only .230, his speed is gone, his strikeout rate jumped 36%, his walk rate continues to wane, and even with his move from center to right in 2011, his defense ain't what it once was.
Bartolo Colon, Oakland Athletics
This guy's been playing with house money and cutting-edge medical technology for some time now, but 2012 was likely the last hurrah. His strikeouts fell last year from 7.4 to 5.4 per nine innings, he's going to be 40 in May and he'll (probably) be pitching without the benefit of the PED's that helped fuel him last year. It's a testament to his durability, guts and guile that he's lasted this long.
Travis D'Arnaud, New York Mets
Just 24, D'Arnaud has already twice been traded for Cy Young Award winners, Roy Halladay in 2010 and R.A. Dickey this past off-season. Over the last three seasons, the catcher hit 43 home runs and batted .303 in 966 minor league at-bats — he's ready. Unfortunately, because of MLB's ridiculous service-time rules for rookies, Mets fans are probably going to have to wait until May or June to see him, but it should be worth it.
Josh Hamilton, Los Angeles Angels
Over the first six years of his career, Hamilton put up numbers reminiscent of Hall of Famers like Jim Rice, Orlando Cepeda and Eddie Murray. But that first season didn't come until he was 26, and at 32 he's nearing, if not already into, his decline phase. While we're rooting for the former crack addict to keep his impulsive demons under control, last year he drank so much Red Bull that it was affecting his eyesight, forcing him to miss 5 games in the heat of a pennant race. This contributed the Rangers having to play a one-game playoff with the Orioles, a game in which Hamilton went 0-for-4 with 2 strikeouts. And he's going from hitter-happy Ballpark at Arlington to the Death Valley that is Anaheim. You also have to wonder if it's wise for a guy like Hamilton, a chiseled slab of muscle, to drop 20 pounds in the off-season.
Torii Hunter, Detroit Tigers
For 16 years, Hunter could reliably be counted on to hit 20 home runs with 90 RBIs while playing Gold Glove defense and being exceedingly likable. Last year, at the age of 36, he posted one of his best seasons, but it was an illusion. Heading into last season, Hunter got a hit on 30% of the balls he put into play, but in 2012 that jumped to 39%. Spikes like this from players Hunter's age are not the result of a new approach, a fountain of youth, steroids or any such tangible thing; they are instead the result of luck. If Hunter regresses to his career norm, he'll hit about .250 instead of .313. Throw in the fact that his home runs fell about 20%, his walks are down about 10%, his strikeouts are on the rise and he's about to turn 37, and you've got a recipe for disaster.
Derek Jeter, New York Yankees
You could float the QE II in the ink that's been wasted predicting the demise of Derek Jeter, but it has to happen someday — doesn’t it? Jeter will be 39 in June, and only five shortstops in the game's history have managed to play a full season at 39+, most recently Omar Vizquel in 2006. Yes, Jeter led the league in hits last year, but even before breaking his ankle -- an injury that has not yet fully healed, and forced him to start the season on the DL — he couldn’t run like he used to. He'll be sharing the left side of the diamond with an aging and ailing Kevin Youkilis (or worse), and did we mention he's gonna be 39? Pre-order your gift baskets now.
Brett Lawrie, Toronto Blue Jays
In 2012, Lawrie's first full season, the 22-year-old third baseman put up offensive numbers reminiscent of Scott Rolen, Adrian Beltre and Evan Longoria, plus defense to match. It was at age 23 that Rolen and Longoria blossomed into 30 HR, 100 RBI guys, with Beltre blowing up at 24. Lawrie will need to curb the temper that earned him a 4-game suspension last season, and get his recently re-injured ribs healthy once and for all, but he's poised to make the leap.
Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles muddled through the first two-thirds of the season with a collection of five different guys playing nine or more games at 3rd. That changed on Aug. 9, when 19-year-old rookie Manny Machado got called up. Machado hit 7 home runs with 26 RBI and a .262 batting average, while flashing some nice leather at the hot corner, helping the O's go 33-17 down the stretch. Those numbers may seem modest, but consider that in a third of a season, Machado hit more homers than all but eight 19-year-olds ever, including Mickey Mantle, Mel Ott, Robin Yount, Ken Griffey Jr, Bryce Harper and Tony Conigliaro. The kid can rake.
Wil Meyers, Tampa Bay Rays
Last year in the minors, Meyers hit 37 home runs, posted a .387 OBP, and had Royal's fans salivating at the idea of him joining their lineup of young studs. But Kansas City management had other plans. Apparently feeling they were within shouting distance of playoff contention (they're not), they made a "win now" trade, shipping Meyers to Tampa for starter James Shields and reliever Wade Davis. Kansans will rue this trade, although he may get held back at the start of the season because of service time issues.
Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cubs
At 28, he's a little old for a breakout season, but after four years coming out of the pen, the former Notre Dame star receiver played his first season in the Cubs rotation in 2012. On June 27, he got toasted by the Mets, surrendering 9 runs in 4.1 innings, and bringing his ERA to a beefy 5.05. But over his last 13 starts, Samardzija went 7-6 with 95 strikeouts and only 22 walks in 87.1 innings. According to Cubs manager Dale Sveum, it was his last start of 2012, a complete game against Pittsburgh, in which he recorded 9 strikeouts and gave up 3 runs on 4 hits and a walk, that Samardzija earned this year's Opening Day start. The Cubs will likely stink in 2013, so it may not show up in his record, but Samardzija should have a nice year ahead of him.