A strange scene played out at Minute Maid Park on Monday. At a time when major league front offices cherish young and inexpensive players more than ever, the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals, two teams featuring several stars and a long list of contributors in their 30s, conducted workouts in preparation for the World Series.
They are two of the four clubs in the major leagues with the oldest players, and they are four victories from a championship. They have zagged where others zigged, they have thrived and they will play Game 1 on Tuesday.
“Our slogan is, ‘Let the viejos play,’” said Sean Doolittle, the Nationals’ 33-year-old reliever, using the Spanish word for old men. “It’s definitely something that, as a group, we take a lot of pride in.”
The teams, in addition to sharing a spring-training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., have also allocated substantial resources to veteran starting pitching, bucking another trend that had teams rely more heavily on bullpens in recent years. And although they stay below the luxury tax line — a threshold that doubles as a de facto salary cap, four of the 10 highest-paid players in baseball will play in the Series. They’re all workhorse starting pitchers, two for each team, and they’re all in their 30s.
Washington’s Stephen Strasburg ($38.3 million) and Max Scherzer ($37.4 million), the Game 1 starter, were paid the most money in baseball this season. Houston’s Zack Greinke had the third-highest salary at $34.5 million and teammate Justin Verlander’s $28 million was ninth. Strasburg is 31 and Scherzer is 35. Greinke turned 36 on Monday and Verlander is 36.
Patrick Corbin, the third cog in the Nationals’ premier troika, turned 30 in July and signed a six-year, $140-million contract in the offseason. Gerrit Cole, 29, is the baby of the group of six elite starters in the Series. The Astros’ Game 1 starter has emerged as their ace at just the right time — before hitting free agency after this season. He is expected to command a contract that will vault him into his colleagues’ paycheck stratosphere.
The Astros acquired each of their top three starting pitchers in trades. Verlander joined them during the 2017 season, which Houston capped by beating the Dodgers in the Series, Cole landed before the start of last season and Greinke was three months ago. Houston has 35-year-old Yuli Gurriel at first base, 32-year-old All-Star Michael Brantley in left field, and mid-30s catchers Martin Maldonado and Robinson Chirinos.
The veterans supplement a younger core of position players that the Astros, for the most part, drafted and developed as they endured three consecutive 100-loss seasons at the start of the decade to keep their window for contention ajar.
“I think our team did a good job of acquiring pieces,” said Alex Bregman, the Astros’ 25-year-old third baseman and an American League MVP candidate. “Everyone says ‘Oh, the Astros lost 100 games and then they just drafted high.’ Well, they also spent some money and made some big acquisitions.”
The Nationals were the oldest team in the majors this season. Of the 50 players who appeared in a game for them, 26 were at least 30 years old. They employ the oldest player in baseball, 42-year-old reliever Fernando Rodney. Howie Kendrick, 36, was the National League Championship Series MVP. Ryan Zimmerman, the franchise’s first draft pick after moving to Washington from Montreal in 2005, is 35 and still producing. Anibal Sanchez, 35, and Gerardo Parra, 32, are credited for keeping the clubhouse loose.
Their experience was imperative when the Nationals went into May 24 with a 19-31 record. The team’s championship window appeared slammed shut after four NL East titles this decade without a postseason series victory to show for it.
Manager Dave Martinez’s seat was getting uncomfortably hot. Speculation of a fire sale to begin a rebuild in the wake of Bryce Harper’s departure surfaced. Reaching the playoffs, never mind the Series, was a longshot.
That all seems so long ago. They were 74-38 over the last 112 regular-season games to nab a wild-card spot, outlasted the Milwaukee Brewers in the wild-card game, toppled the Dodgers in an NL Division Series, and needed only four games to dismiss the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS.
“The veteran presence in our clubhouse was a reason why we were able to right the ship in May and ride that out,” Doolittle said. “I don’t know if a younger team kind of mails that in.”
The Nationals didn’t and, as a result, are playing in the Series for the first time in franchise history. Across from them will be a team that expected to be there all along, a 107-win juggernaut vying for a second championship in three years. The paths were different, but the birth certificates are a lot alike.
Sports Illustrated reported Monday that amid the Astros’ clubhouse celebration after winning the ALCS, assistant general manager Brandon Taubman turned to a group of three female reporters and yelled repeatedly, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so . . . glad we got Osuna!”
The Astros traded for Toronto Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna in 2018 after he was suspended for 75 games for allegedly assaulting the mother of his child.
The Astros responded with a statement saying Osuna “was being asked questions about a difficult outing [he had given up a two-run home run to the New York Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu in the ninth inning]. ... [Taubman’s] comments had everything to do with the game situation that just occurred and nothing else — they were not directed at any specific reporters.”