I was struck by the news last week that reliever Branden Kline was hanging up the cleats at age 29. The once highly-touted right-hander never fully established himself as a major league pitcher after being labeled a top prospect for Baltimore once upon a time.
A Frederick native, Kline’s professional baseball career spanned eight years, starting when the Orioles selected him in the second round of the 2012 draft out of the University of Virginia. He was a minor league starter at first, but underwent injury problems and transitioned to the bullpen for good before making it to the show.
More recently, he’s been shuttled constantly between the majors and minors over the past two seasons, putting up a 5.93 ERA in 41 innings in 2019 and a 1.80 ERA in only five innings last year. He wasn’t recalled from the O’s Alternate Training Site until September 4th of last year, yet the club found a way to option him back to the Bowie two more times in the final month of the season. After the 2020 season ended, Kline was optioned to the Norfolk Tides on October 29th. He elected to become a free agent the same day.
Way back when, he was the Orioles’ 9th ranked prospect after the 2012 season and 29th ranked prospect at the start of the 2016 season, according to Baseball America.
With MLB trending the way it is, are we more likely to see players in the future retire before they hit their 30th birthday?
Even before the pandemic-ravaged 2020 baseball season, MLB was intent on minor league contraction. Those changes came to pass just last month. There were bound to be ripple effects, and while Kline wasn’t a low-level minor leaguer, maybe he saw the writing on the wall and wanted to give up the rat race. We’ll never know for sure every single factor that went into his decision.
Elsewhere in baseball, 31-year-old outfielder George Springer just signed a six-year, $150 million contract with the Blue Jays. Yes, he plays a different position than Kline and is still at the top of his game, but he’s two years older than Kline, too.
As far as MLB roster ages, Statista lists the average age of the Orioles in 2020 as 27.4 years. There were only two younger teams last season: the Seattle Mariners (26.9) and the San Diego Padres (26.7).
For comparison, here’s the average age of the four other teams in the AL East in 2020, in descending order: New York Yankees (29), Boston Red Sox (28.6), Tampa Bay Rays (28), and Toronto Blue Jays (27.9). Last year’s World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers had an average age of 28.
Looking at Baseball Reference’s figures on roster age, we can dive deeper into the difference between the ages of Orioles hitters and pitchers in 2020. Those numbers were 26.3 and 28.3, respectively.
The outliers on Baltimore’s roster last year in terms of age included relief pitcher Cesar Valdez (35), first baseman Chris Davis (34) and starter Alex Cobb (32). The only other player over 30 years of age was reliever Cole Sulser.
The Orioles’ average batter age was second youngest in all of baseball last year. Now imagine how much it would drop if Chris Davis were not on the team.
When the notion of age comes up in baseball, or any sport for that matter, it can lead to discussions of how to balance youth with experience. Of course leadership and a solid veteran presence is vital for any good team.
Yet the Orioles have not gotten to the point of their rebuild when supplementing the team’s core with a sprinkling of veterans — like Springer, for example — has become realistic. Right now, Trey Mancini is one of the best, and only, examples of an experienced veteran leader. But he’ll be 29 years old when the upcoming season starts and could become a free agent after the 2022 season.
With or without Mancini, whenever the Orioles become better prepared to compete, expect an increase in overall roster age.
Here’s the 2020 average age of the four other teams in the AL East, in descending order: New York Yankees (29), Boston Red Sox (28.6), Tampa Bay Rays (28), and Toronto Blue Jays (27.9). Last year’s World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers had an average age of 28.
Bringing things back to Branden Kline though, his situation is still a bit puzzling. As a former high draft pick with a legit fastball, it still seems curious as to why he would throw in the towel now.
Even though Kline was a free agent at the time he retired, an Orioles reunion wasn’t entirely out of the question. The Birds still have a few unsettled spots in their bullpen, like so many other teams Kline might’ve signed on with. But he won’t be making those types of decisions anymore now that he’s stepped away. The next wave of talent will be up soon for the O’s, bringing with it a whole new group of players to keep track of.