Long-tenured players a rarity

Rob Neyer is on vacation. Two guest columns will run in his place on Thursday and Friday of this week.

A few weeks ago, Ben McGrath wrote an essay in The New Yorker about knuckleball pitchers. Not surprisingly, McGrath focused on Tim Wakefield, the best (of two) knuckleballers in the majors today.

The article did have one surprise, however, and it had nothing to do with the knuckleball. What floored me is that Wakefield, now in his 10th season with the Red Sox, has been with the club longer than any of his teammates. Nomar Garciaparra would've been my guess, and I would've been close. Nomar, in his ninth season in Boston, has the second-longest tenure on the team. So that got me to wondering ... who are the longest-tenured members of each of the 30 major league teams? And that led to a related question ... What happened to the days of Yaz and Williams and Rice, and all those guys who spent decades with one team -- have the tenures of mainstay players shortened over recent decades?

To answer these questions, I compiled a chart of each of the two most senior players for each team in 2004 and in 1975, in terms of consecutive years of service (including time spent on the DL, and including any season in which he appeared in a game). While this method counts players like Atlanta's Chipper Jones (who debuted in 1993, but missed all of 1994 with an injury), it does not count players like Baltimore's Rafael Palmeiro, now in his second go-round with the team. Here are a few of the more interesting findings for current players:

  • The longest tenured member of any single team in the majors today is Barry Larkin, now in his 19th season with the Reds.

  • The longest combined tenure for two teammates belongs to Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, whose 31 combined seasons (17 and 14, respectively) for the Astros narrowly outpaced the two pairs of stalwart second-place finishers at 29 combined seasons, Edgar Martinez (18) and Dan Wilson (11) of the Mariners and John Smoltz (17) and Chipper Jones (12) of the Braves.

  • The longest tenure for a player who did not begin his career with that team? Larkin's former teammate John Franco, now in his 15th season with the Mets.

  • Not surprisingly, the Devil Rays finish last in these standings, having the shortest-tenured "long-termers," with Aubrey Huff and Toby Hall both playing only their fifth seasons with the club (the combined 10 years for their top two players also places Tampa Bay in the cellar). But the Brewers aren't far behind, with Geoff Jenkins (seven) and Ben Sheets (four) combining for only 11 seasons as Beermen.

  • The most surprising long-termer? I was shocked to find that Darren Dreifort is in his 11th season with the Dodgers (then again, two of those seasons were spent on the DL), far longer than his teammate Adrian Beltre, now playing in his seventh season.

    To answer my second question, I went with a somewhat anecdotal approach and selected the 1975 season for comparison to 2004. (Obviously, there are more scientific ways to measure roster consistency over the years, but science takes time and I do have a family to neglect.) I picked 1975 not only because (like 2004) it was six years after an expansion, but also because (unlike 2004) it was one of the last seasons before the advent of wholesale free agency.

    I think most of us have the impression that today's stars are far more transient than those of the halcyon days of day-glo uniforms, Charlie Finley's donkey and Carlton's Fisk's World Series heroics. So do they still make old-timers today like they made them in 1975?

    They do. The longest-tenured member of any team in 1975 was Baltimore's Brooks Robinson, at 21 seasons, only two more than Larkin today. Behind Robinson was Bob Gibson, in his 17th season in St. Louis, one fewer than Edgar Martinez has spent with the Mariners. In 1975, the longest second-most tenured players for any team were Detroit's Gates Brown and Mickey Lolich, and Boston's Rico Petrocelli, all of them in their 13th consecutive season for their teams. But in 2004, Jeff Bagwell has them beat.

    Looking at the 2004 and 1975 seasons from an aggregate view, they don't appear much different, either. On average, the longest-tenured players in 1975 had played 11.1 seasons for their teams, while the longest-tenured players in 2004 have played 11.2 seasons. Expanding the survey to the second-longest tenured members of each team gives a slight advantage to 1975, with an average of 8.4 seasons vs. 7.5 seasons for 2004. Combining the seasons for the two longest-tenured members for each team, 1975 comes out on top (but just barely), 19.5 combined seasons to 18.7.

    Any other way we care to slice the data -- for instance, using only the original 16 teams, to eliminate the effect of the more recent expansions of 1993 and 1998 -- yields pretty comparable results for both years. For example, of the original 16 teams, eight had more combined seasons from their top two long-termers in 2004, and eight had more seasons from those two in 1975.

    If you're a Yankees fan today, you've enjoyed 24 combined seasons from Bernie Williams (14) and Mariano Rivera (10); in 1975 fans had seen Roy White (11) and Thurman Munson (seven) for only 18 combined seasons in the Bronx. On the other hand, Pirates fans can long for the familiar faces of Willie Stargell (14) and Manny Sanguillen (nine) who had spent 23 seasons in Pittsburgh by 1975, compared to today's "stalwarts" Jason Kendall (nine) and Abraham Nunez (eight). Yes, you read that right: after Kendall, Nunez is the old man of the Pirates. Nunez may be a surprise, but Kendall has it in his genes; in 1975, his father, Fred Kendall, was in his seventh season in San Diego as the last of the original Padres. Those Kendalls are mighty loyal fellows.

    Steven Schulman, the creator of the relief pitching statistic Runs Prevented (further developed and consistently updated by Michael Wolverton of Baseball Prospectus as Adjusted Runs Prevented), is an attorney practicing in Washington, D.C. Special thanks to baseballreference.com for making this research possible.