I was speaking with Mike Piazza in a side room off the Mets' clubhouse in September when the conversation turned to his aging body. Being one of the most good-natured guys in the big leagues, Piazza didn't bristle at the topic, but spoke about it honestly and thoughtfully.
"I compare it to a new car," Piazza said. "When you get a new car, the power windows go up quick -- it's quicker and you get more response. And then when it gets older, little things start to break. Things fall off. Our bodies are machines. You have to be pragmatic. You have to be realistic.
"I'm not OK with not producing, but you do have to go, 'Wait a minute, let's be real here. You are who you are.' Everyone knows it, everyone times you, scouts know. It's not a big mystery."
Perhaps, but what remains a relative mystery is why Piazza, who still hit 19 home runs in 398 at-bats last year, nonetheless hasn't hooked on with a major-league club. Nor has Sammy Sosa. And until he came to an agreement with the A's Wednesday, neither had Frank Thomas. Usually, it's exactly this type of likely Hall of Famer, the guys with overvalued "track records," who get repeated, enthusiastic chances from clubs living in the past. Not this winter.
Though aging as Piazza described, these guys aren't exactly doddering up to the plate with canes and bifocals. Piazza has said he's comfortable with becoming a full-time DH, something that can only help his still-potent bat. Sosa had a draining 2005, of course, but just one year removed from 35 home runs certainly has some upside. Thomas still has a stroke atop his troublesome ankle: He's smoked 30 home runs in his last 345 at-bats, while drawing 80 walks.
(As for Rafael Palmeiro, who before July's bitter -- vitamin! -- pill was not unproductive, either, he has not conveyed a firm desire to play in 2006, and suitors aren't exactly seeking to bring him in.)
One vital caveat: Surely, every one of these guys would have attracted far more interest by now for a certain price, so let's not cue any violins. The discrepancy over value -- are they worth $3 million plus incentives? What about a minor league deal for now? -- is the bugaboo, causing the surprising (and perhaps prudent for clubs) delay.
Before he signed Wednesday, Thomas had indeed appeared to be the most alluring. A's general manager Billy Beane would sign an anvil if it had power, so he was a prime candidate not to fixate on that ankle. Beane isn't big on uncertainty, and he can assume that Thomas will be either productive or injured; that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Just what can a club expect from Thomas? Here are projected lines from two top prognosticators, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA method and Baseball Info Solutions' Bill James system, which compare players to past ones on the basis of performance, age, injury history and more:
Depending on the money, that's a valuable player. My guess is that any hurt that Thomas inflicts in '06 will be more on opponents, particularly those who passed on him, than his employers.
"When he's out there, Frank is very, very dangerous," said one club executive while assessing Thomas last week. "You'd be crazy not to look at him seriously."
As for Piazza, the issue of not catching anymore is hard to quantify. Here are his projected lines, which cannot take that into account:
Piazza, who turned 37 in September, has spent his 13 seasons claiming that the responsibilities of catching helped his offense, because he couldn't obsess about hitting. But in September he was almost looking forward to what just DHing -- and avoiding the daily beating his hands, knees and back took behind the plate -- could mean.
"My mind isn't great at multitasking," he said. "When I focus on catching a game and calling a game, I don't put a lot of stress -- not a lot of thought -- into my hitting. I try to let it flow naturally. But there are also times when I get really intense about my hitting. I feel like I can turn up that intensity as well. My numbers at DH have always been pretty good because I feel like, 'Man, now I don't have to worry about catching, just study the pitcher and films.'"
The Angels have long been supposed suitors for Piazza -- their DHs last season combined to be among the American League's worst, and Piazza has enjoyed Southern California before -- but GM Bill Stoneman has indicated that he's comfortable having manager Mike Scioscia mix Juan Rivera, Dallas McPherson and perhaps a few others there in '06. The Twins' interest has cooled, as will undoubtedly Oakland's. Toronto could happen, and ESPN.com's Jayson Stark reported Tuesday that the Phillies, even without a DH, are interested, too.
"I think some people are missing an important point with Piazza," one AL scout said. "In a jam, the guy can catch. He's versatile in a backwards sort of way."
Sosa's going backwards himself, and quickly. His getting $17 million for his .221-14-45 season in Baltimore last year was one of history's all-time heists. And depending on the reason for his decline, from his foot injuries, simple aging -- 36-year-olds do occasionally fall off the cliff -- the steroids hullabaloo or some combination of the above, Sosa either remains a dangerous hitter or an outfielders' Bret Boone.
The projections for Sosa:
Clearly, James is bullish while BP remains, as it usually does, more skeptical. It appears that while Mets GM Omar Minaya (for a reasonable cost) could have interest in rehabbing all that is Sammy in right field, the Nationals have more interest in using him in left. Again, it all depends on the price, and let's just say that in Sosa's case, it probably ain't going up.
Will Piazza's and Sosa's contract ideas finally mesh with what the few teams interested in them will pay, and join Thomas in uniform? Count on it. We'll see the full trio in spring training. (And, given their ages and histories, one will likely be on the disabled list come Opening Day.)
In the end, all three still could emerge as legitimate (if limited) contributors again in 2006. For the clubs that figure out how, and for how much, this wait will have been worth it.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer at Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.