My first thought was an albatross. These sort of contracts used to be called “player-friendly”, but now they are dismissed by clubs and the media as bad deals.
We can all see that as teams become more analytically savvy, fewer high-dollar/long-length contracts are being awarded to free agents.
Sometimes, the contracts “go bad” for the club straight away – looking at you Eric Hosmer. Other times, they just look poor value for money in the latter part of the deal, but the team has already enjoyed elite production from the player in the earlier years.
This article is not taking sides in the divisive players vs. owners battle of salary contracts; it is just taking a look at some of the contracts that teams wish they could do over.
To simplify the comparison, I have used the 2019 payroll salary as detailed on the Spotrac website.
The contract that looks the worst in 2019 is that of Dodgers’ newly-acquired catcher Russell Martin, who will earn $20 million this season. Only three regular catchers had a lower OPS last year.
When the Blue Jays secured the services of Martin before the 2015 season, it was the second-largest contract ever handed out by the franchise, behind the infamous seven-year, $126 million Vernon Wells deal.
Unfortunately, Martin’s offensive production has declined in each of the last five years, with a career-low of .194 AVG last season.
Despite the way it played out, the Blue Jays probably don’t regret the deal. Martin was the highest profile Canadian player at the time, and they needed an inspirational figure to marshal the team during their window of competitiveness.
Stats cannot measure the benefit a leader like Martin can bring to a team, but $20 million for a 36-year-old catcher with dodgy knees certainly sounds like a “player friendly” deal.
Eric Hosmer is one year into a San Diego Padres’ franchise record, $144 million, eight-year contract. He hit 18 home runs with .253 AVG and 99 OPS+ (100 OPS+ equates to league average).
Whichever way you cut it, 2018 was a very disappointing start to the deal. His long-term future at first base ties the Padres’ hands with Wil Myers who is being shifted back to the outfield. This impacts the development of Padres’ rising stars (Franmil Reyes, Manny Margot, Hunter Renfroe, Franchy Cordero and others). Two of whom will not see everyday action in the majors.
Despite the poor return for the Padres on Hosmer’s contract, it is premature to write him off as a substandard player. He was a 119 OPS+ player over the three seasons before he joined the Padres, so look for a bounce back in 2019.
Albert Pujols, who appears on the designated hitter page of the Spotrac website, will earn $28 million this season. He will get $29 million next year and then $30 million as a 41-year-old in 2021 when his 10-year, $240 million deal expires.
There is sufficient suspicion to think that Pujols is a good couple of years older than his “official” age, so maybe he will be 43 years old when he stops drawing a wage from the Angels.
Although ridiculed for his current contributions, Pujols is one of the greatest players of his generation, and even in the first five years of this contract, he averaged 29 home runs with 98 RBI and .266 AVG to make him a 123 OPS+ player.
The worst value contract for a first baseman is that of Orioles’ Chris Davis. His 2018 season was monumentally bad. Never before in the history of the game has a player made more than 500 plate appearances and hit below .170 AVG
The two-time home run king’s production fell off a cliff after signing the $161 million contract in 2016. Over the last three years, he has slashed .202/.298/.397 (.695 OPS), and his presence in the heart of the Orioles lineup until the end of 2022 dramatically impacts their rebuilding effort.
It is interesting that there is no crossover between the eight best second basemen in 2018 and the eight highest paid second basemen.
By whatever metric you choose, in the 13 years since he debuted, Cano has been an elite player. Multiple All-Star appearances, a career batting average over .300, and in the ten years from 2007, he was on the field almost every day, averaging 159 games per season.
However, $24 million looks a lot to pay a guy who missed half of last season with a PED suspension.
It is difficult to know the benefit a mid-30s sportsman gets from using performance-enhancing drugs or how their production will decline once clean, but Cano was awesome when he returned for the final 40 games of the season, hitting .317 AVG with six home runs and .890 OPS.
Bouncing back from PED suspensions impacts players differently. His former Mariners’ teammate Nelson Cruz continues to excel well into the late-30s, whereas others like another former Mariners teammate Dee Gordon have declined down to sub-replacement level. There are, of course, other factors that have contributed to Gordon’s decline.
There is not a particularly poor value contract among the highest paid third basemen. On production alone over the last couple of years, Martin Prado has been a big disappointment, but a hamstring injury and then a strained quad caused him to miss 233 games over the last two years. Susceptibility to injury is inevitably greater as a player ages.
Like third base, there are no anomalies here. Even the least productive player (Zack Cozart) has been worth nearly 7.5 WAR over the last three seasons, and that is despite only playing 58 games in 2018.
In comparison to second, third and short, the outfield has plenty of contenders for the worse value contract.
Gordon signed a four-year, $72 million contract with the Kansas City Royals in 2016 on the back of five great years when he posted .809 OPS (121 OPS+). Although he has only accumulated 2.1 WAR over the last three years, Gordon has a career WAR second only to Mike Trout on the list of top-8 outfield salaries.
Easily the worst outfielder defensively on the list is Matt Kemp, who is in the final year of an eight-year, $160 million deal. Due to his defensive liabilities, he has only managed 1.8 WAR over the last three seasons combined, despite being an All-Star in 2018 with a slash line of .290/.338/.481.
Injury prevented Jacoby Ellsbury appearing in the majors in 2018, and he had been a below-average player in the previous three seasons. The Yankees are paying him a further $42 million through to the end of 2020.
Even when healthy, Ellsbury will likely be the fourth outfielder (or fifth if you include the times Giancarlo Stanton will play in the outfield to allow Luke Voit, Greg Bird or Gary Sanchez to DH), which will confine highly-rated prospect Clint Frazier to the minors.
The second highest paid outfielder is Yoenis Cespedes who will earn over $58 million until the end of 2020. Even with the Mets taking on the bulk of Robinson Cano’s huge contract, Cespedes equates to about 20% of their 2019 payroll.
Injuries have been the feature of Cespedes’ career with the Mets, and he will be out until June following heel surgery. The Cuban missed half a season in 2017 and then only played 38 games in 2018. Despite this, he has an .890 OPS over his 308 appearances for the Mets.
As a 20-year-old, Jason Heyward crushed Major League pitching. When he hit free agency six years later, he was clearly one of the best 15 hitters in the game.
He reportedly turned down more money from the St Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals, and instead agreed to join the Chicago Cubs on an eight-year, $184 million contract.
It has not panned out as Cubs’ president of baseball operations Theo Epstein hoped, although Heyward accumulated 2.0 WAR in 2018. The collective sighs of relief from the front offices in St Louis and Washington are almost palpable.
Despite there being many contenders for the contract offering the least value, you need to look beyond the top-8, down to 13th position.
Yasmany Tomas signed a six-year, $68 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015 which will pay him $15.5 million this year and $17 million next season.
Over the course of 305 Major League games, he has hit 48 home runs with .268 AVG to accumulate -0.4 WAR. This season, he will earn $1 million more than former Diamondbacks’ superstar Paul Goldschmidt.
In March 2018, the Cuban was demoted to the minors and removed from the 40-man roster. He will play for the Reno Aces, Arizona’s Triple-A affiliate, in 2019. And who says clubs don’t spend big money on Minor League wages?
Elite pitchers can demand sensational contracts. Of the 16 players who will earn at least $25 million this year, ten are pitchers.
Once you get further down the food chain, only one-third of the 112 players earning between $10 million to $25 million are pitchers.
2019 is the final year of a seven-year, $175 million contract Felix Hernandez signed with the Seattle Mariners.
After so many years of elite outings in his 20s, the King’s career nosedived after his 30th birthday. Over the last three seasons, Hernandez has posted 4.62 ERA with a dwindling strikeout rate and an escalating walk rate.
Unfortunately, the $27 million he will earn this season looks to be the worst value of all of the high-roller pitchers.
However, Hernandez has pitched more than 2,600 innings for Seattle with a career 3.34 ERA and 168 wins. They have definitely had their money’s worth from the Venezuelan.
So instead, the accolade of worst value contract goes to Jordan Zimmermann.
In 2016, Al Avila’s first major signing after becoming the Tigers GM was to secure the former Nationals’ starter to a five-year, $110 million deal.
“This is really a dream come true. In this situation, I don’t know if it’s rare or not. He was No. 1 on everyone’s list. It’s pretty reassuring”
Al Avila, after beating out the competition to sign free agent Jordan Zimmermann
In the three ensuing seasons, Zimmermann has posted a 5.24 ERA with 1.41 WHIP over 72 starts to accumulate 3.2 WAR. And although they are trying to rebuild, the Tigers have Zimmermann and his $25 million contract in their rotation both this season and in 2020.
In 2017, Mark Melancon signed a four-year, $62 million contract with the San Francisco Giants and promptly capitulated.
Although hampered by injury since moving to the Bay Area, Melancon’s ERA is 3.78 with 1.52 WHIP over 73 appearances. It is difficult to foresee him providing value for the $19 million he will earn in 2019.
Paying bullpen guys big bucks is a relatively new development. It is easy to see the knock-on effect that contracts like Melancon’s can have on future deals. Despite being the best reliever on the current free agent market, Craig Kimbrel, who will be 31 in May, remains unsigned. Wherever he lands, there is a good chance he will end up on this list next year.
Back to the collective noun. If you don’t like albatross, how about a Boras of terrible contracts?