Baseball’s worst contracts

Kevin Brown became the first Major League Baseball player to get paid more than $100 million. Mostly a greedy jerk, Brown is also something of a pioneer. He paved the way for every God-awful, untradeable, “what were they thinking!” mega-contract MLB general managers have handed out since. As Jason Bay, Matt Holiday and John Lackey wait with bated breath to add their names to the list of players who got theirs, and in the process crippled a franchise, lets take a moment to reflect on baseball’s worst contracts.

There are two rules to this game. First, the contract needs to be reasonably current. This is neither the time nor place to rant about Mo Vaughn. Second, the contract has to be eye-popping. By all accounts J.D. Drew’s $70 million dollar deal is bad, but it would only make this list if the Red Sox had given him two more years and another $30 million.

Contracts are evaluated with the following criteria:

1) The player’s age at the time of the deal is crucial. Is it ever defensible to sign a player who is at least 30 years old to a 10-year deal? I say no.

2) The player’s historical performance leading up to the deal also matters, a lot. Adrian Beltre put up an OPS+ of 163 in 2004, a contract year, just when the steroids scandal was coming into focus. In the three seasons prior his best OPS+ was 97 and he followed that gem up with an 88 in the season before his breakout year. Was he likely to maintain his torrid 2004 pace? Absolutely not. Did the Mariners rush to give him $64 million over five years? You bet. Has he even posted an OPS+ of 125 since? God, no.

3) The GM is slammed less if the player’s position is difficult to fill with a productive hitter. Moving to first or the outfield may extend Joe Mauer’s already stellar career, but his value improves when he plays catcher. It is easier to fill at least some of his production with another first baseman. At catcher it is almost impossible.

4) Overpaying a player by tens of millions of dollars is a bad idea, and should be treated as such. The Yankees are the prime offenders here, and they’ll get their own section in this post as a result of having the highest paid pitcher, third basemen, first basemen, short stop and catcher in the Bigs.

5) Contracts that become onerous immediately are severely penalized, even if the deal holds up to scrutiny otherwise. Alex Rodriguez’s $250 million deal with Texas was crazy for its sheer size, but it stands up to points 1-3. A-Rod was only 24 at the time. He was the best player in baseball and went on to win three MVPs after signing the contract. He played shortstop.

Unfortunately, Texas was in no position to follow through on the insanity they concocted. Three years into a 10-year contract the Rangers were paying the Yankees $7 million per season for A-Rod to play in pinstripes.

On a final note, these are not in any particular order. Bad is bad. There’s no point ranking bad. Without further ado, baseball’s current or most recent collection of crazy financial blunders:

P Barry Zito$126 million, 7 years

This was Scott Boras’ finest moment. He managed to convince the San Francisco Giants to make Zito a wealthy man, and baseball’s highest paid pitcher. Apparently no one on the San Francisco side of the Bay Bridge had ever seen Zito pitch. Barry was a solid number two or three starter in Oakland, and put up one excellent season, but he was not even close to baseball’s best pitcher. Adding insult to injury, Zito has yet to post an ERA below 4.00 in a single season for the Giants. He may be the first pitcher in history to switch from the AL to the NL and get worse.

This contract gets bad marks all around. Among pitchers only CC Sabathia and John Santana make more money than Zito. At $18 million per season, and showing no signs of improvement, Zito is untradeable. He’s also, at best, San Francisco’s third starter. If the Giants struggle to pay Tim Lincecum in a season or two blame Zito.

CF Vernon Wells$126 million, 7 years

Say it with me now, “What were they thinking!” Convinced Wells was a young franchise player in waiting, the Toronto Blue Jays locked him into a staggering, long-term deal in 2006. J.P. Riccardi should have lost his job then. Prior to signing the deal Wells had never hit more than 33 home runs and never posted on OPS+ above 132. Why not pay an erratic player with a ceiling of “very good” over $100 million?

The Blue Jays would love to get “very good” out of Wells now. In the three years since he signed the deal he’s posted an OPS+ of 85 in 2007, improved in 2008 but only managed to play in 108 games, and then posted an OPS+ of 88 in 2009.

Wells’ contract has yet to inflict the worst of its damage on the Blue Jays, who are struggling financially. Including 2009, Wells is owed $98.5 million over the last five years of the deal. The Blue Jays will be paying roughly 20% of their annual payroll of about $100 million to one bad player. There is no way they could trade him without paying at least half his salary.

P Mike Hampton$121 million, 8 years

Remember him? In 1999 and 2000 a then-27-year-old Hampton posted ERA+’s of 154 and 142, respectively. Consecutive excellent seasons earned him what was at the time a record-breaking deal for a pitcher. The only problem, other than that he’s Mike Hampton? The team was the Colorado Rockies.

Oddly, Hampton pitched better in Denver than he did on the road, but that wasn’t saying much. In the two seasons after signing the deal he managed ERA+’s of 98 and then 78 before Colorado payed Atlanta to take him off their hands.

Hampton actually returned to form somewhat, in Atlanta, even posting an ERA+ of 121 in 2005. Unfortunately, that was more or less the last anyone ever saw of him. Hampton missed the entire 2006 and 2007 seasons with injury. He pitched in 2009, putting up an ERA+ of 79 in Houston.

CF Torii Hunter$90 million, 5 years

At first glance Hunter’s deal doesn’t seem as bad as some of the others on this list. Then again, this guy makes more money that Albert Pujols. Torii is a career 107 OPS+ hitter.

The Angels pounced all over Hunter in the 2007 offseason, making the then-32-year-old one of the highest paid players in baseball. Unfortunately, Torii just isn’t that good. Prior to signing the contract he had hit more than 30 homers only once. His best OBP wa
s .337.

Hunter’s outsized personality may also obscure his true lack of value. He’s a perennial Gold Glove winner, except he’s only posted a positive UZR twice in his career. He also has a history of injury and only managed to play in 119 games last season.

OF Alfonso Soriano$136 million, 8 years

This contract stinks due to Soriano’s age (31) when it was signed, its mammoth size, and Alfonso’s questionable value as a player. Soriano hits a lot of home runs when he’s healthy. That hides the fact that he’s never posted an OPS+ above 135, a feat he accomplished in his contract year with Washington. Soriano swings at everything, and has a career OBP of .326.

The operative phrase in the preceding paragraph is “when he’s healthy.” Soriano has never played in more than 135 games since signing with the Cubs. 2009 was his worst season in baseball. He posted an OPS+ of 84 and a .303 OBP. Oh, and he’s Chicago’s leadoff hitter.

Finally, no one really knows how old Alfonso is. At the time of his trade from New York to Texas rumor was that the Rangers thought he was only 26 when in fact he was 28. For the Cubs’ sake, let’s hope that he really is 33 because he’s already regressing and he will be 38 when his contract expires.

This is an insane amount of money, but given the economics of baseball this deal made sense for a number of reasons. Foremost, Cabrera is an absolute beast, with a career OPS+ of 140. He was only 24 when the Tigers locked him up for the long-term. There is no reason to believe he’ll slow down anytime soon. He’s hit at least 30 homers in four of his last 5 seasons and led the AL in 2008. According to Baseball Reference, the two players most similar to him when they were his age are Hank Aaron and Ken Griffey Jr.

The A-Rod clause sinks this one. The Tigers are already shopping Cabrera around only two years after signing the deal. He makes nearly $20 million per year, so the market for his services is naturally thin. The Tigers are trying to reduce costs in the flailing economy. It’s surprising that a relatively small-market team in a depressed economic region committed so much money to one player.

Other rumors are that the team wants to cut ties with Cabrera due to his off-field antics. The story has the makings of a TV movie. Cabrera apparently showed up drunk for games during the Tigers’ playoff push and got arrested while fighting with his wife. These are all valid reasons to try to send a player elsewhere. The question, again, is why Detroit offered Cabrera this deal to begin with. Everyone knew he had attitude problems dating back to his days in Florida. This kind of behavior is exactly what Detroit paid for, except now they don’t want it, and can no longer afford it.

That brings us to the Yankees. According to Wikipedia, four of the 5 richest contracts in sports belong to the Yankees. The 5th? A-Rod’s original deal with Texas. They can’t all be good, and they’re not. Away we go…

1B Jason Giambi$120 million, 7 years

There were warning signs here from his Oakland days. True, in the two seasons prior to signing with the Yankees Giambi was a left-handed assassin. He’d hit nearly 40 home runs in back-to-back seasons. He posted OBPs of .476 and .477 those same years. But, Giambi didn’t become a regular player until he was 25. He wasn’t a power threat when he first came up. Giambi didn’t break out as a lethal offensive threat until 1999, when he was 28. Hmm…

The Yankees should have known better. They were offering millions to a player who was already 31, couldn’t play the field to save his life, and had mysteriously gone from very good to amazing at a relatively advanced age for a ball player.

Giambi was a beast with the Yankees in exactly one season, his first. His OPS+ in 2002 was 172. He’d never see those heights again. Giambi’s performance began to flag in his second season in pinstripes. It kept going downhill while Giambi suffered a string of bizarre injuries, including an intestinal parasite and a benign tumor on his pituitary gland. The kicker came when it was revealed that the Giambino was a steroid user.

The Yankees tried to cancel his contract, but couldn’t. The team was stuck with an overpriced, underperforming pariah. Giambi had a few solid seasons with the Yankees as he played out his deal. He never, however, reached the performance levels he achieved in Oakland. Furthermore, everytime he did something good the collective baseball universe figured it was because he was taking HGH.

A-Rod is, in my opinion, the best player on the Yankees. He led the American League in slugging in the first season of the contract. In the face of incredible controversy he put together an amazing season in 2009. Bill James predicts he’ll be a beast in 2010 (37 homers and 113 RBI).

The biggest problem with A-Rod’s deal is its length. Alex will be 42 when it expires. The Yankees broke cardinal sin no. 1 when they offered Rodriguez the contract. They signed a player who would start the next season at 32 to a 10-year deal. At 42 Willie Mays was playing in his last season, as a Met! Hank Aaron was hitting only 10 homers in what would be his final season. And forget about Mickey Mantle. He was in a bar in South Florida with Whitey Ford. Even if A-Rod remains one of the all-time greats, there is little precedent for him to perform well at the age of 42.

The other problem with this deal is its sheer size. Nevermind the performance incentives Alex gets if he breaks the all-time home run record. Also, ignore the fallout from his steroid controversy. Even among the elite players, no one makes nearly as much as Alex Rodriguez. He makes $5 million more a year than Mark Teixeira. The Yankees bought high.

On a final note, Alex has missed a total of 62 games in each of the last two seasons. I don’t actually believe this trend will continue. In fact, I think 2010 will be a bit of a comeback year for Alex. But, it’s worth mentioning that a player whose contract is considered long for someone his age has already missed a bunch of games.

A.J. is a solid (if
not erratic) starter, a guy who is good in the clubhouse, and looked cooler than any other Yankee at the parade. He’s just not $16 million per year good. His performance this past season (ERA+ 106) is evidence.

I’ve always believed the Yankees went after Burnett with such force because he was the best pitcher available at a time when they were willing to spend money and needed two starters. CC Sabathia was their guy, and they got him. I’ve always felt any number of pitchers would have sufficed as the number 2, and A.J. was a free agent.

The team overlooked a lot of A.J.’s flaws to get him. First and foremost, the dude is old. A.J. was 32 last year. The Yankees have him until he’s 36. Second, and related to the dude being kinda old, is that A.J. is injury prone. In at least four of 9 full pro seasons he’s missed a fairly large number of starts. That sound you hear is money being flushed down the toilet should it happen to him in pinstripes. Finally, the Yankees overpaid. A.J. is a career 110 ERA+ guy. That’s good, but its not great. He’s more of a $12 million per year pitcher than a $16 million per year pitcher. That means the Yankees overpaid by $20 million.

A.J.’s bad contract has created another problem. It has established a market floor for John Lackey, who is a better, younger pitcher. As the only solid, free agent pitcher on the market, the Yankees could use Lackey, but of all teams they would have the hardest time convincing him that he’s not worth A.J. money because, again, he’s better, and the Yankees already gave A.J. money to A.J. Overpaying has its consequences.

I was originally going to put Derek Jeter on this list as well. According to fangraphs, he has only earned his full salary twice. He misses the cut for a number of reasons. He’s important to the team as this generation’s legitimate Yankee legend. He has also performed well every year of his deal thus far, even if he wasn’t $20 million worth of good. The Yankees may have overpaid him, but not by much considering how well he has performed. Finally, I struggle to find a shortstop who was a free agent during Jeter’s tenure who was also consistently better. Miguel Tejada did outshine Jeter for a season or two, but not anymore. Hanley Ramirez is young and exciting at short, but he never would have come onto the market. Jeter misses the cut.

Of the three players likely to cash in big this offseason Matt Holliday seems the best bet to add his name to this list. He’s young. He’s good. He’s a Boras client. But ask yourself this: Is he worth $12o million?

6 thoughts on “Baseball’s worst contracts

  1. In fairness to Torii Hunter, UZR data is only available from 2002, and Hunter played 2.5 seasons before then, when he was 23-25 and probably building his reputation as a great fielder, which is all that really matters in the gold gloves.

  2. Yea, it's important to note that Hunter was generally an average CF up until 2006 (and he had one stellar season). The UZR stats play that out (in UZR, average can be +3 to -3, or something to that affect). Also, I wouldn't call the Cabrera contract bad. I would call it bad for the Tigers, which is a point you make, I believe. It's a pretty fair contract given his skills.Fun piece to read.

  3. I'm glad people enjoyed reading the piece. I'd definitely forgotten about guys like Mike Hampton. Yuck. My point is that Torii Hunter is not worth $18 million per year and wasn't at the time of his signing. He's a solid player in many respects, but he shouldn't have one of Baseball's highest annual salaries. My point with Cabrera is open for debate in general. Part of what makes a contract bad is a team's ability to service it. Detroit can't afford this guy and no longer wants to keep him, but his salary makes him difficult to trade. This chould haunt the team for years. I think we're seeing baseball move away from these mega deals, except maybe a couple of teams. If teams begin to look at the marginal value of players then these deals become harder and harder to justify, especially if it prices you out of other players.

  4. One note on the Torii Hunter trade. I think the Angels threw that kind of money at him because they didn't want him to second guess the offer before the Twins could offer him arbitration and therefore surrender draft picks. Regardless it is still a hefty contract.

  5. Nice list, Mike. You didn't include Carl Pavano, which worked out terribly for the Yanks. I think the Yanks deserved what they got, because Pavano had a history of injuries and was coming off one good year.David

  6. The only reason I didn't include Pavano is because he deal was small, and short, compared the others on this list. It was an absolute disaster for the Yankees, but Mike Hampton made almost as much money not playing in 2 years as Pavano made in his entire 4 years.