MLB Free Agency: Ranking the 40 Most Overpaid Players in Baseball

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IFebruary 21, 2012

MLB Free Agency: Ranking the 40 Most Overpaid Players in Baseball

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    Too often, those who deride the contract to which the Philadelphia Phillies signed Ryan Howard in 2010 receive rebuke from Phillies fans, who charge that those reporters have it in for Howard or hate him for some reason.

    We don't. It's not hatred; it's an objective reaction to gross mismanagement.

    Phillies GM Ruben Amaro has done a pretty poor job for the last three or four years, and that's why (despite continuing to collect star talent like it's going out of style) the team has taken a measurable step backward every season since winning the 2008 World Series—they lost the Series in 2009, lost the NLCS in 2010 and lost the NLDS in 2011.

    Amaro continues to shell out huge dollars to players with only good long-term prognoses, and it will begin to hurt the team even more actively in coming years. With the decision to sign Jonathan Papelbon to a contract grossly incommensurate with both the market for elite relievers and the objective value of those players, Amaro has dug an even deeper hole for his team. He's all but put himself out of the running for Cole Hamels' services beyond 2012.

    Of course, it isn't only Amaro who has made major mistakes in free agency (and on extensions for arbitration-eligible players). The whole league has gotten in on that act of late. Here are the 40 most overpaid players in baseball for 2012, based on salary due and projected production.

40. Yu Darvish

1 of 40

    2012 Cost: $56.7 million

    Projected WAR: 3.5

    Breakdown: Obviously, Darvish has more upside than that WAR, and he is not going to actually receive $50 million-plus. Ninety percent of that will go to the Nippon Ham Fighters. The blame for Darvish's lavish and utterly untenable cost in 2012 rests with MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball, the former having capitulated meekly to a system that favors absolutely no one but Japanese team owners.

    The posting system guarantees immediate payment of the winning posting fee upon a player from NPB signing up for and MLB club. It's a protectionist tariff of the sort no United States industry dares levy, yet MLB allowed the Japanese to impose it, anyway. As a result, the Rangers made a perfectly sound baseball decision that will put them millions of dollars in the red for years.

39. Prince Fielder

2 of 40

    2012 Salary: $23 million

    Projected WAR: 5.0

    Breakdown: If Fielder keeps producing the way he did in Milwaukee, post-league change, he will (more or less) earn his keep. This is not a terrible deal, and to the Tigers' credit, it is not back-loaded, so Fielder will not suddenly be making $30 million at age 33.

    On the other hand, Fielder will have to go through an adjustment period given the change in leagues. The aggregate pitching he will face should be better, and Comerica Park is not friendly to left-handed power. He's not a collapse candidate—all of his skill indicators suggest he is in his prime and his excellence is sustainable. To be worth $23 million, though, you have to play a position that is not first base.

38. Frank Francisco

3 of 40

    2012 Salary: $5.5 million

    Projected WAR: 0.5

    Breakdown: Francisco will be the Mets' closer in 2012, which is worth about $5 million as an achievement unto itself, at least in some eyes. He will not be a good closer, though. He's an average (perhaps slightly better) relief pitcher with a hefty platoon split. For that, New York will pay him about $1 million more than the Pirates will pay Erik Bedard this season. Pittsburgh got a much better deal.

37. Chase Utley

4 of 40

    2012 Salary: $15 million

    Projected WAR: 3.5

    Breakdown: Utley is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate in my book, a superb and well-balanced talent with plenty of focus and preparation skills to succeed for as long as he remains physically able to take the field.

    The occasions on which he can do so, though, have become increasingly rare.

    Utley has missed substantial time two seasons running, and at 33, is unlikely to suddenly make a miraculous recovery from tendinitis in his knee. He also suffered a concussion last September, which is a very real cause for concern. Concussions are thoroughly unpredictable.

    His breakdown could accelerate this season, and a hefty price tag makes him a big risk.

36. Francisco Rodriguez

5 of 40

    2012 Salary: $8 million

    Projected WAR: 0.8

    Breakdown: When Rodriguez accepted the Brewers' offer of arbitration in December, it looked like it would cost the club at least $12 million to sign him. Happily for the team, he agreed to substantially less money.

    Still, they find themselves in the unenviable position of owing $8 million to a setup man, since John Axford will close for them. For the Yankees or Red Sox, that would be an acceptable, if not ideal, circumstance. For Milwaukee, it pretty well blew the budget.

35. Carl Crawford

6 of 40

    2012 Salary: $19.5 million

    Projected WAR: 3.0

    Breakdown: In 2011, the Red Sox paid Carl Crawford only $14 million. It was a good thing, too, because he was not very good. He wasn't completely useless, but he certainly did not live up to the seven-year, $142 million contract to which the team signed him prior to the season.

    This year, prices go up. Crawford will get close to $20 million for his year's labor, so it just became 30 percent more critical that Boston get a more usual season from its left fielder.

34. Justin Morneau

7 of 40

    2012 Salary: $14 million

    Projected WAR: 1.0

    Breakdown: A native Canadian, Morneau played his share of hockey as a kid. He must never have gotten past his taste for jarring collisions and good old-fashioned knock-arounds. A year-and-a-half after he was headed to the All-Star Game as one of the league's premier hitters, Morneau must feel like he's just waking up.

    He has collided with players, been hit by thrown balls and even banged his head on a diving attempt to stop a ground ball. Concussions and surgery on his wrist, foot, neck and knee leave him basically a $14 million scar on the Twins' roster.

33. A.J. Burnett

8 of 40

    2012 Salary: $16.5 million

    Projected WAR: 2.3

    Breakdown: He's not as bad as he looked in the second half of 2011, but A.J. Burnett isn't as good as he once was. His age works against him, too. At 35, he's due to continue a downward trend—although pitchers age less dramatically and less predictably than batters.

    Burnett fits well in Pittsburgh though, and will cost the Yankees twice what he will cost the Pirates for this season.

32. Chris Carpenter

9 of 40

    2012 Salary: $10.5 million

    Projected WAR: 1.0

    Breakdown: Carpenter is an enormous injury risk. No pitcher is more likely to blow out their arm in camp this year, or really to blow out their arm anytime in 2012.

    He endured a workload unprecedented since 2001 in order to lead the Cardinals to the World Series title, but at his age and with his track record, he just is not in position to repeat or even approximate that performance.

31. David Wright

10 of 40

    2012 Salary: $15 million

    Projected WAR: 2.0

    Breakdown: Wright is in early, but not wholly unforeseen, decline. He is a poor defensive third baseman, and has been for some time. He lost some of his pop in 2011, and stress fractures in his back raise a major red flag.

    He's a good player, but is likely to follow a career path similar to that of Eric Chavez as injuries take hold.

30. Chad Billingsley

11 of 40

    2012 Salary: $9 million

    Projected WAR: 1.8

    Breakdown: After a 2010 that looked like the permanent and significant step forward that Billingsley should have taken even sooner, he instead took a giant step backward in 2011. His walk rate, always the problem, shot up sharply, and his strikeout rate plunged for the third straight year.

    Alas, this is but the first season of the three-year extension to which the Dodgers committed for Billingsley.

29. Jon Lester

12 of 40

    2012 Salary: $7.625 million

    Projected WAR: 2.0

    Breakdown: Lester's cost is rising at roughly the same rate as that at which his value is falling. Both are fast. All Lester' main indicator stats, from swings and misses to velocity to walk and strikeout rates, are headed in the wrong directions.

    He gutted out a solid start on the last day of the season to keep Boston in position to make the 2011 playoffs, but if the Red Sox make it in 2012, it will be no thanks to their nominal co-ace.

28. Jose Valverde

13 of 40

    2012 Salary: $9 million

    Projected WAR: 0.5

    Breakdown: Valverde got lucky not to blow a save in 2011. He is a tightrope walker (and if he isn't, he should be, given his tiny legs and sturdy frame), teetering and bending but never falling off the wire in ninth innings all the time.

    He walks batters, doesn't strike out enough of them for a top-flight reliever and doesn't have an especially developed arsenal of pitches to begin with. He's a $9 million non-difference maker for the back end of a bullpen.

27. Carlos Marmol

14 of 40

    2012 Salary: $7 million

    Projected WAR: 0.5

    Breakdown: Marmol is less expensive than Valverde, but also even more unsteady closing out games. He frequently walks opponents until he gets into massive trouble, then either serves up the game-winning hit or miraculously pitches his way out of things by striking out the side.

    Marmol is unpredictable, mercurial and not long for the elite ranks of relief artisans. His extensions is a good example of the failings of the late-period Jim Hendry regime at Wrigley Field.

26. Aubrey Huff

15 of 40

    2012 Salary: $10 million

    Projected WAR: 0.9

    Breakdown: After re-emerging as a star in 2010 for a single season, Huff faded back into mediocrity in 2011. Luckily for him, the Giants and veteran-loving Brian Sabean had already committed to pay him eight figures for another try by then.

    Huff might not even start very much this year by the Bay. Brandon Belt and Melky Cabrera threaten his playing time, especially if Buster Posey comes out from behind the plate for the occasional knee-saving sojourn at first base.

25. Michael Young

16 of 40

    2012 Salary: $16 million

    Projected WAR: 1.4

    Breakdown: Relegated to DH duties on a regular basis in 2011, Young took to his sole task well. He still plays utility when key players get hurt, but they are unlikely to ask him to do so as often this season. A bad contract got a bit better when Young put away his mitt and focused on a revival as an elite average hitter. It still has a bit of separation from good. 

24. Mark Teixeira

17 of 40

    2012 Salary: $22.5 million

    Projected WAR: 2.7

    Breakdown: Beset somewhat by injuries and with a new and worse approach at the plate, Teixeira gave the first indications of serious decline in 2011. He may recover somewhat, but then, he may not. He certainly shouldn't be expected to slug like a 28-year-old until he's 34, though, so the money might be too much even if he doesn't fall off a cliff.

23. Michael Cuddyer

18 of 40

    2012 Salary: $10.5 million

    Projected WAR: 2.6

    Breakdown: Cuddyer is to be 33 this season, and was not a tremendous athlete even in his prime. Expect his numbers to look good in 2012, but they'll be grossly inflated by Coors Field, and his actual value will be less than the numbers suggest.

    Signing Josh Willingham for fully $10 million fewer makes the Twins look much smarter than their former slugger.

22. Paul Konerko

19 of 40

    2012 Salary: $12 million

    Projected WAR: 3.1

    Breakdown: There's no roster more bloated than that of the Chicago White Sox, and Konerko might soon be part of the problem. He slumped a bit in the second half in 2011, and at his age, any chink in the armor is a warning sign not to be missed.

21. Alex Rios

20 of 40

    2012 Salary: $12 million

    Projected WAR: 2.2

    Breakdown: Rios' inconsistency lends no confidence for Sox fans, fantasy owners or the organization itself. Kosuke Fukudome and Alejandro De Aza will get chances in center field if Rios continues the miserable performance he showed in 2011 and, before that, in 2009.

    Whether he can keep his job or not, though, Rios is entitled to $12 million from the Sox this season.

20. Daisuke Matsuzaka

21 of 40

    2012 Salary: $10 million

    Projected WAR: 1.0

    Breakdown: Not only has Matsuzaka struggled to stay healthy in recent years, but his ineffectiveness even when he takes the mound suggests he may be past his utility. He will miss the first half of the season after surgery last year, but his eight-figure salary will look bad even once he returns.

19. Carlos Lee

22 of 40

    2012 Salary: $18.5 million

    Projected WAR: 2.5

    Breakdown: While positional primacy is a sound general principle and while Lee will be grossly overpaid no matter where on the diamond he plays in 2012, the move to first base has been really good for the aging slugger.

    He's turned out to be a very adequate defender there, and he has stayed healthier as a result of chasing fewer fly balls on his bad knees and hamstrings. After this season, Houston finally gets out from under this awful contract.

18. Derek Jeter

23 of 40

    2012 Salary: $16 million

    Projected WAR: 2.5

    Breakdown: This should not surprise anyone. Even the Yankees know Jeter is overpaid. Even Jeter probably knows it. This is simply the price a rich team must pay, though, to keep one of its all-time icons happy.

    For the Yankees, it's OK. Even with their new philosophy of fiscal (pseudo) responsibility, this kind of deal hardly cripples the Evil Empire.

17. Jake Peavy

24 of 40

    2012 Salary: $17 million

    Projected WAR: 2.0

    Breakdown: Here's a fun question. Jake Peavy has a $22 million option for 2013. If you're the cash-strapped, overburdened White Sox, just how good a season would it take to make you decide to keep Peavy?

    Even if he won the AL Cy Young, given his injury history, could the team really commit to that much money for him for one more year? Maybe so. In the meantime, he will not actually win that award, nor have the option exercised, and he will be overpaid in 2012.

16. Dan Uggla

25 of 40

    2012 Salary: $13 million

    Projected WAR: 2.5

    Breakdown: Bad-bodied second baseman don't usually age well, but the Braves paid huge money to find out whether Uggla would. He's a good hitter, most of the time, though his first-half flop in 2011 causes concern.

    More pressingly, he's a miserable defensive second baseman who belongs in left field or at third base, but both player and team are in denial.

15. Yoenis Cespedes

26 of 40

    2012 Salary: $9 million

    Projected WAR: 1.5

    Breakdown: This deal vexes me. The A's might be very good by Year 3 of the four-year deal, or they might just as reasonably not be good at all during the life of the contract. In either case, it seems like they blew it by not convincing Cespedes to commit to the usual MLB service-time arrangement, whereby he would have been under team control for six seasons. 

14. Jonathan Papelbon

27 of 40

    2012 Salary: $11,000,058

    Projected WAR: 1.5

    Breakdown: This was easily the worst contract handed out this winter, but largely for reasons of poor process and misjudgment of what a closer is worth.

    As a player, Papelbon is not a bad bet, and he should pitch well for at least the first half of the deal. He's still overpaid, but the contract is much worse than the sheer finances suggest.

13. Victor Martinez

28 of 40

    2012 Salary: $13 million

    Projected WAR: 0

    Breakdown: If one were cruel, it would be easy to put Martinez atop this list, because he's going to miss the entire season but still get $13 million. That's not what puts him here, though; that wouldn't really be fair.

    The Tigers overpaid for Martinez in the first place. Not for Martinez the catcher, of course by then, Martinez the catcher no longer existed. He became a full-time DH in 2011, and would have stayed there even if he had been healthy this season. In that role, his lack of power and all-around non-elite bat have little value.

12. John Lackey

29 of 40

    2012 Salary: $15.25 million

    Projected WAR: 0

    Breakdown: Lackey, too, will miss the entire season after postseason surgery last autumn. He gutted out that injury for months to try to help the thin Red Sox, but will be reviled by the fans as soft and weak because they just don't understand.

    Lackey was a bad buy in the first place, too, but the Red Sox did manage to work in one of my all-time favorite contract clauses: Because he will hit the DL for an injury related to a pre-existing arm issue, Lackey now owes the Red Sox a team option at the end of his deal, at league-minimum salary. That's nifty.

11. Adam Dunn

30 of 40

    2012 Salary: $14 million

    Projected WAR: 1.5

    Breakdown: The White Sox can't simply tear up Dunn's bad contract because the first year was a nightmare, and that contract calls for a raise in his second season. Dunn might well rebound from the utter calamity of 2011, though. He's a pro and has taken it all in stride thus far.

10. Ichiro

31 of 40

    2012 Salary: $17 million

    Projected WAR: 1.0

    Breakdown: The wheels came off for the aged Suzuki in 2011, whose skill set suggested he could get old in a hurry at any time. He still has those great contact skills in him somewhere, but it may be that he should consider fulfilling the power potential many have seen in him over the years. He's still a sound right fielder.

9. Jayson Werth

32 of 40

    2012 Salary: $13 million

    Projected WAR: 2.5

    Breakdown: This was an overpay from the start, too. It answered the question of how large a premium Washington would have to pay to actually lure a desirable free agent, and the answer made other small-market and non-competitive teams shudder.

    Pittsburgh faced a similar problem this winter, when they couldn't even get genuine consideration from Edwin Jackson or Roy Oswalt.

    Werth should rebound from a poor 2011, but for the moment, reaching for him to make a statement in the market seems to have been a mistake.

8. Johan Santana

33 of 40

    2012 Salary: $24 million

    Projected WAR: 3.0

    Breakdown: After missing all of 2011, Santana has to prove he is healthy before he garners any benefit of the doubt. He seems to be on track, but even if he pitches 200 innings and performs more or less the way he can at this point, $24 million is awfully steep.

    The Mets could try to trade him at the deadline if he pitches well in the first half, asking only a modicum of salary relief.

7. Carlos Zambrano

34 of 40

    2012 Salary: $18.875 million

    Projected WAR: 1.5

    Breakdown: Nervous.

6. Alfonso Soriano

35 of 40

    2012 Salary: $19 million

    Projected WAR: 2.0

    Breakdown: Soriano still has power, and if you're one for RBI he can collect those, too. Unfortunately, he doesn't draw walks, does strike out a ton and plays just OK defense of a non-premium position, left field.

    He and the Cubs could explore a move to first base in the mold of Carlos Lee's, if Bryan LaHair and/or Anthony Rizzo don't work out.

5. Vernon Wells

36 of 40

    2012 Salary: $21 million

    Projected WAR: 2.3

    Breakdown: He's likely to do better than the .248 OBP (not a misprint) he posted in 2011, but Wells' OBP has never been all that good. He's a left fielder now, not a center fielder, and though he plays fine defense there, a left fielder with even a .300ish OBP is not an asset.

4. Barry Zito

37 of 40

    2012 Salary: $19 million

    Projected WAR: 1.0

    Breakdown: It's almost over, Giants fans. Not the contract, per se; San Francisco could be paying Zito for a while. His career with the team, though, is almost over.

    The lefty has changed his delivery yet again this winter, but the results aren't likely to be drastic. Nothing about Zito has been drastic since about 2004.

3. Ryan Howard

38 of 40

    2012 Salary: $20 million

    Projected WAR: 1.1

    Breakdown: What you see here is the image of a season ending in the worst way possible. Howard will miss time in 2012, however much, with the torn Achilles' tendon he suffered while recording the final out of the 2011 NLDS.

    Even after he returns, though, he is not a $20 million player. He's a first baseman who draws an average number of walks and has above-average power. That's a $13 million package.

2. Joe Mauer

39 of 40

    2012 Salary: $23 million

    Projected WAR: 2.4

    Breakdown: The Twins handed out Mauer's megadeal after he ran away with the 2009 AL MVP. It was deserved, though an admitted risk. That risk didn't take long to blow up in Minnesota's face. 

    Mauer has to play catcher to be worth anything close to $23 million per season, but has to play a different position in order to stay healthy. Those kinds of conundrums don't usually work themselves out nicely for MLB teams.

1. Alex Rodriguez

40 of 40

    2012 Salary: $29 million

    Projected WAR: 2.7

    Breakdown: Rodriguez might still be a force when healthy, but it's hard to say, because he is no longer ever healthy. If he plays 150 games, look out. If he plays 100, it will be less surprising. The Yankees are on the hook for some huge money, so they had better hope Rodriguez rallies.