MLB Free Agents 2012: 15 Worst Signings of the Offseason
The term "worst signings" leaves a lot of wiggle room for interpretation, I know. Does it mean player x was a bad signing because he's not a good player, or is he a good player that a team paid too much for? Or was he a player with a good track record on a particular team or in a particular ballpark that may not translate as well to his new location?
To start with, I don't see too many of the 2012 season signings with the potential to rank up there with the worst signing of all time, which I (along with many others) suggest was Alex Rodriguez‘s 10-year, $275-million contract, signed when he was heading into his age 32 season.
Four years into the deal, he has struggled to stay healthy, averaging just 124 games per season while hitting .284/.375/.521.
"It’s an impressive slash line," writes Benjamin Kabak of RiverAvenueBlues, "But that is a far cry from the .306/.389/.578 line he put up beforehand."
Add in a steroid scandal, and while A-Rod gets paid no matter what, the bloom came off that rose a long time ago. He is under contract for six more years and will earn another $143 million from the Yanks.
Rob Neyer, Baseball editor for SBNation.com, lists three criteria for a great contract blunder: "Premeditation. Contemporary questionability. Ill effects."
Premeditation is a given; teams voluntarily (if not eagerly) enter into these contracts. Questionability is the application of the "reasonable man" theory: Could a reasonable soul, using the readily available tools, have made a case against doing this deal? Ill effects: Does the end result have a negative impact.
In the 15 slides to follow, I cover all those bases, and I'm sure my takes (presented in inverse order of offensiveness) will create some controversy. So have at it in the comments section!
15. Wily Mo Pena, Seattle to Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, NPB: 2 Years, $5 Million
Perhaps the best fleecing of a team by a player is the two-year, multi-million dollar contract slugger Wily Mo Pena signed with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.
Pena's agent adding the icing to the cake when he told SBNation's Jeff Sullivan, "I heard Sadaharu Oh himself said Wily Mo is one of the most powerful hitters he's ever seen."
The Japan Times also waxed enthusiastically about Wily Mo's potential: "Pena has been hitting some tape measure shots in practice at the Hawks camp and, if he can hit them as often as he hits them far, he will challenge…for the Pacific League long ball title this season."
The 30-year-old native of the Dominican Republic's best major league home run season was in 2004, when he hit 26 for the Cincinnati Reds.
As WEEI.com's Alex Speier points out, the former Red Sox outfielder has earned a reputation as a guy who can launch tape-measure blasts "if and when he's able to make contact, but he's always struggled with plate discipline and the ability to handle offspeed pitches."
Japan will be a good test for Pena, as pitchers in the NPB generally feature a heavy dose of breaking balls. The move is a smart one on Pena's part. In addition to making far more money in Japan than he could make in the US, he can play regularly, hopefully learn to hit the breaking ball and then come back to the states when his two year deal ends. At that point, he'll still only be 32, with the possibility of reviving his MLB career.
There is a certain method to this madness. The quality of play in the NPB is normally considered to be somewhere between the Triple-A level and MLB. Pena absolutely torched Triple-A pitching last season, hitting .358 with 25 home runs in 76 games for Reno and Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League.
When he was called up to the majors, however, he struggled badly. After some initial dramatic home runs for the Diamondbacks, pitchers fed him a steady diet of breaking balls and off-speed pitches. He ended up hitting .196 with 19 strikeouts in 46 at-bats before Arizona released him.
Noting that five of Pena's nine hits had been for home runs, the Mariners signed him. He hit .209 in in 67 at-bats with 20 strikeouts. Overall, he managed only a .250 on-base percentage in 120 plate appearances.
14. OF Grady Sizemore Re-Signs with Cleveland: 1 Year, $5 Million
Here's a no-brainer.
Sizemore is one free-agent signee whose 2012 season is derailed before the train left the station.
The Indians' former All-Star center fielder underwent disc surgery on his back at the end of February. According to statements from the team, the recovery time is eight to 12 weeks. With no setbacks (and that's not a sure thing with back surgery), Sizemore could rejoin the team sometime in July.
"One of these days, and it may come soon," wrote Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "Grady Sizemore is going to run out of body parts to be operated on."
From 2005 through 2008, he hardly missed a game. During that time, he was a two-time Gold Glover and a three-time All-Star. In 2008, he became only the second 30-30 man in club history, clubbing 33 homers while stealing 38 bases.
Starting in 2009, the 29-year-old Sizemore, 29, has undergone six surgeries—one on his left elbow, two sports hernia surgeries, operations on both knees and February's back surgery.
He played in 106 games in 2009, 33 games in 2010 and 71 in 2011.
Despite this injury history, the Indians threw caution to the winds (or at least much of it). They re-signed Sizemore to a one-year, $5 million contract in December after declining to exercise his $9 million club option for 2012. They gave him the chance to earn the $4 million back based on plate appearances.
Hoynes wrote, "The Indians felt at the time, and still do, that risk in signing Sizemore was affordable when weighed against the production he could give them if he was able to stay healthy."
General manager Chris Antonetti said that the Indians did not examine Sizemore's back before re-signing him because he had never manifested any back problems before this.
So, is the glass half-full or half empty? Do the Indians congratulate themselves for saving $4 million, or do they bemoan the loss of $5 million?
Either way, the Sizemore signing makes this dubious list.
13. RP Joel Zumaya, Tigers to Twins: 1 Year, $800,000 (plus $900,000 in Incentives)
This one was also easy.
The Minnesota Twins signed Zumaya in January, and his comeback attempt was over before it even started. On Feb. 25, he was throwing a live batting practice session when he felt a pain in his arm after 13 pitches. He tore the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his elbow and will miss the entire 2012 season. He will probably undergo Tommy John surgery
Those 13 BP throws cost the Twins $400,000.
Wasn't there something about Joel Zumaya that screamed, "Don't sign me!"?
After all, this is the same pitcher who missed three games of the 2006 American League Championship Series due to an inflammation of his right (throwing) wrist and forearm. This was not a baseball injury, however. Zumaya, a 22-year-old rookie, hurt himself playing a video game called Guitar Hero, in which he simulated playing an electric guitar for popular rock bands.
Yes, Zumaya is a fan favorite for his demeanor on the mound and his fastball, which has topped out at 104.8 MPH. In that rookie season with Detroit, he posted a 1.94 ERA while striking out 97 hitters in 83.1 innings and became one of the most feared setup men in the game.
But he did not pitch at all in 2011 and has one of the worst record of injuries of anyone who has ever played Major League Baseball.
In May 2007, he ruptured a tendon in his hand, requiring surgery and 12 weeks rehab. During the 2007 offseason, he separated his shoulder helping his father move boxes in the attic.
In 2009, he went on the 15-day DL due to shoulder issues at the end of March. He went back on the DL in July, when he could barely move his arm after pitching in a game against the Yankees. He had surgery in August, ending his season.
On June 28, 2010, Zumaya injured his arm again while pitching against the Twins in Minnesota. He was in obvious pain and had to be helped off the field. He had suffered a fracture of the large, thick, curved bony eminence of the forearm that projects behind the elbow. Doctors said it would take four months to heal, once again ending his season prematurely.
Zumaya then missed the entire 2011 season after undergoing exploratory surgery on his right elbow on May 10. Doctors found no new damage, but a screw inserted during his previous surgery needed to be replaced.
According to Jon Krawczynski of Huffington Post Sports, GM Terry Ryan knew the 27-year-old Zumaya's long injury history when he offered the contract, "but the possibility of getting the overpowering arm that electrified the Tigers in 2006 intrigued him."
"I took a risk. It was a high risk with high reward," Ryan told reporters. "Unfortunately it didn't work."
With that kind of information and history staring them in the face, the Twins still anted up. They deserved to lose money on that ill-advised decision.
12. Mark Ellis, Rockies to Dodgers: 2 Years, $8.75 Million
The Dodgers used seven different starters at second base in 2011, which probably made them a bit jumpy about getting a quality keystone sacker for this coming season. In my opinion, they jumped too soon and paid too much for too little. Mark Ellis can make a claim for being one of the best overall second basemen in baseball from 2005-2009, but that was then and this is now.
According to ESPN.com, Ellis will receive base salaries of $2.5 million in 2012 and $5.25 million in 2013. He also has incentives for plate appearances. The $8.75 total guarantee on the deal includes a $1 million buyout on the option year of 2014.
Yes, the 34-year-old Ellis is an excellent defender and a stabilizing presence in the clubhouse, but for that money, shouldn't there also be a little offense thrown in?
Ellis hit only .248 with a woeful .288 OBP and seven homers for the As and Rockies in 2011. According to FanGraphs, that made him the worst offensive everyday second baseman in MLB. Even with the boost of being traded to the Rockies and hitter-friendly Coors Field at midseason, his numbers were still terrible. (After his first 12 games at Coors Field, when he went off with an OPS of .978, he put up a .647 OPS in his next 58 games.)
He also drew only 22 walks in 519 at-bats, which does not bode particularly well for the future.
The other problem is that traditionally, middle infielders do not age well, and the Dodgers will be on the hook until he is 36. The Rockies traded for Ellis, whose defensive zone rating of .866 is best among all active second baseman, and then did not re-sign him even though they also needed a second baseman. That should have rung a warning bell for the Dodgers.
11. Frank Francisco, Blue Jays to Mets: 2 Years, $12 Million
Apparently, the Mets didn’t get the memo that there were more closers available this offseason than teams needing them.
Granted, the bullpen was their top priority for 2012; Mets relievers ranked 28th in the majors with a 4.33 ERA last season, and the bullpen as a group combined to blow an eye-popping 24 saves.
So, in early December, the Mets made their move, signing both Toronto closers from last year: Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco.
Given the money issues confronting the Mets, the signing of Francisco to a two-year, $12 million contract seems really over the top, especially in light of some of the other closer signings—such as the one-year, $8.5 million deal the Reds signed with Phillies stud Ryan Madson.
Not only did the Mets overpay, but they also don't know which Francisco will show up in 2012.
While he posted 17 saves in 54 appearances for the Blue Jays in 2011, his season featured contrasting halfs. He struggled mightily before the break, blowing four saves in 14 opportunities. Batters hit .301 off him, resulting in an ERA of 5.92. His numbers were so dreadful that he lost the closer job to setup man Jon Rauch.
In the second, he was a different pitcher. Batters only hit .188 against him, resulting in a 1.37 ERA. He was perfect in the save opportunities he did get, going 7-for-7. For the season, his K/9 ratio dropped off a bit from the close-to-11 number he posted the three previous years, but it was still good at 9.4. His WHIP was 1.322, which is high for a reliever.
The Mets must hope they get Second Half Frank as opposed to First Half Frank—and that his better numbers after the break were not due to being mentally relieved from the pressure of closing.
Francisco is also injury-prone. He has only cracked 60 innings in a season once since debuting with the Rangers in 2004. He has, however, struck out 368 batters in 334 career innings and posted a sub-4.00 ERA four straight seasons.
Another concern is his inability to hold runners on. According to SI.com, base stealers were 13-for-14 last season against him and are 33-for-36 the last four seasons.
To summarize, $12 million was a rather large investment in a middling closer in a soft market.
10. Jason Kubel, Twins to Diamondbacks: 2 Years, $15 Million
This is another bad signing, but it's not bad because of the player's performance. Kubel hit .273 last year with the Twins, along with a slugging percentage of .434 and an OPS of .766. Granted, this is a far cry from his monster 2009, when he hit .300 with 28 home runs and an OPS of .907, but the dropoff is not why I really hate this signing.
My problem is with the impact the addition of Kubel will have on the Arizona lineup.
Arizona already had a good outfield, and the move pushes young Gold Glover Gerardo Parra out of the starting lineup. Parra also hit .292 last season with a .357 OBP (better than Kubel's .335).
Yes, I know Parra hit only eight home runs and Kubel has the potential for 25, but like Aramis Ramirez with the Brewers, Kubel will give back some of those runs on defense.
If Parra does eventually reclaim the starting job, which I think he will, that means the Diamondbacks will be paying $7.5 million a year for their fourth outfielder.
9. Closer Jonathan Papelbon, Boston to Philadelphia: 4 Years, $50 Million
The biggest reason the Red Sox let Papelbon walk is because they correctly analyzed the closer market this offseason.
The Phillies did not, as evidenced by their swooping in to sign this extravagant deal early in November, before they had any idea how the market might shake out. Looking back, it's clear they made a big mistake with this record-setting deal for guaranteed money for a reliever.
The first lesson every novice learns in fantasy baseball is "don't pay for saves."
Closers are a fickle bunch, as history shows. With few exceptions, they are like shooting stars: they burn brightly for a couple of years, and then fizzle out.
Given how hard they usually throw, injuries are a factor. Consider the four closers who signed long-term deals in the past six years or so: Billy Wagner signed a four-year deal with the Mets, and B.J. Ryan signed a five-year contract with Toronto; Joe Nathan and Francisco Cordero signed four-year deals in excess of $45 million with the Twins and Reds respectively.
Only Cordero escaped major injury during the life of his contract.
Also, after a couple of years on the same team, the rest of the league begins to catch up. Scouting reports, plus increased hitter familiarity with a two-pitch hurler, can make for declining results.
The bottom line is that decent relievers seem to materialize out of nowhere every year (e.g., Craig Kimbrel in 2011). The conundrum is that some of the good relievers in one year were total disasters just the year before. They seem to run out of gas in one park, division or league, and are rejuvenated by a change of scenery.
Conversely, some of the best firemen in 2011 will turn out to be expensive duds in 2012.
The argument here is that there is no true recipe for success. That's why signing several low-risk, inexpensive free agents (and throwing in a few prospects from the farm) seems preferable to investing a lot of money (and therefore credibility) into just a couple of guys.
Papelbon said he wanted to "set the market for closers," and he did just that. The Phillies blinked, jettisoning their own effective closer Ryan Madson—who ended up with the Reds on a one-year, $8.5 million deal.
Papelbon's 2011 season was only slightly better than Madson's, and his 2010 numbers (5-7, 3.90 ERA, 37 saves, 1.269 WHIP) were considerably worse.
The Red Sox were wise to back off. They ended up with two perfectly serviceable potential closers in Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey for a fraction of the money that Philadelphia is paying Papelbon.
(That contract includes a $13 million option for 2016 that vests with 55 games finished in 2015 or 100 in 2014-15, tweeted ESPN's Jayson Stark.)
Looking back, it is clear that the Phillies jumped too soon and overpaid by quite a bit. Just look at the other signings: Only one other closer (Heath Bell) got more than a two-year deal, or even half the money as Papelbon.
The Phillies will regret this deal.
8. 3B Aramis Ramirez, Cubs to Brewers: 3 Years, $36 Million
Aramis Ramirez is an interesting case. If the Brewers were a fantasy team, I would compliment them for a worthwhile pickup.
However, they are a real team, and last time I checked, there is no DH in the National League, so Milwaukee will have to play Ramirez at third base.
While he is an acknowledged major league power hitter, he is relatively ham-fisted in the field.
Mark Simon of ESPN writes that Ramirez finishes in the bottom three in MLB in every defensive category for third basemen over the past several years.
With respect to the stat "Fielding Runs Above/Below Average," Ramirez had a minus-14 and was 99th of 100 third basemen ranked. Chris Johnson from Houston was the only other player to be worse than minus-five.
I love Matt Trueblood's description of him in the field: "Ramirez is a statue at third base, a flat-footed nightmare with a good arm but no range who clings to the foul line as if being out of arm's reach would suddenly turn the field to a deep sea in which he could not swim."
To be fair to the Brewers, their Yuniesky Betancourt/Casey McGahee left side of the infield last year was nothing to write home about. Even so, Ramirez is going to give back on defense a number of the runs he generates on offense.
He turned down a player option to return to the Cubs in 2012 for $16 million and chose to test the free-agent waters.
His timing was terrific in one respect, because it was a seller's market for third basemen this offseason. A number of teams had a need at that position, and Ramirez's only competition is the likes of Mark DeRosa and Wilson Betemit.
There are other warning signs, as well. He will be 34 in June and has had a history of injury. Some think his 2011 season was a contract year performance that he will not be able to replicate.
I for one agree. Had Ramirez been signed by an AL team to DH and play third in interleague play, I would have considered that to be a decent signing—especially given his age. He has more years in him as a DH than he does at the hot corner.
7. Of Yoenis Cespedes, International Free Agent to Oakland: 4 Years, $36 Million
What was Billy Beane thinking when he signed a 27-year-old prospect to a deal of that magnitude, especially when the prospect has not yet faced elite pitching day in and day out?
Most teams passed. Other teams offered less money or spread it over more years.
"Cespedes epitomizes the unknown,” writes Tom Laverty on ThroughtheFenceBaseball.com. "Why would such a diligent GM dish on a player who guarantees nothing more than mystery?" Laverty asks.
On some nights in 2011, you could literally count the fans in the Oakland Coliseum. The Athletics were last in MLB attendance. Beane is gambling that Cespedes will cause fans to buy tickets, sell beer and hot dogs and make it less embarassing when the TV cameras pan the stadium crowd.
This is a huge gamble, because Beane seems to be going "all-in" on one player—and an unproven one at that despite the five-tool reputation he carries out of Cuba.
According to Mike Axisa of MLBTradeRumors, Cespedes is already the highest paid Oakland player, topping Coco Crisp in 2012 by $500,000. (Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle tweeted that Cespedes will make $6.5 million this year, $8.5 million in 2013 and $10.5 million in each of the final two years.)
Making the risk even greater for Beane is the fact that, given the size of that investment, Cespedes will have to be given the shot to play every day for Oakland right from the start.
Before last summer, only the most avid fans of international baseball knew who Yoenis (sometimes spelled Yoennis) Cespedes was. In July, the 26-year-old superstar outfielder disappeared from the Cuban national team and reappeared in the Dominican Republic, ready to offer his services to the highest bidder.
His agent introduced him to the baseball world via an incredible, over-the-top promotional video with Star Wars music and an opening suitable for a big-budget holiday movie trailer.
The 20-minute marketing package shows a lot of fitness routines and a little baseball, all accompanied by music from the likes of Li’l Wayne, Chris Brown and Busta Rhymes.
To be fair, Cespedes is a chiseled, incredibly fit specimen who performs an incredible series of exercises including 45" vertical box jumps and leg pressing 1,300 pounds.
The video has to be seen to be believed. It's available on YouTube at this link.
Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus calls it "the most epic scouting promotional video in the history of the human race."
According to believers, however, the right-handed hitting Cespedes is the real deal—a five-tool player who broke the Cuban record for home runs with 33 in just 90 games this past season.
Goldstein, despite his mixed reaction to the video, calls Cespedes "arguably the best all-around player to come out of Cuba in a generation."
While his combination of power and speed made him particularly attractive to a number of MLB teams, there are still question marks about his ability to hit for average and his defensive skills.
The contract he signed set a record for a Cuban player.
As Laverty concludes, "It was a tough decision and it may not pan out, but the Oakland Athletics have the 'Cuban Centipede,' as he’s called in Detroit.
6. Of Coco Crisp Re-Signs with Oakland for 2 Years, $14 Million
Believe it or not, two-thirds of Billy Beane's outfield makes this list.
Let me see if I got this right. The cash-poor Athletics, masters at Moneyball, let productive outfielders David DeJesus and Willingham go because they can't afford them. They trade closer Andrew Bailey and starter Gio Gonzalez because they are becoming more expensive.
Then they give this deal to a leadoff hitter with no arm and very little pop?
According to MLBTradeRumors.com, Crisp will get $6 million in 2012 and $7 million in 2013. There is a $7.5 million team option for 2014 with a $1 million buyout. If the As trade him, he gets a $250,000 bonus.
MLBTR's Tim Dierkes ranked Crisp 21st among MLB free agents at the beginning of the offseason. Crisp led the American League with 49 stolen bases in 2011, but he hit just .264 with an uninspiring .314 on-base percentage. As the AthleticsNation blog so aptly put it, "Crisp is an excellent base-stealer but he has never been exceptional at stealing first base."
This is one of those situations where it's not just the money, and it's not just the player. Surprisingly for a GM as astute as Billy Beane, he seems to have complicated his outfield situation rather than fixing it.
After trading Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney to the Red Sox for outfielder Josh Reddick, he re-signed Crisp, which means he has little chance to evaluate Reddick (or prospect Collin Cowgill, for that matter).
Then, Beane turns around and stuns the baseball world by signing Cuban star Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million deal. This also stunned Coco Crisp, since the word out of Oakland is that the As plan to put Cespedes in center and move Crisp to left.
Crisp wants no part of such a move. "One of the reasons I came back to Oakland instead of going to Tampa Bay…was to play center field," he has told reporters on numerous occasions since the Cespedes signing.
So, let's summarize.
Oakland has overpaid for a 32-year-old base-stealing centerfielder with no arm. They have also overpaid for a second centerfielder with no big-league experience. That leaves Manager Bob Melvin with a disgruntled soon-to-be left fielder in Crisp, and he is going to be challenged finding enough at-bats to go around for Cespedes, Reddick, Cowgill, Jonny Gomes and Seth Smith. They are faced with shifting Smith or Gomes to DH and leaving Chris Carter or Kila Ka'aihue in no-man's land, all to squeeze Coco Crisp back into the mix.
The AthleticsNation blog summed it up nicely: "Coco signing not working out so crisply."
5.Wei-Yin Chen, 3 Years, $11.3 Million; Tsuyoshi Wada, 2 Years, $8.15 Million; Orioles
OK, so this is a two-fer.
Both Wei-Yin Chen, 26, and Tsuyoshi Wada, 31, are veterans of Japanese baseball (NPB). Pitchers from that league have struggled when they have come to the United States, and the Baltimore Orioles are doubling their risk by signing these two left-handers in one year.
The problems Japanese pitchers have had over the years adapting to the US game have been well-documented. In his first spring training outing, Chen already had difficulty with one adjustment: The mounds in American baseball are different from the ones in Japan.
Tom Verducci's superb Sports Illustrated piece points out that since 1995, there have been nine pitchers from Japan, including Hideo Nomo, who have made 40 starts in the big leagues. Except for the Dodgers' Hiroki Kuroda (3.45), all have posted career ERAs between 4.24 and 5.72.
Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine concludes, "In general, the decline is pretty precipitous [for Japanese starting pitchers]. It's almost like relief pitchers in general. You can carve up their career in three-year cycles: good ones for two or three years and then they're almost done. It seems only the guys with an elite pitch are able to extend beyond that two- or three-year window."
What makes this $19-plus million investment even more mind-boggling to me is the fact that both pitchers have a history of arm problems.
During the 2007 season, Wada came to Los Angeles during the season to remove cartilage fragments from his left (throwing) elbow. Two years later, he came back to the US for additional treatment for elbow inflammation, which kept him out of action a good part of the 2009 season.
And, before he ever threw a pitch this spring training, the elbow acted up again. He had fluid drained, and also a cortisone shot.
As for Chen, he had Tommy John surgery at the end of 2006 season. According to Rotowire, he also lost some fastball velocity during the 2011 season with a leg injury.
On the plus side, Chen played for the Chinese Taipei national baseball team in 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games. For awhile, he was considered to be one of the most successful pitchers in NPB. He won the 2009 Central League ERA title with the lowest ERA (1.54) since the 1968 season. However, his strikeout rate has declined every year since 2008, and his 84 strikeouts in 147 innings pitched in 2011 is a warning sign.
Chen pitched the last four seasons in Japan. He was 36-30 with a 2.48 ERA. It should also be of concern to the Orioles that Chen was known as a two-pitch starter in NPB. That won't cut it in MLB, so Baltimore better hope that the forkball he allegedly has under development materializes.
Chen did became fluent in Japanese, but now, he has to learn another new language and adapt to a different baseball culture. Another complication will be his absolute lack of familiarity with American customs and the English language. According to an AP report, his introductory press conference last month was in Taiwan. His very first visit to the US was coming to spring training.
Wada was 16-5 with a 1.51 ERA last season, but that ERA number is misleading due to the introduction of anew baseball in the NPB; virtually every pitcher's ERA improved significantly. According to FanGraphs, however, not a single pitch of Wada's during the entire season cracked the 90 mph barrier.
Call him a nibbler…shades of Daisuke Matsuzaka.
So, the bottom line is that GM Dan Duquette has invested almost $20 million (and two roster spots) into two pitchers with questionable durability and less-than-exciting stuff.
4. 1B Prince Fielder, Brewers to Tigers, 9 Years, $214 Million
Ditto for Fielder.
This is another version of the A-Rod deal, but with a complication that neither Rodriguez nor Pujols has to face: his body type.
Rob Neyer, Baseball editor for SBNation.com says, "Prince Fielder was born with the ability to develop into one of the most devastating hitters on the planet. He was also born with a body that's quite probably not designed for a long and productive baseball career."
In greater detail, he put it this way:
When it comes to weight-to-height ratio, Prince Fielder is off the charts. He might age worse than the group that's available for study. He might age significantly worse than those other players did. If so, it probably won't happen because he doesn't work hard enough, or doesn't care enough.
At 27, Fielder is some four years younger than Pujols and A-Rod, so age is not the same factor; he will be 36 when this contract ends.
Lance Berkman, David Ortiz and Paul Konerko were all 35 this past season, and their numbers were still way up there. Great hitters continue to be productive into their middle 30s, and sometimes beyond.
The issue is not just the length of the deal; it is whether or not we believe Prince Fielder will "age well."
Let's start with where he is now. According to FanGraphs, Fielder has been the 17th most valuable non-pitcher in all of baseball over the last three seasons (and seventh most valuable in the National League). Just as in fantasy, his value comes from his hitting prowess and his durability; Fielder has missed only one game in the past three years.
On the other hand, he is certainly no threat on the basepaths. In fact, he is almost a detriment as a baserunner. Of greater concern is his fielding; his UZR numbers are already well below average (-36.4 runs in his six full seasons).
Ryan Campbell of FanGraphs did a detailed study of the aging question last October. His conclusion: "Due to [Fielder's] less than slim body type, it is not prudent to assume that he will age like most other Major League players."
Campbell analyzed the future value of a seven-year deal in the vicinity of Mark Teixera numbers: $180 million over eight years. Here's what he came up with:
While the data isn’t perfect, I think it is safe to say that signing Fielder to a Mark Teixeira contract (8/180) would be an incredibly risky move, especially considering some of the worst case projections have him providing only $122 million in value. While this figure only encompasses seven years of playing time, he will probably have decayed to the point where he would barely be above replacement level in year 8.
Campbell adds that it is entirely possible that Fielder's defensive weaknesses could lead to him becoming a full-time DH before he turns 30. "Locking a big money player into the DH spot can severely cripple a franchises financial and roster flexibility," he warns.
"Either way, it is clear that his best days are behind him," Campbell concludes. "Unless I am running a team that is a serious World Series contender over the next three seasons, I am extremely reluctant to hand over the contract that Fielder and his agent Scott Boras are going to want."
Well, the Tigers did just that and more, so they make this list.
3. SS Jose Reyes, Mets to Marlins, 6 Years, $106 Million
This one is simple. Who pays that much money to an injury-prone leadoff hitter?
Yes, the exciting 28-year-old switch-hitter has game-changing speed, and that speed resulted in 39 stolen bases in 2011 for the Mets. But he stole 60, 64, 78 and 56 from 2005 through 2008 before he came down with a series of injuries (ankle, calf, hamstring and rib-cage).
These afflictions, plus a thyroid issue, caused him to miss 191 games the past three years—although he did play enough to win the batting title last season with a .337 average. He topped off his career year with an on-base percentage of .384 and an OPS of .877.
Perhaps more importantly, the signing of Reyes will require the Marlins' best current player, shortstop Hanley Ramirez, to move to third base. The Marlins also gave Reyes the most lucrative contact in the history of the organization, which will add to the pressure he will face—as well as complicate the situation with Ramirez.
Ramirez has also demonstrated a tendency to be temperamental, and he has a reputation for having little interest in playing defense.
That defensive issue could be exacerbated by his move to a new position. According to Jon Heyman of Baseball Insider, new Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen has begun lowering expectations for Ramirez at third base. "He's not a Gold Glover (at third base). We have to be patient. He will make mistakes,'' Guillen said.
Ramirez is also coming off an uncharacteristically poor 2011 season in which he hit only .243.
A third potential problem is Guillen himself. He was notorious in Chicago for his run-ins with players, and Reyes has been known throughout his career as a player who does not take criticism well.
While with the Mets, Reyes had visible dugout feuds with managers Willie Randolph and Jerry Manuel. In 2010, he acknowledged to the New York Times that he sometimes lost focus on the field, and it was hard for him "to get ready for every pitch."
The report added that "an unsmiling and somewhat defiant Reyes contradicted his manager and infield coach, disputing their theory on why he had committed three errors recently."
Ben Shpigel of the Times also reported in 2008 that Reyes got into a heated argument with Mets announcer and former player Keith Hernandez. "When Reyes threw his glove to the dirt after committing a throwing error, Hernandez suggested the Mets were 'babying' Reyes, and that it was time for them to treat him like an adult."
Guillen will not tolerate this type of behavior over criticism, which may cause tension between the two.
Bottom line: This signing is fraught with potential flash points. Giving a player a contract that's worth more than your last two payrolls combined is bad enough; considering that Reyes has only averaged 98 games per year the last three years makes it even worse.
2. 1B Albert Pujols, Cardinals to Angels: 10 Years, $250 Million
This is the the A-Rod contract. "Déjà vu all over again," as Yogi Berra might have said.
Let's get one thing out of the way first. There is absolutely no doubt that Albert Pujols is a great baseball player, one of the best of this generation. Making this list in no way suggests otherwise. His 445 home runs to date, three MVP awards and two World Series rings make him a cinch for the Hall of Fame.
But the Angels just signed him to a $250-plus million contract that will take him to age 41.
How many sluggers can you name that are still performing at an elite level at that age?
OK, so the Angels are closing their eyes to the future and hoping that enough of the next 10 years will be productive to enable them to defend this deal.
His lower numbers in 2011 (lower numbers for him, I mean) may well be the precursor to a slow and steady decline as his age catches up with him. While it's hard to argue that a .299 batting average is bad, it is worrisome when one considers that his averages for the past four years have been .357, .327, .312 and .299. His OPS has dropped from 1.114 in 2008 to .906 in 2011. The OBP went from .462 to .366 in the same span of time. His slugging percentage has dropped from .653 to .541.
The fact that he grounded into only 16 double plays in 2008, but had 29 in 2011, might suggest he has also lost a step.
To be fair, his home run and RBI numbers have remained steady.
Fellow B/R writer Paul Grossinger also points out that Pujols' wins above replacement (WAR) number, elite since his rookie season, has also dropped off considerably since 2009, when he posted a 9.1—a monster number. The succeeding year numbers dropped from 9.0, to 7.5, to 5.1 in 2011, which was by far the worst of his career.
"Although 5.1 WAR is impressive," Grossinger concludes, "It is not enough: Pujols would need to maintain that performance over all 10 seasons to live up to his contract."
As Benjamin Kabak of YES Network.com, observes, "Of course, just like A-Rod in decline is still a very good player, so too is Albert Pujols. He makes the offensively-challenged Angels instantly better in the short term."
Kabak makes another very astute observation: The Angels are paying Pujols for what he’s already done in his career as well as for what they hope he will do for them in the future.
It's also important to remember that this is a back-loaded contract. Pujols will make $12 million in 2012, but that jumps to $24 million in 2015 and continues to rise by $1 million per year until 2021, when he will earn $30 million at age 41.
So, if the WAR continues to go down one to two points per year (his current decline rate), he will be worth perhaps $15 million per year when he starts earning $25 or $26 million per season. That could cripple the Angels for many years into the future.
1. Yu Darvish, Japan: 6 Years, $56 Million Plus $51.7 Million Posting Fee, Rangers
Bear with me; I know this is a long slide, but since I'm ranking this deal as the worst free agent signing of the year, I'd like to explain my reasoning.
Let's start with two words: Daisuke Matsuzaka.
In 2006, the Red Sox paid a $51.1 million posting fee for Matsuzaka, then signed him to a six-year, $52 million contract.
The Dice-K experience was not a good one for Boston. He had two good seasons, going 33-15 with a 3.72 ERA. From the third season on, he has gone 16-15 with a 5.03 ERA while suffering one injury after another.
On the face of it, Darvish sounds like the real deal. The 26-year-old right-hander allowed only five home runs in the entire 2011 season while posting an 18-6 record with a microscopic ERA of 1.44, for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japanese Pacific League. He is widely considered to be the best pitcher in Japan.
Yes, Darvish has ace-like potential, but the Rangers are sinking $108 million—the most ever spent on a free-agent right-hander—into a player who never has thrown a pitch in the big leagues.
Didn't they talk to the Red Sox?
There were enough warning signs out there for the Rangers to think twice about jumping into these perilous waters.
Last November, I wrote a story, "15 Ways The Red Sox Are Making Right Move Avoiding Yu Darvish."
I followed the reasoning of Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci, among others, who throw up caution signs. In his story, he reports that he asked an MLB executive if the poor track record of other pitchers from Japan would discourage teams from bidding high on Darvish.
The exec replied, "Remarkably, no. In the landscape of a competitive market, people turn a blind eye to history or believe this is the one guy who is the exception to the rule—that somehow, this one guy is more capable than all the others we know about."
Verducci's piece described a phenomenon he calls the "Third-Year Wall" problem in good detail.
In the 16 years since Hideo Nomo debuted in the major leagues, 43 Japanese players have followed Nomo.
"Only three have been named to more than one All-Star team (Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Kaz Sasaski)," writes Verducci, "And only 11 are active big leaguers, including Minnesota Twins infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, a .226 hitter with no home runs who became the latest of several players to struggle with the transition."
Nomo was the first to hit the Third-Year Wall. In his first two seasons, he was 29-17 with a 2.90 ERA. In his third year, his ERA rose to 4.25. He was traded in year four and released in year five. His ERA after hitting the wall was 4.61.
Verducci solidifies his argument by pointing out that since 1995, there have been nine pitchers from Japan, including Nomo, who have made 40 starts in the big leagues. Except for Hiroki Kuroda (3.45), all have posted career ERAs between 4.24 and 5.72.
Experts have come up with a number of differences between the game played in Japan and the game played in the US that could possibly contribute to the failure of most Japanese pitchers to adapt well.
Journeyman pitcher C.J. Nitkowski debuted with the Reds in 1995 and played for seven more major league teams before he went to Japan in 2007. He pitched for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks for two years and has spent the last three years pitching in Korea.
His website, cjbaseball.com, gives an excellent analysis of the technical differences between pitching in Japan and the US.
To start with, lineups aren't as deep, and there are fewer power hitters in Japan. The strike zone in Japan is bigger, especially inside, the mounds are softer and the Japanese baseball is (or seems) smaller and harder. (Adapting to the American ball has been particularly difficult for Matsuzaka; he has never been able to get the proper fell for his change-up, a very effective pitch for him in Japan.)
Perhaps the biggest factors are those that are most difficult to change. One is the Japanese work ethic, which seems to burn out pitchers more quickly. Another is the length of season (144 games in Japan) and total pitching workload. Also, most Japanese teams use a six-man rotation.
Nitkowski points out, "Nearly every Monday is an off day in the NPB, and rarely are there more than 6 games played in a row. That means in a six man rotation you’ll usually pitch every seven days."
Even with a five-man rotation, a starter usually gets six days off. Also, Japanese pitchers do not have to travel with their teams to road games if they are not pitching.
C.J. Nitkowski said about the Red Sox, "Despite their findings they still made the huge six year investment in Dice-K and right on cue, he began struggling in his third season with Boston. You have to imagine that the Red Sox brass was hoping Dice-K would beat the odds; they were betting $103 million on it, but he couldn’t do it."
Robert Whiting, an expert on Japanese baseball and the author of “You Gotta Have Wa," told the New York Times, “There are subtle — and not so subtle — differences between Japanese and American baseball that make it difficult for imported pitchers to adjust.”
And we never even mentioned diet or being 7,000 miles from home.
The bottom line for me, and the reason I rank the Yu Darvish signing the worst of all for this season, is that one of Verducci's primary sources for his Third-Year Wall analysis was none other than Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine. He is the one who told Verducci, "The anecdotal assessment suggests starting pitchers have a two-year window of success followed by a rapid decline, followed thereafter by disappearance. Even a lot of the relievers have had success quickly, reaching a hot peak followed by a rapid decline."
Levine concluded, "In general, the decline is pretty precipitous [for starting pitchers]. It's almost like relief pitchers in general. You can carve up their career in three-year cycles: good ones for two or three years and then they're almost done. It seems only the guys with an elite pitch are able to extend beyond that two- or three-year window."
And they still signed Darvish.
Wasn't it Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?