One thing that's nearly as certain as the sun rising in the east each morning is that major league teams will spend more and more on free agents each winter. In what was considered a weak free agent class, baseball has seen two players join the nine-figure club in the past two months to go along with 12 others who have snagged deals for at least $10 million per year.
While it's a sure thing that front offices will pony up, especially in a climate where revenue sharing has granted more teams the opportunity to, it's not quite so certain that they'll do it intelligently. Since the early days of free agency, misses have been more common than hits. Famous flops from Ed Whitson to Mo Vaughn to Mike Hampton serve as cautionary tales that are seldom heeded.
The following are the worst of the worst in the past 10 years. The players on this list aren't just those who have busted after getting big deals. Anyone can sign a player and watch them unexpectedly decline or spend an eternity on the DL, Carl Pavano style.These are signings based on poor conceptions and flawed logic.
When the Cubs signed the then 31-year-old Soriano, he was coming off an historic 40/40 2006 season in Washington. He posted career-highs in home runs (46), OBP (.351) and slugging (.560). He seemed to have found a niche in the outfield and appeared to finally be accepting the idea that some pitches shouldn’t be swung at.
Prior to ‘06, though, Soriano had two relatively lackluster seasons in Texas during what should have been the prime of his career. He posted a WAR of 2.1 and 2.3 and batted .274/.316/.498 for the Rangers. While pouting about being traded away by the Yankees, he clashed with management over possibly changing positions and his desire to bat leadoff.
Over the past six seasons as a Cub, Soriano has resembled his Texas incarnation more than his contract year in Washington. His .265/.320/.499 line and vanishing range in the outfield aren’t quite what Chicago bargained for.
After purchasing the team for over $2 billion, the Dodgers’ new ownership group certainly hasn’t been shy about spending even more. First, they traded for Hanley Ramirez, Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, all sporting huge multi-year deals.
Now they’ve dipped their sizable toes in the free agent waters, making Zack Greinke the highest paid pitcher in baseball in terms of average annual value.
Greinke is a very good pitcher. The 29-year-old has thrown 200 or more innings in four consecutive years, and he’s got more than solid career numbers (3.77 ERA, 1.25 WHIP). But if Los Angeles is expecting Greinke to recapture his 2009 Cy Young season, they’re in for a disappointment. Since 2010, Greinke ranks 50th among major league starters in ERA (3.81) and 32nd in WHIP (1.22).
The Dodgers may be fine with paying a top notch number two like an all-world number one, but in doing so they've set a concrete floor for what it'll cost to retain their real ace, Clayton Kershaw, when he hits free agency himself in two years.
They've also set the market for other pitchers who consider themselves a cut above Greinke.
In a vacuum, signing a then 31-year-old slugger who's OPS was .895 or better in five of six full major league seasons wouldn’t have been a bad idea at all.
In context, though, the Mets opened a ballpark where it’s nearly impossible for right-handed pull hitters to hit home runs —then paid big for a right-handed pull hitter whose game relies heavily on the long ball.
In 446 at bats at CitiField over three seasons, Bay hit just 11 home runs. No one could have predicted the injuries and the all-around awful play that plagued the left fielder. T
he Mets wouldn't have had to deal with any of those if they'd followed the simple strategy of building their team to suit their home field. Bay was so much a disaster that New York bought out the final year of his contract. He'll attempt to revitalize his career in Seattle in 2012.
The combined $46 million that the Yankees spent on Kei Igawa in 2007 pales in comparison to some of the other investments on this list, but the Japanese lefty deserves his spot nonetheless, thanks to his obscene lack of production.
During his five-year pact with the Bombers, Igawa pitched a grand total of 71.2 innings while posting a 6.66 ERA and a 1.76 WHIP, though he did prove a solid addition for AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Frustrated over being outbid by the Red Sox for Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Yankees instinctively turned to the next-best far-east hurler available in the winter of 2006. Unfortunately for them that turned out to be Igawa, who crafted his success for the Hanshin Tigers around flat fastballs and breaking pitches out of the strike zone —the kind of stuff that big league hitters just won’t chase.
Any amateur scout could see that Igawa wouldn’t translate well through 10 minutes of YouTube video, but somehow Brian Cashman and company were intrigued.
Long-term deals for one-year wonders haven’t been historically well-rewarded in baseball.
The Angels found that out when they paid big for journeyman Gary Matthews Jr., a 32-year-old who played for six different organizations, based on one big year in Texas — fueled largely by a .908 OPS in games at the hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark.
In Anaheim, Little Sarge predictably regressed to the middling outfielder he’d been his entire career. He batted.248/.325/.383 in three years as an Angel, adding below-average defense to the fold before the club picked up most of his salary in order to dump him on the Mets.
He appeared in just 38 games for New York and hasn’t returned to the majors since.
When A-Rod opted out of his previous 10-year deal in 2007, he was closing in on his third American League MVP award in five years and had just produced an absolutely prolific season (.314/.422/.645, 54 home runs, 9.7 fWAR).
He put the Yankees in a bind, though they had sworn not to negotiate with Rodriguez and super-agent Scott Boras if the former opted out of his contract. They were facing the prospects of an aging lineup, an empty farm system and a weak free agent market that made 2008 look like a potentially long and unpleasant year.
So the Yankees did what any red-blooded, Steinbrenner-owned, super-wealthy franchise would have done. They signed A-Rod to the largest contract in American sports history — one that carried him through his 42nd birthday.
They panicked and bid against themselves. The club could likely have retained Rodriguez for three years and $80 million less had they only shown a little patience.
Five years later, amidst steroid admissions, nagging injuries and dwindling production, the Yankees are stuck with an absolute albatross of a deal.
In year one of his massive decade-long deal, Albert Pujols posted career lows in batting average (.285), on base percentage (.543), slugging percentage (.516), home runs (30) and fWAR (3.9).
While those are still outstanding numbers for most, $240 million demands more, especially since Pujols’ production can only be expected to head south as he sojourns deeper into his thirties.
Given the consistent downward trajectory he’s been on since 2009, his OPS has dropped by at least .047 each season. The Angels will likely never see a return on their monstrous investment.
Pujols ranks ahead of A-Rod on this list for a couple of reasons.
The Angels had the benefit of knowing what Rodriguez’s deal had become when they signed their own 32-year-old superstar to a 10-year contract. They did it anyway. While the Yankees brought back A-Rod after he won the AL MVP unanimously, the Halos signed Pujols off a career-worst season (.299/.366/.541 in 2011).
A common mistake teams make in free agency is paying superstar-level money for a player who just isn’t that.
For four years in Philadelphia, Jayson Werth OPS was .861 or better, including a career-high .921 in 2010. He homered every 18.9 at bats, and he got on base at a .380 clip. In Philadelphia, Werth was very, very good.
But when the Nationals signed Werth, he was a 31-year-old, who was nearing the end of his prime. The contract carries him through his 38th birthday, and his effectiveness has already dwindled considerably. In the nation’s capital, Werth’s batting line is just .256/.349/.407, a steep drop from where he was with the Phillies.
From 2014 through 2017, Werth will earn over $20 million per season, which is likely to be a very unsatisfying chunk of Washington’s budget.
Alex Rodriguez was the highest paid player in baseball in 2012.
If you asked 100 strangers, Family Feud style who was second, Vernon Wells probably wouldn’t even make the board. But the veteran outfielder, who batted an anemic .230/.279/.403 last year, was indeed number two.
Wells is the only player mentioned here who technically wasn't a free agent. The Blue Jays signed him long term in his final arbitration year, but the sheer atrocity of the contract forces him onto the list.
GM Alex Anthropolis deserves executive of the millennium honors for convincing the Angels to take on the remainder of Wells’ salary in 2011, but his predecessor’s blunder in handing out the deal in the first place is hard to deny.
Wells was coming off a star-like .303/.357/.542, 5.8 fWAR season 2006 when Toronto granted him his nine-figure extension, but his relatively pedestrian campaigns the previous two years (.269/.320/.463 in 2005 and .272/.337/.472 in 2004) should have tempered their enthusiasm.
Seven and 126 are apparently very unlucky numbers when it comes to baseball contracts.
When the Giants decided to make Barry Zito the highest paid pitcher in baseball in 2007, they took on a player coming off a career-worst season in terms of WHIP (1.40), walks-per-nine-innings (4.03) and FIP (4.89).
Blinded by a 16-10 record, a respectable 3.83 ERA and perhaps the glimmer of his five-year-old Cy Young Award, San Francisco dove in head first and has been paying the price ever since.
For the past six seasons, the Giants have essentially gotten the same pitcher Zito was his last year in Oakland. His 1.40 WHIP and 4.00 walk rates have remained steady. His 4.47 Giants ERA is around where it should have been in 2006 if not for some luck.
The only differences are, San Francisco’s offense hasn’t inflated Zito’s won-loss record the way Oakland’s did, and the oddball lefty has lost his ability to pitch deep in games due his ineffectiveness. He’s failed to reach 200 innings in any of his six seasons on the western shore of the bay.