Ranking the Worst MLB Free-Agent Signings of the Last 10 Years
Teams hoping to upgrade their roster via free agency each offseason have more than a few examples of why they should be cautious. Exhibit A would be Alex Rodriguez and his ten-year, $275 million contract, which doesn’t expire until after the 2017 season. Rodriguez will be 42 years old, and his best days are far behind him.
If this past offseason was any indication, teams will be trying to stay away from these types of long-term deals that will pay players well past their prime. Only seven free agents signed deals for longer than three years, and only one, Josh Hamilton, will be over 35 years of age at the end of the contract.
Zack Greinke will be 34 years old when his six-year deal with the Dodgers expires. Angel Pagan will be 35 when his contract in San Francisco runs out. The Indians’ big free-agent signings—Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher—could become free agents at ages 33 and 34 respectively. Edwin Jackson of the Cubs and Anibal Sanchez of the Tigers will both be 33 when they can become free agents again.
The Angels’ signing of 31-year-old Josh Hamilton to a deal with less than half the financial commitment (five-year, $133 million) of Rodriguez’s was still considered a huge risk because of his prior off-the-field issues. It’s his early season performance, however, that should have the Angels worried.
Through his first 20 games, Hamilton is hitting .221 (17-for-77) with two homers, five walks and 23 strikeouts. The five-time All-Star also looked bad at the end of last season.
While it’s not the first time a superstar player has struggled out of the gate, it should be noted that Hamilton’s career numbers at Angel Stadium, where he’ll play half of his games, are just average (.779 OPS). The same goes with Oakland Coliseum (.751 OPS.) and Safeco Field (.746 OPS), home stadiums of division rivals A’s and Mariners.
For the next five years, Hamilton will play more than 60 games less per season at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, where he has a career .961 OPS. Even if he’s still the same player and his skills haven’t declined, he might not come close to the numbers he had with Texas.
This time last year, the Angels were worried about the guy they had just signed to a ten-year, $240 million deal. Albert Pujols being “done” with ten years left on his deal probably would’ve put him at the top of the “Worst Free-Agent Signing Ever” list.
Fortunately for the Angels, he showed he had plenty left in the tank with a strong finish after posting a .506 OPS through his first 27 games. The 33-year-old has an .803 OPS through 19 games this season, although he’s playing with plantar fasciitis and could eventually land on the disabled list because of the ailment.
Pujols will be 41 during the last year of his deal, and as is the case with Rodriguez, there are plenty of valid concerns regarding his health and declining skills as he approaches his mid-30s. He’ll have eight years and $211 million remaining on his deal after this season.
Along with Hamilton, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Pujols on a similar “Worst Free Agents” list a few years from now. In case you needed a refresher on Rodriguez and some other bad contracts, here’s my top 10 from the past decade.
Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees (10 Years, $275 Million)
While the Yankees are hoping that Rodriguez can return to the team at some point in the second half, it’s impossible to know what type of player he’ll be when he finally makes it back from offseason hip surgery. Being able to run slowly on a treadmill recently has the 37-year-old “pretty fired up,” according to manager Joe Girardi.
Alex Rodriguez told Joe Girardi that he is now able to run slowly on a treadmill. "He was pretty fired up about that," Girardi said.— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) April 13, 2013
Another poor playoff performance aside—he’s hitting .158 (12-for-76) with no homers and 24 strikeouts since 2010—Rodriguez was still a productive hitter during the 2012 regular season (.783 OPS).
Unfortunately, more links to possible performance-enhancing drug use give us another reason to think he’s not capable of bouncing back and being a productive major league player again. Regardless, he’s still getting $86 million in salary from 2014 to 2017.
Worst free-agent signing of all time?
He still has another four-and-a-half years to change my mind. We can’t forget that the Yankees did win a World Series in 2009 when Rodriguez had a terrific regular season and postseason. But with so much potentially dead money in the overall contract, he can’t avoid being placed at the top of this list in 2013.
2. Chone Figgins, Seattle Mariners (Four Years, $36 Million)
It’s not like Figgins earned a big contract after just one good season. From 2003 to 2009, the switch-hitting utility-man had a .292/.363/.389 slash line with season averages of 40 stolen bases, 84 runs and 33 extra-base hits.
During Figgins’ 2009 season, his last with the Angels at age 31, he was an AL All-Star for the first time and finished 10th in MVP voting. He also received MVP votes in 2004, 2005 and 2007, so this was far from a “career year.” Over the course of seven seasons, Figgins had been a highly productive and consistent player.
The Mariners signed him for four years the following offseason and were excited about teaming him with superstar Ichiro Suzuki at the top of their lineup. At the time, manager Don Wakamatsu, who was familiar with Figgins from his days as a minor league field coordinator and roving instructor with the Angels, described him as a “game-changer.”
As Seattle’s regular second baseman in 2010, however, Figgins posted career lows in batting average (.259), slugging percentage (.306) and OPS (.646) in 161 games. Hoping he’d bounce back after a move to third base, his primary position during his Anaheim days, the M’s were even more disappointed as Figgins continued to decline.
Leading up to his release in late November with another year left on his deal, Figgins hit .185 with a .241 on-base percentage and 15 stolen bases in 22 attempts over his final 147 games as a Mariner. Figgins was released by the lowly Marlins in spring training despite hitting .308 (eight singles in 26 at-bats).
The 35 year-old is currently unemployed, although he’ll collect another $8 million in salary from the Mariners to do absolutely nothing. So not much different than the last two seasons.
3. Jason Bay, New York Mets (Four Years, $66 Million)
After three injury-plagued and highly unproductive seasons in New York, the Mets mercifully released Bay this offseason. It had become clear that the 34-year-old was a long shot to turn things around in 2013, so they ate the remaining $21 million on his deal.
In the Mets' defense, how would anyone know that Bay was done at age 31 when they signed him? From 2004 to 2009, Bay averaged 30 homers and 99 RBI per season, including a huge season with the Red Sox (36 HR, 119 RBI) the season before signing his mega-deal in New York.
In Bay’s defense, he was having a decent first season as a Met (.779 OPS, 10 SB, 19 2B, 6 3B, 6 HR in the first half of 2010) before a concussion in late July knocked him out for the season.
Aside from a few hot streaks here and there, he was never a productive major league hitter again. He hit .221 with 20 homers and 167 strikeouts over his last 193 games as a Met.
The Mariners are now paying him $1 million to be a backup outfielder. He’s 7-for-38 with one homer. At least the Mets won’t have any regrets that they released him a year too soon.
4. Gary Matthews, Jr., Los Angeles Angels (Five Years, $50 Million)
After being released by the Braves in April 2004, the 29-year-old journeyman was picked up by the Rangers, who assigned him to their Triple-A team. He made it to Texas in late May and ended up having a very successful stint with the team (.817 OPS in 365 games from 2004-2006)
His career season in 2006 (.313 BA, 19 HR, 79 RBI, 44 2B, 10 SB, 102 R) made him a highly sought-after free agent the following offseason. Ten teams were reportedly interested in the center fielder, who eventually chose the Angels over the chance to play with Barry Bonds in San Francisco.
Angels general manager Bill Stoneman spoke of Matthews, 32 years old at the time, as a guy who was “coming into his own” and who “figured it out” late in his career. As it turned out, Matthews had already peaked and was on the decline.
After a decent debut with the Angels in 2007 (.742 OPS, 18 SB), he hit just .245 with 12 homers and 12 stolen bases over his next two seasons (2008-2009). He was traded to the Mets the following offseason for Brian Stokes, a 30-year-old reliever with a career 5.06 ERA in 157 big league appearances.
The Angels also paid $22.3 million of the remaining $23.4 million left on his deal for him. Matthews was released by the Mets in June 2010 after he posted a .507 OPS in 36 games. He hasn’t played in the majors since.
Matthews was also named in the Mitchell Report, an independent investigation into illegal steroid and performance-enhancing drug use, released in December 2007 and linking certain players to potential HGH use.
There is no other evidence of Matthews actually using an illegal substance, but the speculation is strong, especially with his career surge at age 30 and steep decline a few years later as Major League Baseball began to crack down on illegal performance-enhancing drug use.
5. Oliver Perez, New York Mets (Three Years, $36 Million)
Perez had shown enough during his two full seasons (25-17, 3.91 ERA in 2007-2008) with the Mets to convince them that he was worth keeping around for another three. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
At only 27 years old as he entered the first year of his new $36 million deal that he signed before the 2009 season, the Mets had to be sorry that they ignored the red flags that came with his consistency and control issues that plagued him at times.
Perez had a disastrous two-year run (6.81 ERA, 100 BB, 99 K in 112.1 IP) before he was released just before the 2011 season, when the Mets paid him $12 million to stay home. The lefty made $7.2 million per quality start over the span of his three-year contract.
To his credit, he didn’t stay home. He continued to pitch in the minors with a Washington Nationals affiliate and worked his way back to becoming a reliable lefty reliever for Seattle in 2012, where he remains after being re-signed to a $1.5 million deal in the offseason.
6. Milton Bradley, Chicago Cubs (Three Years, $30 Million)
The Cubs weren’t the first team to ignore the red flags on Bradley, a talented baseball player with a temper that always seemed to get the best of him. This would be Bradley’s seventh major league team. His inability to control his anger was already a well-known trend.
His .827 OPS in 817 career games, including a .999 OPS with the Rangers in 2008, made it easy for the Cubs to overlook the multiple incidents and a long list of injuries that had limited him to 91 games per season since 2001.
The 31-year-old Bradley had a so-so debut season in Chicago, posting a .775 OPS in 124 games. But not surprisingly, the Milton Bradley era ended early after he was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team—he criticized the team in a newspaper interview—with a few weeks to go in the 2009 season.
He was traded to Seattle in the offseason for Carlos Silva, who's No. 7 on this list, and cash, saving the Cubs approximately $6 million. But they still ended up paying $24 million for one year of Bradley and one decent season from Silva (10-6, 4.22 ERA in 21 starts) before he was released the following offseason.
After posting a .649 OPS in 101 games for the Mariners, Bradley was released in May 2011 and has been out of the game since.
That doesn’t mean his anger is under control. As of January, Bradley was facing 13 misdemeanor counts in a spousal-abuse case.
7. Carlos Silva (Four Years, $48 Million)
Not only did the Mariners make the terrible decision to sign Silva to a $48 million contract before the 2008 season, they took on another problem, Milton Bradley, and $6 million more in salary in order to send Silva to the Cubs in a trade prior to the 2010 season.
All in all, the Mariners paid $54 million for almost zero production from Milton Bradley (.649 OPS in 101 games between 2010 and part of 2011) and two awful seasons from Silva (5-18, 6.81 ERA, 2.1 BB/9, 3.9 K/9).
And the M’s don’t get a pass for taking a chance on a player with a history of being highly productive. Silva was only two seasons removed from a season in which he posted a 5.94 ERA and allowed a league-high 38 home runs for the Twins. He was better in 2007 (13-14, 4.19 ERA, 20 homers allowed), but nowhere near $12 million-per-season worthy.
To add salt to the Mariners’ wounds, Silva actually pitched pretty well in his one season for the Cubs. Well, not good enough for them to keep him around another season—they released him with one year left on his contract—or for another team to give him a shot in the majors. The 34-year-old is currently out of baseball.
8. Jason Schmidt, Los Angeles Dodgers (Three Years, $47 Million)
The Dodgers have had some terrible contracts over the last couple decades, but Schmidt’s takes the cake. After a stellar 10-year run from 1997 to 2006, in which he posted a 120-82 record with a 3.79 ERA, 3.4 BB/9 and 8.0 K/9 in 285 starts with the Pirates and Giants, the Dodgers decided to pay him $47 million during his age 34-to-36 seasons.
A shoulder injury limited Schmidt to three wins and a 6.02 ERA in 10 starts over his three seasons with the club. He earned $23.5 million per quality start. He never pitched again after his last start with the Dodgers on August 5.
9. Julio Lugo, Boston Red Sox (Four Years, $36 Million)
Lugo was having his best year ever in 2006 (.871 OPS, 12 HR, 18 SB in 73 games) when the Devil Rays dealt him to the Dodgers at the trade deadline for a couple of minor leaguers. If you stopped paying attention to Lugo at that point, you would’ve totally missed that he was as bad as he’d ever been during his two-month stint with the Dodgers (.545 OPS, 0 HR).
Apparently, the Red Sox were among those that stopped paying attention after the trade. They paid him $36 million for his age 31-to-34 seasons, but only he made it through just two-and-a-half before being traded to the Cardinals for Chris Duncan, who was having a mediocre season in St Louis.
Duncan never played a game with the Red Sox.
As the starting shortstop for the Sox in the 2007 and 2008 seasons, Lugo posted a .657 OPS with 45 stolen bases in 229 games—not quite the guy the Red Sox thought he was.
Lugo played well for the Cardinals (.756 OPS in 88 games), but he was traded to the Orioles at the start of the following season in 2010. He played in 93 games for Baltimore, posting a .581 OPS before he was finally off the Red Sox payroll.
One last big league stint in 2011 didn’t go well. The 35-year-old went 6-for-44 for the Braves and was released with a month to go in the season. He officially retired this offseason.
10. Barry Zito, San Francisco Giants (Seven Years, $126 Million)
Although he’s doing what he can to earn some of his salary late in the contract, Zito was simply not close to the guy the Giants thought they were paying for prior to the 2007 season.
His credentials spoke for themselves at the time of the deal. An AL Cy Young Award, three All-Star selections, 102 wins and a 3.55 ERA in 222 career starts with the A’s were what earned him the $126 million contract from the Giants. But that wasn't not the same pitcher that arrived in San Francisco.
Zito’s first five seasons with his new team yielded a 43-61 record with a 4.55 ERA, 4.1 BB/9 and 6.4 K/9. He earned $80 million over that span. That’s approximately $1.86 million earned per victory over that span.
A 17-win season, including two postseason victories in 2012, takes away some of the sting of the first five seasons. He’s also off to a strong start in 2013, although the Giants will somehow make sure he doesn’t pitch the 200 innings necessary for his $18 million option for 2014 to vest.