MLB's Best and Worst Contracts on the Books Right Now

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistDecember 4, 2013

MLB's Best and Worst Contracts on the Books Right Now

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    MLB is not immune to the world's growing depth of financial inequality.

    Nobody will shed a tear for any professional baseball player; even those earning the league minimum are doing just fine. But many young stars are waiting for their salaries to reflect their true worth while veterans ride past production to bloated checks.

    With lucrative TV contracts giving front offices more money to toss around, almost every notable signing during the past few years could be mentioned as a disturbing pay. As you bust your tail to pay the rent (although you're reading this now, so maybe it's time to get back to work), consider that Vernon Wells will make more than $24 million in 2014 after performing worse at his job than a replacement-level alternative.

    And he doesn't even crack the top 10 of baseball's worst contracts.

    Meanwhile, blossoming stars are either biding time until free agency or meeting small-market clubs halfway by buying out their arbitration years at a cost-effective rate. The list of MLB's biggest bargains is no place for established gamers who conquered free agency.

    Let's scour all 30 MLB ledgers and pinpoint the best and the worst contracts blessing and handicapping organizations.

    Note: All contract information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Advanced statistics obtained from FanGraphs.


Honorable/Dishonorable Mentions

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    Edwin Encarnacion (two years, $19 million remaining, $10 million club option in 2016) 

    Over the past two seasons, only Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis have smashed more home runs (88 and 86, respectively) than Edwin Encarnacion's 78 long balls. Add in a .546 slugging percentage and a 4.1 WAR during each campaign, and Encarnacion could potentially merit $20 million per year on the open market.


    Manny Machado (arbitration eligible in 2016, $495,000 in 2013)

    His late-season health scare made Machado just miss the cut, but the Baltimore Orioles will have him wrapped under team control until he hits arbitration prior to the 2016 season.



    Vernon Wells (one year, $24.6 million) 

    That's obviously an egregious amount of dough for an outfielder who hit .233/.282/.349 last season, but Wells doesn't make the cut because the New York Yankees are only on the hook for $6 million, and he comes off the books after 2014.


    Matt Kemp (six years, $129.5 million)

    If Kemp can't stay healthy, he'll join a long list of ugly contracts for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The fact that he amassed a minus-0.4 WAR in 73 games last season isn't helping matters.


    Brandon League (two years, $17 million)

    There's a universe where an organization thought Brandon League deserved several million dollars to pitch a limited number of innings at an uninspiring level. And we're living in it.

Best: 10. Evan Longoria

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    Remaining Contract: Nine years, $124.6 million ($13 million club option for 2023)


    By the far most expensive arrangement to earn a positive endorsement, Evan Longoria's $124.6 million deal is actually a major discount.

    Entering his seventh season, this is when the 28-year-old would have sought out $200 million and ownership of a few small islands in free agency. Instead, the Tampa Bay Rays, who would have likely watched him leave town rather than giving him a monster raise, can keep their star around for the long haul.

    As Longoria is averaging 133 games played per season, his health would have been a primary talking point had he reached the open market. And his .269 batting average and .343 on-base percentage in 2013 suggest that he might not be the mega-offensive superstar we hoped he would become.

    But he belted 32 homers and had a .498 slugging percentage, giving him an elite .512 career slugging average. Also touting a glove annually worthy of Gold Glove consideration at third base, Longoria has averaged a 6.0 WAR per season.

    A six-win player can fetch far more than $13.8 million per season, so the Rays should consider themselves lucky to have Longoria around at a reasonable rate for the next nine years.


    Note: Contract information has been corrected since original publishing.

Worst: 10. Adrian Gonzalez

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    Remaining Contract: Five years, $110.285 million


    First base is a fruitful farm for finding overpaid players. Since they assemble those sweet offensive stats everyone so fondly adores, they get paid the big bucks before their bats deteriorate.

    In fact, five of the 10 scoundrels from the list's dark side play first. The other four are more notably regarded as tying down their squads' finances, but Adrian Gonzalez typically gets a free pass despite his enormous deal.

    Gonzalez has not dived off the scale of usefulness, but he's no longer a superstar who blasts 40 homers or collects a .400 on-base percentage. If he were to hit the open market this winter, it would be hard to see a team happily giving him five years.

    Once a walk artist who would also annually exceed a .500 slugging percentage, Gonzalez has turned into a contact-driven hitter with average power for a man of his fraternity. Over the last two years, he has posted a .343 on-base percentage and 40 homers, a mark he once matched in a singular season.

    Gonzalez still holds a career 10.2 percent walk rate, but that mark has plummeted to 6.7 percent over the previous two seasons. As a result, he has tallied a 6.1 WAR during that stretch, lower than his 6.3 tally accrued during a contract year in 2011.

    As his power and plate discipline fade, Gonzalez won't be worth more than $20 million a year into his mid-30s.

Best: 9. Josh Donaldson

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    Remaining Contract: Arbitration eligible in 2015 ($492,500 in 2013)


    Out of nowhere, Josh Donaldson emerged to assume the superstar mantle for the Oakland Athletics.

    During his first full season in the big leagues, the 27-year-old third baseman gave Oakland the star bat it had clamored for since Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez filtered out of town. While he showed signs of offering solid contributions in 2012, Donaldson surpassed all expectations in 2013.

    After never hitting more than 20 homers in a minor league season, Donaldson smashed 24 out of the park for the American League West champions. That only begins to explain his true value, as he recorded a .301/.384/.499 slash line with a 11.4 percent walk rate.

    His mastery at the hot corner helped him generate a 7.7 WAR, just above Miguel Cabrera's 7.6 mark. Heads will inevitably explode as a result of comparing Cabrera's superb power numbers with Donaldson's all-around production, but their overall play was not far off.

    Unlike Cabrera, Donaldson has two years left before earning a nine-figure salary. Oakland will soon have to fret the notion of paying its new star, but the small-market club has years before it must travel down that road.

Worst: 9. Prince Fielder

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    Remaining Contract: Six years, $144 million


    In all honesty, Prince Fielder's contract is currently not as atrocious as the accompanying vitriol it has attracted.

    There's no denying Fielder's bat hit a downswing last season. His .279/.362/.457 slash line is awful by his standards, but he didn't exactly torch the Detroit Tigers' season. 

    A decreased walk rate and enhanced strikeout percentage offer some warning signs, but it's also possible the 29-year-old simply experienced a down year. Moving to the Texas Rangers could certainly provide a remedy for his offensive deficiencies.

    For all the talk of his big body declining, Fielder has not missed a game since 2010, making him a modern-day iron man. 

    This is more of a fear of what the long-term deal could become. Fielder's power numbers have dipped in two consecutive seasons, and the Rangers can't afford for that trend to continue. There's also the fact that he never generated any value defensively.

    Nobody could have reasonably expected Fielder to live up to this contract in 2020, so he needs to at least merit making more than $20 million during the next few years.

Best: 8. Carlos Gomez

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    Remaining Contract: Three years, $24 million


    Carlos Gomez certainly set himself up for a raise down the line.

    Before the 2013 season began, the Milwaukee Brewers gambled on Gomez's late surge in 2012 amounting to more than a flash in the pan. He rewarded their vote of confidence with a sensational campaign.

    The .338 on-base percentage isn't great for a top-caliber player, but everything else led to his sensational 7.6 WAR that ranked fourth among position players. He provided power with a .506 slugging percentage, speed with 40 steals and an incredible 38 defensive runs saved.  

    Consider Chris Young, another outfielder crafted from the same fabric. Even after hitting .200 last season, Young pulled $7.25 million out of the New York Mets due to his power, speed and defense. 

    Young notched a .341 on-base percentage during his best offensive season in 2010, so Gomez cannot be fully discounted due to his subdued mark.

    Even if Gomez goes back to his 2012 production, when he hit .260/.305/.463 with 19 homers, 37 steals and a 3.1 WAR, paying him $8 million is still more than reasonable.

Worst: 8. Mark Teixeira

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    Remaining Contract: Three years, $69.375 million


    Don't say you weren't warned about all of the first basemen.

    If you put Brian Cashman in a time machine and sent him back five years, he still might sign Mark Teixeira. The star hitter guided the Yankees to a championship during his first year in town, and he tallied 111 homers during his first three years with he squad.

    But the Bronx Bombers can't feel great about handing him eight years now that they're paying him $23,125,000 per season until the end of 2016.

    Starting at .410 and ending at .332 in 2012, Teixeira's on-base percentage has dipped every season since 2008. Once a candidate to hit .300, he settled for .251 in 2012 due to a 41.1 percent ground-ball rate.

    His woes hit an all-time high last season, as the veteran played just 15 games before undergoing season-ending wrist surgery. Not knowing what to expect when he returns next year, the Yankees would gladly take the .250, 25- to 30-homer version of Teixeira.

    That would put him in the same boat as Gonzalez. He'd be a viable contributor, but not one worth receiving $3 million less than the Houston Astros' entire 2013 team payroll. 

Best: 7. Wil Myers

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    Remaining Contract: Arbitration eligible in 2016


    This is what the Kansas City Royals gave up in hopes of finally cracking the postseason.

    While James Shields has one year left on his contract before he can bolt for a big deal the Royals likely can't afford, the Rays have plenty of time before Wil Myers even reaches an arbitration hearing.

    After being held in Triple-A until June to keep his arbitration clock ticking, Myers hit .293/.354/.478 during his rookie campaign. The highly regarded rookie showed off his power bat immediately while improving his plate discipline as the season progressed.

    Myers must improve his 24.4 strikeout percentage to avoid a drop-off, but the Rays will happily take an imperfect bopper making under nine figures, for now. 

Worst: 7. Carl Crawford

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    Remaining Contract: Four years, $85.8 million


    The day after Jacoby Ellsbury received $153 million, let’s turn the clock back on another speedy outfielder who signed a similarly sized contract.

    Bad news for the Yankees: It turned out horribly.

    Before lampooning the Boston Red Sox for giving Carl Crawford $142 million over seven years, remember that he put everything together the previous year. In his 2010 contract year, Crawford hit .307/.356/.495 with 19 homers, 47 steals and a 7.4 WAR.

    Unfortunately, that stands as his best crusade by a wide margin. Crawford netted a .289 on-base percentage during his first season with Boston before the Dodgers eventually took him off the Red Sox’s hands.

    While he played a solid outfield for the Dodgers last season, a .329 on-base percentage and .407 slugging average are not befitting a hired gun absorbing more than $20 million of the team’s yearly payroll.

Best: 6. Matt Carpenter

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    Remaining Contract: Arbitration eligible in 2015 ($504,000 in 2013)


    At this time last year, the St. Louis Cardinals were searching for answers at second base. When they decided on Matt Carpenter, they would have gladly taken league-average production at the spot.

    Instead, they discovered the National League's premier second baseman.

    During his first full season, Carpenter hit .318/.392/.481 with a league-best 126 runs. While his 11 homers are unimpressive, he delivered 55 doubles and seven triples for the NL's premier offense.

    At a microscopic price of $504,000, Carpenter procured a 7.0 WAR, the highest mark of any second baseman. That's a low price of $72,000 per win.

    For comparative purposes of how much a win is worth, Willie Bloomquist just received $5.8 million over two years from the Seattle Mariners, who must have mistaken his lack of power for resounding grit. That's $2.9 million per year for an infielder who has compiled a 1.0 WAR over the past three years combined.

    It remains to be seen whether a star blossomed or Carpenter underwent a career year, but line-drive hitters with a keen batting eye usually avoid a sharp regression.


Worst: 6. John Danks

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    Remaining Contract: Three years, $47.25 million


    The Chicago White Sox are receiving very little production from their $65 million investment.

    Shelling out that much dough for John Danks felt like a slight overpay at the time, but hardly one that would yield disastrous results. In four seasons leading up to the deal, Danks averaged 194.5 innings pitched per year with a 3.77 ERA.

    With an average WAR of 3.8 per season during those four years, Danks was a solid, durable pitcher worth keeping around. Now he's a bottom-end arm who is losing ticks on the radar gun.

    Danks' average fastball velocity sunk from 91.6 miles per hour in 2011 to 90.1 the ensuing season before he tore his shoulder capsule. While he fought back to take the mound again last season, he was not the same pitcher that netted the lofty five-year deal.

    His velocity fell even further this past season, this time plunging down to 89.3 miles per hour. As a result, his K/9 rate depreciated to 5.79, and opposing batters hit .274 off the southpaw.

    Although the White Sox have cleansed most of their bulky contracts in a rebuilding effort, they're stuck with Danks for another expensive three years. 

Best: 5. Paul Goldschmidt

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    Remaining Contract: Five years, $29.9 million ($14.5 million club option in 2019)


    In exchange for making Paul Goldschmidt a millionaire during his rookie years, the Diamondbacks will receive a bargain on the breakout slugger's arbitration years and buy a little time before his free agency.

    The Diamondbacks inked him to a five-year, $32 million deal after he hit .286/.359/.490 during 2012. Had Goldschmidt waited another season, a lot more money would have come his way.

    He took a leap to superstardom in 2013, batting .302/.401/.551 with 36 homers and 125 RBI. The homers, slugging percentage, RBI and a 160 adjusted OPS+ all led the NL.

    Assuming the Diamondbacks activate the $14.5 million option for 2019, Goldschmidt will be 32 when his contract expires. Were they to peruse the rest of this list, they might cash out and let someone else watch the first baseman decline under much more significant financial terms.

    For now, they can simply enjoy holding one of the best hitters in baseball for slightly less than some veterans of the same token are making in a year.

Worst: 5. B.J. Upton

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    Remaining Contract: Four years, $62.2 million


    Well, that backfired spectacularly.

    B.J. Upton's five-year, $72.5 million deal drew much disapproval when the transaction unfolded, but nobody could have anticipated this type of collapse. In his first year with the Atlanta Braves, Upton hit an abysmal .184/.268/.289 with a minus-0.6 WAR.

    His downfall culminated with the Braves benching him during the playoffs, which meant they had $25 million watching from the dugout between Upton and Dan Uggla.

    Upton has not hit above .250 since 2008, and his power swings result in an unimpressive .409 slugging percentage, so signing him certainly came with risk. But he still offered speed on the bases and in the outfield, hoarding plenty of value before his tumultuous 2013 campaign.

    Putting aside the sabermetric spreadsheets for a minute, the dude hit .184 last season. That's all sorts of awful, and he needs to revive his career before turning into the world's most highly compensated cheerleader.

Best: 4. Salvador Perez

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    Remaining Contract: Three years, $5.25 million (plus club options)


    It's going to take a while for one of the game's brightest backstops to get adequately paid.

    A career .301 hitter with a great glove behind the plate, Salvador Perez is quickly morphing into one of the game's top catchers. If the 23-year-old could take a few more walks and amp up the power a tad, he'll become a superstar.

    The Royals watched him hit .331 during a limited sample size in 2011, which was enough for them to lock him down for as many as eight years. The small figures and club options made the hurried extension a low-risk, high-reward ploy.

    Perez has made good on the investment. Despite his 4.0 percent walk rate, he touts an 88 percent contact rate. Per Baseball-Reference, he led all catchers with 11 defensive runs saved. 

    After adding on club options that span through 2019, the Royals can employ Perez for the next six years for just $20 million. Therefore, he should play out the prime of his career with the club until his contract expires at age 29.


Worst: 4. Ryan Howard

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    Remaining Contract: Three years, $75 million


    A healthy Ryan Howard didn't deserve a massive $139 million extension before the 2012 season, but a banged-up Howard is now a huge liability that encapsulates the Philadelphia Phillies' fall from grace.

    Since re-upping with the Phillies, Howard has played a combined 151 games in two years, during which he's recorded a .307 on-base percentage and 194 strikeouts. Now he also must recover from a torn meniscus in his left knee.

    This isn't Howard's first major injury; he ruptured his Achilles tendon during the closing contest of the 2011 season. Howard was never nimble on his feet, but he'll now carefully travel the bases from station to station.

    At his best, Howard offered pure power with a long swing and lackluster glove. He alleviated those flaws when he hit 45-50 homers a year, but the Howard with 64 blasts in the two seasons before notching the new deal had already lost his superstar stamp.


Best: 3: Jose Fernandez

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    Remaining Contract: Arbitration eligible in 2016 ($490,000 in 2013)


    The Miami Marlins need to clutch Jose Fernandez tight and never let go.

    When the Marlins decided to include Fernandez on their Opening Day roster, the move sparked confusion and skepticism. After all, he was just 20 at the time and had never pitched higher than Single-A. Now he was already taking the mound for a team expected to finish among the league's worst?

    Instead of taking his knocks and battling through growing pains, Fernandez immediately flashed ace upside. His sensational 2.19 ERA and 0.98 WHIP earned him Rookie of the Year honors, and his .556 opposing OPS and 9.75 K/9 rate point to a limitless ceiling. 

    There's little reason for excitement in Miami, but at least Fernandez gives the city hope every fifth game. Few hurlers can match his dominance, and he has two more seasons before hitting arbitration.

    That gives the Marlins five years to build something that Fernandez will find worth sticking around for.

Worst: 3. Josh Hamilton

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    Remaining Contract: Four years, $107.6 million


    Seriously, what were the Los Angeles Angels thinking?

    The rest of the world viewed Josh Hamilton as an incredible talent who could carry a club at his best but would often suffer prolonged funks of futility. Yet even after limping to the finish line and striking out 25.5 percent of the time in 2012, Hamilton netted a five-year, $125 million deal from the Angels.

    A lot for a player with a 24.3 career WAR through six seasons who had only played more than 150 games once? Absolutely, and the Angels found out the hard way.

    Although Hamilton stayed healthy, he hit a paltry .250/.307/.432 in his first season with the Angels. Considering his lack of range covering the outfield, Hamilton needs to slug well north of .500 to disprove his huge deal as a colossal albatross. 

    On a yearly basis, Hamilton earns more money than Albert Pujols, whom I haven't forgotten about. When he's 36 years old in 2017, Hamilton will make an insane $32.4 million. He wields a deadly bat when everything falls into place, but a $30 million man should be steady as a rock.

Best: 2. Andrew McCutchen

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    Remaining Contract: Four years, $45.08 million ($14.5 million club option in 2018)


    Exorbitant contracts are rewarded to those who collect MVP hardware. Despite taking home the accolade, Andrew McCutchen will have to wait a while before garnering his true payday.

    The Pittsburgh Pirates are hardly handing him chump change, but McCutchen is set to make under $7.5 million next season after posting a .317/.404/.508 slash line and NL-best 8.2 WAR.

    That salary will increase, but McCutchen is currently working on a lower commission than B.J. Upton. Barring injury, Pittsburgh will lunge to launch the $14.5 million team option waiting in 2018, so McCutchen won't see free agency until he is 33.

    McCutchen resides so high on this list because, where other deals mostly ate out arbitration years, the star outfielder has already logged five years for the Pirates. Instead of arranging their affairs in order to dole out $200 million to keep McCutchen next year, the Pirates can continue to fortify the supporting cast.

    Since signing the extension before the 2012 season, McCutchen has hiked up his offensive game to the next level. Pittsburgh can continue to enjoy his peak years at a team-friendly discount.

Worst: 2. Alex Rodriguez

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    Remaining Contract: Four years, $90 million


    And this is why the Yankees are hesitant to enter the same zip code as Robinson Cano's alleged $300 million asking price.

    Sure, Alex Rodriguez filled his star billing for a while, but the Yankees had to know locking him down until he turned 42 would end poorly. The decline started in 2010, when he manufactured a .341 on-base percentage despite delivering 30 homers and 100 RBI for the 13th straight year.

    Injuries have since derailed A-Rod, who returned from a quad ailment just in time to appeal his 211-game suspension. During those 44 games, he worsened an alarming pattern in his ballooning strikeout rate, ending nearly 24 percent of his plate appearances with a walk of shame to the dugout.

    When healthy, Rodriguez can still help the Yankees, as long as nobody is expecting 40 homers to embellish an MVP campaign. At this point, they'd gladly take a three-win player with a .350 on-base percentage and some solid pop.

    Of course, that's not worth another $90 million for a team that would rather use that cash to purchase newer, younger toys. 

    But for the first time in a while, A-Rod no longer boasts the MLB's worst contract. More on that in a bit.

Best: 1. Mike Trout

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    Remaining Contract: Arbitration eligible in 2015 ($510,000 in 2013)


    Any baseball-related list ranking the best of something usually ends with Mike Trout.

    At this rate, the dictionary will have to construct new words to bestow Trout with proper praise. To heck with what the MVP voters think. He is the best player on the planet, and it's not all that close.

    How does one follow up a rookie season that includes a .326 batting average, 30 homers and 49 steals? In Trout's encore, he boosted his on-base percentage to .432. Many more free passes did the trick, and he also progressed by dipping his strikeout rate to 19.0 percent.

    Including his 40-game test drive in 2011, Trout has amassed a 21.1 WAR over the early stages of his career. Jacque Jones, a respected veteran who played eight full seasons in the majors, made the Hall of Fame ballot with a 13.1 career WAR.

    Just how much money would Mike Trout deserve if he became a free agent today? Using the measure of $5.28 million meriting one win (others have projected the rate closer to $6 million), Trout would theoretically justify $52.8 million per year.

    It obviously would take an insane amount of inflation for Trout to ever get paid that much, but it does introduce an interesting storyline that will materialize when he approaches free agency. 

    Four years from now, don't be surprised when Trout is baseball's highest-paid player. But for now, he'll earn around $50,000 per win.

Worst: 1. Albert Pujols

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    Remaining Contract: Eight years, $192 million


    Before the Angels can rejoice over Trout, here's a bitter reminder that they are paying Albert Pujols $192 million more to play out the twilight of his career.

    Once the game's premier star, Pujols is now toiling away in Los Angeles, where the 33-year-old continues to regress each year. 

    His batting average and on-base percentage have dropped in each of the past five seasons, and his slugging percentage has jumped on that trend since 2010. After years of gradual decline, old age crashed down hard on the slugger in 2013.

    In 99 games, Pujols hit .258/.330/.437, all career lows by a landslide. After posting a walk rate above 10 percent during each of his first 10 seasons, Pujols fell south of that barometer for the third consecutive time. His 12.4 percent strikeout rate, on the other hand, represents his worst measure since his 2001 rookie campaign.

    Even the Pujols who hit .299/.366/.541 for the Cardinals in 2011 did not justify anywhere near a $240 million contract, but the Angels were blinded by his track record and mistakenly thought he could maintain that level of play through his 30s. 

    A future Hall of Famer once branded with the hopes of snatching the all-time home run record from Barry Bonds, Pujols is now relegated to years of Angels fans asking when they can finally get rid of him.