MLB Stars Whose Contracts Give the Most Bang for Their Teams' Buck

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterJune 14, 2014

MLB Stars Whose Contracts Give the Most Bang for Their Teams' Buck

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    Andrew McCutchen signed an extension a couple years ago that looked like a steal. It's turned out to be a mega-steal.
    Andrew McCutchen signed an extension a couple years ago that looked like a steal. It's turned out to be a mega-steal.USA TODAY Sports

    More so than any other sport, baseball is known for bad contracts. Such is life when clubs can't stop investing massive amounts of guaranteed dollars in players who have no hope of earning them.

    But bargain baseball contracts do exist. Actually, there are a lot of bargain contracts out there, some of which are bargains so big they deserve to be talked about.

    Hey, I've got an idea: Let's do that.

    Ahead of you is a breakdown of 10 of the biggest bargain contracts in MLB right now. But before you proceed, please note (i.e. DO NOT IGNORE) that I set some ground rules in pinpointing said bargains:

    1. No contracts that are only starting just now in 2014, so as not to freak out over two-month sample sizes.
    2. No rookie contracts or one- or two-year arbitration deals, because those are too easy.

    Right then, let's take it away.

    Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked and are current through play on Thursday, June 12.

Honorable Mentions

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Before we get into the steal-iest steals of them all, here are a few that didn't quite make the cut.

    Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays: The five-year, $65 million extension Bautista began in 2011 would look like one of the great steals in baseball had he not missed much of 2012 and 2013 with injuries.

    Jay Bruce, Cincinnati Reds: Consistency isn't really Bruce's thing, but he's given the Reds plenty of power for a six-year, $51 million extension that began in 2011.

    Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays: He's not giving Toronto the same kind of defensive versatility that Bautista is, but the three-year, $29 million extension that Encarnacion began in 2013 is more than a fair price for his power.

    Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals: He's slipped a bit since his Cy Young-caliber season in 2012, but $42 million over five years is still a good deal for a lefty with Gonzalez's talent.

    Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals: Gordon wields an above-average stick and is baseball's best defensive left fielder, a pretty good package for a four-year, $37.5 million deal that began in 2012.

    Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox: A notable hiccup in 2012 aside, the Boston Red Sox have gotten excellent value on a five-year, $30 million extension for Lester that started back in 2009.

    Carlos Santana, Cleveland Indians: Though Santana hasn't gotten going yet in 2014, the .784 OPS he has since 2012 is a pretty good return on a five-year, $21 million extension that began that year.

    Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies: My understanding is that the mega-extension he tacked on to an already big extension in 2010 is technically beginning this year, but what he's done for the Rockies so far for relatively cheap is at least worth a shoutout. 

10. Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Contract: Four years, $18 million (plus two options)

    Started: 2010

    Ben Zobrist broke out as a surprise star in 2009, finishing with a .297 average, a .948 OPS, 27 home runs and 17 stolen bases. By WAR, there was no better player in the American League.

    That was the Tampa Bay Rays' cue to do a decidedly Rays-like thing early on in 2010 by extending Zobrist through at least 2013. In doing so, they bought out his arbitration years and covered two of his free-agent years with options for 2014 and 2015.

    In return, Zobrist has provided the Rays with a .262 average and .775 OPS in 674 games since 2010, with 67 homers and 72 steals on the side. That may not seem like much, but that's above-average offensive production to go along with quality defense at several positions. 

    Such well-rounded versatility is why WAR still likes Zobrist, rating him as the 10th-best position player in MLB since 2010.

    With just a .692 OPS and 1.3 WAR so far this year, Zobrist does seem to be slowing down. But that's still pretty good for a $7 million salary, meaning he technically hasn't stopped being a bargain.

9. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants

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    Contract: Five years, $35 million (plus two options)

    Started: 2013

    Madison Bumgarner emerged as a difference-maker in the San Francisco Giants' run to the World Series in 2010 and followed that up with a 3.21 ERA across 204.2 innings in 2011. It was clear then that the Giants had a capable major league pitcher on their hands—one who would soon be getting expensive.

    So they acted fast. Two weeks into 2012, Bumgarner signed a five-year, $35 million extension that would start in 2013 and run through 2017. This allowed the Giants to buy out his arbitration years and at least one free-agent year. As such, it would be a solid deal for them even if he didn't get any better.

    Well, guess what. he's gotten better.

    In 45 starts since the beginning of 2013, Bumgarner has pitched 289 innings and posted a 2.74 ERA. That ranks ninth among qualified starters, and he also ranks 15th in WAR (RA-9 version).

    Bumgarner has become one of MLB's top pitchers, all for the low, low price of $7 million per year. That he's still only 24 and has actually earned only $4.5 million so far makes his deal look even better.

     

8. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

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    Contract: Five years, $32.5 million (plus two option years)

    Started: 2013

    The Chicago White Sox took Chris Sale, a lanky left-handed reliever with a funky delivery, and made him a starter in 2012. That was a huge success, as Sale posted a 3.17 ERA while striking out a batter per inning across 192 innings.

    The White Sox chose not to waste any time, signing Sale to a five-year extension that bought out his arbitration years and at least one free-agent year in March 2013. It was basically Bumgarner's contract, except $2.5 million cheaper.

    And even since signing it, Sale has actually been the more dominant pitcher.

    Though he's had some injury issues here and there, Sale has compiled a 2.83 ERA in 39 starts since the start of 2013, with an excellent 5.35 K/BB ratio to go with it. By WAR, he's been the sixth-most valuable pitcher in MLB over the last season-plus.

    Pretty good stuff for an average of $6.5 million per year. And so far, the 25-year-old Sale has really only earned $4.35 million.

     

7. Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Contract: Five years, $7 million (plus three options)

    Started: 2012

    After the Kansas City Royals promoted Salvador Perez toward the end of 2011, he teased himself as a future star by hitting .331 with an .834 OPS in 39 games.

    The Royals' response was to ink him to a five-year extension that took care of his arbitration years and several free-agent years. It was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, but there was no denying at the time that the Royals had a potential steal on their hands.

    Take a wild guess what's happened.

    Perez hasn't been able to hit .330 again, but the .290 average and .766 OPS he's posted since 2012 are plenty solid for a catcher. Factor in how he might be the best defensive catcher in the American League, and the Royals have a very rare weapon: an elite defensive catcher who can also hit.

    How much Perez would be making now had he not signed his extension is difficult to determine, but a good guess is that it would be considerably more than roughly $1.5 million per year.

6. Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Contract: Seven years, $42 million

    Started: 2012

    Nobody had any clue what the Los Angeles Dodgers were doing when they gave Yasiel Puig $42 million in the summer of 2012. One executive who spoke to Baseball America's Ben Badler called the deal "crazy," and even a less-outraged executive didn't seem to have much optimism.

    "I don't know," said an international scouting director. "I don't know what's going on in Dodger land. They must have seen something."

    Evidently, they did.

    Puig has played in 165 games since his debut in early June 2013, and in that time, he's hit .328 with a .989 OPS, 30 home runs and 18 stolen bases. All while playing electric defense in right field to boot. 

    WAR has Puig as one of the 10 best position players in MLB over the last calendar year. Given the huge improvement he's made to his plate discipline, however, he might now be more like a top-five player.

    For a guy like that, $6 million per year is pretty good.

5. Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

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    Contract: Four years, $27 million (plus one option)

    Started: 2011

    Johnny Cueto entered arbitration eligibility in 2011 fresh off a 2010 season in which he had posted a 3.64 ERA in 31 starts. He had some leverage. 

    Rather than a one-year compromise, he and the Cincinnati Reds agreed to a four-year deal that bought out his remaining arbitration years and one free-agent year. 

    The deal's $27 million value was a lot more than the $3.9 million MLBTradeRumors.com's Dan Mennella said Cueto was asking for initially, to be sure. But for the Reds, it meant a potential bargain if Cueto used his 2010 season as a springboard into stardom.

    Which is precisely what's happened.

    Though he's had some issues staying healthy, Cueto has been an ace when he has been healthy. In 82 starts since 2011, he's compiled a 2.47 ERA across 535.2 innings. Only Clayton Kershaw has done better among starters with at least 500 innings, and Cueto is also a top-10 pitcher in WAR.

    Cueto is just now making $10 million as part of his deal. Had he gone through the arbitration process, he likely would have been making seven figures a couple of years ago.

4. Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Contract: Five years, $11 million (plus one option)

    Started: 2012

    Jonathan Lucroy didn't author any kind of huge breakout in his first full season in 2011. He hit just .265 with a .703 OPS. A solid tease, but certainly not a Salvador Perez-like tease.

    The Milwaukee Brewers locked Lucroy up anyway, signing him to a five-year extension with an option in 2012 that would cover his arbitration years and one free-agent year. And with just an $11 million guarantee, the risk of disaster was pretty low.

    Rather than a disaster, however, what the Brewers have gotten is one of baseball's elite catchers.

    Lucroy is a .304 hitter with an .845 OPS since 2012, with 51 homers to boot. And so far in 2012, he looks better than ever, with a .336 average, a .910 OPS and five homers in 62 games.

    This is on top of good defense behind the dish, including maybe the best receiving skills in baseball. According to BaseballSavant.com, only Yadier Molina has gotten more called strikes outside the strike zone than Lucroy since 2012.

    Between his hitting and catching skills, Lucroy's not just a bargain player. Realistically, he might be one of the 10 best position players in Major League Baseball. 

3. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Contract: Eight years, $45 million 

    Started: 2008

    Ryan Braun put together a superb rookie season in 2007, winning the National League Rookie of the Year with a 1.004 OPS, 34 home runs and 15 stolen bases. 

    Like they eventually did with Jonathan Lucroy, the Brewers moved quickly. In May 2008, they inked Braun to an eight-year extension that bought out his arbitration years and two years of free agency for $45 million.

    Braun is currently in the second-to-last year of this extension, and he's done more than enough to earn it. From 2008 to now, he's racked up a .924 OPS, hit 186 home runs and stolen 121 bases.

    There are complaints to be made over how legit this production is. But frankly, there's no getting around that it's happened either way and that the Brewers have gotten it for cheap. And even with Braun slipping a bit in 2014, the .849 OPS and nine homers he's produced will do for what's still just a $10 million salary.

    The $105 million contract Braun is set to begin in 2016 is most likely what's really going to be ugly. But when the bad stuff comes, just remember that Braun had been a bargain for eight years.

     

2. Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Contract: Six years, $17.5 million (plus three options)

    Started: 2008

    The Rays signed Longoria to a six-year extension with three options about, oh, three seconds after he made his major league debut in 2008. And even despite the modest guarantee of $17.5 million, it was still a risky venture in light of the Rays' lack of riches and Longoria's teency-weency MLB track record.

    But then he won the American League Rookie of the Year on the strength of an .874 OPS and 27 home runs. And in the years since, all he's done is rack up an .855 OPS with 169 home runs while playing superb defense at the hot corner.

    Has Longoria been the best player in MLB since 2008? Probably not, no. But as far as WAR is concerned, only Miguel Cabrera has been as valuable among qualified players.

    Like Zobrist, Longoria appears to be slowing down. He has only a .716 OPS this year, and it's concerning how much his power has dried up. With the $100 million extension he signed in 2012 not kicking in until 2017, this isn't a good look.

    By the time he gets to that extension, however, Longoria will have been paid just $44.5 million to be one of baseball's best third basemen for nine years. Not unlike Braun, he'll have been a huge bargain before turning into a huge bust.

1. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Contract: Six years, $51.5 million (plus one option)

    Started: 2012

    Andrew McCutchen had his big breakout in 2011, posting an .820 OPS with 23 homers and 23 steals while also establishing himself as one of baseball's top defenders in center field.

    With arbitration looming, the pressure was on the Pittsburgh Pirates to get something done with him. They did just that in the form of a six-year extension that would cover his arbitration years and at least two free-agent years. And at $51.5 million, the value of the contract seemed fair for both sides.

    A couple of years later, though, it looks a heck of a lot more fair for the Pirates than it does for McCutchen.

    McCutchen followed up his strong 2011 season by blossoming in 2012, posting a .953 OPS and hitting 31 homers. He followed that up by winning the National League MVP in 2013, and he's looking better than ever with a .985 OPS and 10 homers through 65 games this year.

    Though far from its most expensive player, McCutchen is arguably the National League's best player. And with the Pirates controlling his fate for four more years after this one, don't be surprised if we're one day discussing his contract as one of the biggest bargains ever in any sport.