MLB Free Agency: Ranking the Worst Free-Agent Contracts Ever

Paul Grossinger@@pgrossingerAnalyst IIFebruary 5, 2012

MLB Free Agency: Ranking the Worst Free-Agent Contracts Ever

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    MLB free agency is a funny paradox: It is often viewed as a team's savior, but it's usually more of an iceberg.

    Your franchise can't win the World Series in the winter.  But they can lose it for five years to come with an albatross contract.

    Carl Pavano, Wayne Garland, Alex Rodriguez, Alfonso Soriano, Manny Ramirez, Mike Hampton...the list of Major League Baseball players signed to monstrous free-agency contracts is nearly endless.  It's part of the way baseball is set up: Teams control players through six seasons of rookie ball and arbitration, which means most players get one chance for a big payday in their careers.  If they are stars, a new team will usually oblige them, and the consequences are usually disastrous.

    So let's take a look at the MLB free agency's worst contracts ever!

12. Carl Pavano to the New York Yankees: 4 Years, $40 Million

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    Carl Pavano's Yankees deal looked great when it was signed.

    Pavano was fresh off two seasons in Florida, where he won 30 games and was a 2004 All-Star.  In his mid-20s, Pavano looked like a No. 2 starter, and the Yankees were happy to land him.

    But Pavano's Yankee years were terrible: He was always injured (he missed the entire 2006 season) and did not pitch well when healthy.  All told, he went 9-8 with an ERA close to 5.0 in four seasons and was questioned within the clubhouse for his effort level. 

    Since then, Pavano has signed short-term deals with the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins and has pitched decently as a fifth starter.  

11. Albert Belle to the Baltimore Orioles: 5 Years, $65 Million

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    Albert Belle was supposed to put the Baltimore Orioles over the top and win them another World Series. Instead, he became the symbol of everything that has gone wrong in Baltimore since he was signed.  

    In 1997, the Orioles went 94-68, scored 812 runs and lost the ALCS 4-2 to the Cleveland Indians.  Their only weakness was power hitting, so they signed Belle, the most feared power hitter in the American League at the time.  Belle averaged 40 home runs and 126 RBI from 1992-97 for the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox. The Orioles assumed that Belle's fearsome bat would elevate their lineup and get them back to the World Series.

    Instead, Belle regressed and barely topped 100 RBI in two seasons before injuries forced him to retire in 2000.  The Orioles went 79-83 in 1998 and have not been back to the playoffs since '97.

10. Gary Matthews Jr. to the Los Angeles Angels: 5 Years, $50 Million

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    Never, ever pay for a career year.

    In 2005, Gary Matthews Jr. had his best season: .313 average, 19 home runs, 79 RBI and a .866 OPS in hitter-friendly Rangers Park.  Before that, he played like a fourth outfielder.  But the Angels rewarded him for his incredible one-year performance and have regretted it since. He hit .247 with 13 home runs and 59 RBI over two seasons before the Angels shipped him away to the New York Mets.

    The Angels paid his salary until last year.  Ouch.  

9. Denny Neagle to the Colorado Rockies: 5 Years, $50 Million

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    Denny Neagle's deal remains one of the worst MLB free-agency overpays for a mid-level starter.

    Before his payday, Neagle was a 31-year-old third starter with a 105-69 record and a 3.91 career ERA. The Colorado Rockies signed him to play in their hitter-friendly ballpark and head their rotation. Neagle was not up to the task: He gave them a 19-23 record with a 5.56 ERA in two seasons before he was released.  

    But the Rockies' next pitcher signing was worse...

8. A.J. Burnett to the New York Yankees: 5 Years; 85 Million

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    Like the Colorado Rockies in 2000, the 2008 New York Yankees decided to sign a one-two punch to fix their rotation: ace C.C Sabathia and Blue Jays star A.J. Burnett,

    Unlike Colorado, the Yankees were half right: Sabathia was an excellent addition.  Burnett has disappointed.  His ERA is close to 5.0 over three seasons and one of the worst ever by a Yankee starter.  

7. John Lackey to the Boston Red Sox: 5 Years, 85 Million

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    When John Lackey was signed, I kept thinking, "this signing looks solid but why do I know it will turn out badly?"

    On the surface, Lackey made sense for Boston.  He was a big game ace from Los Angeles who looked like he would fit in nicely as Boston's number 3 starter for the latter half of his career.

    But, digging deeper, the problems emerged: Lackey was just past his prime at 31 and moving his ballooning walk rate, steadily rising ERA, declining strikeout rate, and poor clubhouse attitude to the AL East was a recipe for disaster.

    Two years later, Lackey's Boston ERA is above 6 and he is sitting out the whole 2012 season with injury. Ouch!

6. Mike Hampton to the Colorado Rockies: 8 Years, $120 Million

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    The Colorado Rockies signed Mike Hampton to be their ace.  Before arriving, he starred for the New York Mets.

    But Hampton was unable to deal with injuries.  In two seasons, he was 21-28 with ERAs of 5.41 and 6.15, respectively, before the Rockies finally released him.

    Ultimately, when you factor in Denny Neagle, the Rockies shelled out $170 million to free-agent pitchers for negative production.  Ouch.

    But they learned from it and, since their infamous signings in 2000, the Rockies have worked hard to nurture homegrown pitching talent.  

5. Alfonso Soriano to the Chicago Cubs: 8 Years, $135 Million

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    As a Chicago Cubs fan, this deal still hurts.  It is still going on!

    Coming off a 40-homer and 40-steal season, Soriano was the best hitter on the free-agent market.  The Cubs were in win-now mode and signed him to an eight-year deal.

    The signing was panned at the time for several reasons: It was two to three years longer than any other team was concretely offering, and Soriano profiled as a speedy player who would not age well.

    Soriano was an All-Star in 2007 and 2008, but the contract has been a disaster since.  Plus, because it is back-loaded, the Cubs owe him $50 million over the last three seasons of the deal.  Yikes!

4. Jayson Werth to the Washington Nationals: 7 Years, 125 Million

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    Jayson Werth's massive seven year deal looked terrible the day it was signed.

    Washington's front office has done an excellent job rebuilding this franchise.  Drafting Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Jordan Zimmerman, and Bryce Harper, trading for Gio Gonzalez, and signing Edwin Jackson were all shrewd moves.  But Werth's contract was a big miss that will haunt Washington for years.

    Werth under-performed in the first year of the contract and is already 32 years old. Worse, his deal is back-loaded so he will be making nearly 18 million dollars in 2016, which is exactly when the Nationals will need to pay Harper, Strasburg, and Zimmerman.  Yikes!

3. Barry Zito to the San Francisco Giants: 7 Years, 125 Million

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    Barry Zito remains the most overpaid pitcher in Major League Baseball.  He was signed in 2006 so that tells you how terrible this contract was both at the time and now.

    When he was signed, Zito was a three-time All Star and Cy Young award winner with the Oakland Athletics.  But his sinker-friendly pitching style, slow fastball, and ballooning walk rate suggested he would never live up to the contract.

    Trust Giants fans, he didn't.

2. Alex Rodriguez to the New York Yankees: 10 Years, $275 Million

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    In 2007, Alex Rodriguez was the best player in baseball.  Fans still saw him as the clean MVP, the savior of the game and the New York Yankees' biggest star. 

    The Yankees rewarded him with a renegotiated 10-year contract worth $275 million.

    At the time, the deal was widely panned because its back-loaded years would pay Rodriguez into his 40s.  But Rodriguez was viewed as a clean and durable player at the time, one whose performance had been so consistently elite that he would age well enough to perform up to the contract for six to seven years. When the Yankees won the 2009 World Series with A-Rod's help, it seemed to validate the Yankees' thinking.

    Then A-Rod became A-Roid.  Rodriguez admitted to steroid use in 2009 and immediately lost most of his luster for fans.  His performance dipped and his injuries mounted.  Now he will be an albatross on the Yankees for the rest of the decade.

    But that did not stop the Angels from giving out this deal...

1. Albert Pujols to the Los Angeles Angels: 10 Years, $250 Million

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    Albert Pujols' new contract is the worst MLB free-agency deal from 2012.

    As contracts get larger and larger, baseball fans will see bigger mistakes.  Deals like this look great in the short run but can cripple franchises for years to come.  

    Albert Pujols is baseball's most successful, consistent player of the 2000s.  His wins above replacement (WAR) has been elite since his rookie season.  From 2003-2008, Pujols averaged no less than eight WAR, which is valued at $40 million on the free-agent market.  He will help the Angels in 2012 and 2013, perhaps enough to win the World Series.  But at what long-term price?

    Pujols began to regress in 2009.  His WAR has dipped from 9.1, to 9.0, to 7.5, to last year's 5.1, which was by far the worst of his career.  Although 5.1 WAR is impressive, it is not enough: Pujols would need to maintain that performance over all 10 seasons to live up to his contract. 

    Pujols' performance trajectory is very concerning.  Baseball players usually peak from 27-31.  Pujols' career arc was different: He peaked at age 28 in 2009 and began regressing significantly at age 30 and 31.  Elite players typically experience that level of decline at ages 33 or 34, which is concerning given long-standing doubts about the ability to verify Pujols' actual age.  If his career trajectory is any indicator, the Angels may well be paying him until he is 44.

    Worse, if Pujols continues to decline by one to two WAR per year in 2012 and 2013, which is his current rate of regression, he will be a $15 million-per-year player when his back-loaded contract kicks in and he will start earning $30 million per season.  How much will that contract restrict the Angels' spending for years to come?