MLB Metrics 101: Exposing the Worst Contracts of Baseball

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 28, 2017

MLB Metrics 101: Exposing the Worst Contracts of Baseball

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    The best thing about Major League Baseball contracts is they're guaranteed.

    Sometimes, that can also be the worst part.

    After starting with a look at baseball's most unhittable pitchers, Bleacher Report's MLB Metrics 101 series shifts to the worst contracts in MLB. This is a conversation that can take many different shapes. For starters, it involved:

    • Contracts worth at least $50 million total and $10 million in average annual value.
    • Contracts that are at least two seasons old.
    • Active players only.

    Be warned that no attempt was made to predict the futures for the worst of these contracts. There are ways to do that, but not without dealing with assorted hypotheticals.

    The focus was on what is known: how much these contracts have paid and how much value the player has produced. The question answered: Which of the game's largest contracts have been the biggest sunk costs to date?

    For more about how everything worked, read on.

Methodology

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    The first thing to clear up is the status of each contract. This means overall years and dollars, how many years have been served and how many dollars have been paid out.

    The years are straightforward. The dollars are not. So, many thanks to Baseball Prospectus for keeping detailed books on annual salaries, signing bonuses, awards bonuses and other need-to-know contract info.

    For the value each player has produced, wins above replacement was the go-to statistic.

    In this case, that meant WAR from Baseball-Reference.com. It weighs hitting, baserunning and defensive value for position players and innings and runs allowed for pitchers. FanGraphs WAR is also useful, but it complicates things for pitchers by calculating how many runs they should have allowed.

    With these things in hand, everything was boiled down to what you'll see identified as "WAR/$10M Earned." This shows, in essence, how many wins each player has produced for every $10 million he's earned.

    This is admittedly a crude direction from which to approach this topic. However, it's also nice and easy. And considering other calculations kept turning up the same names in slightly different orders, there's nothing wrong with using this method.

    If you want to see a spreadsheet with all the players and contracts researched for this project, go here.

    Otherwise, it's on to some honorable mentions and then the top...er, bottom 10.

Honorable Mentions

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    Inactive and Retired Players

    The contracts of Alex Rodriguez, Prince Fielder, Carl Crawford and Matt Harrison are still going, but those players are retired. Jose Reyes and Josh Hamilton's big contracts haven't run out yet, but they're now serving under other contracts. These are all bad deals, to be sure, but they exist in a gray area that wasn't explored here.

        

    Matt Kemp, OF, Atlanta Braves

    Matt Kemp was rewarded for his epic 2011 season with an eight-year, $160 million contract. He's produced just 4.5 WAR in five seasons since. He still has power, but age and injuries have eroded his other talents.

        

    Ubaldo Jimenez, SP, Baltimore Orioles

    Ubaldo Jimenez has served three years of his four-year, $50 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles and has been largely useless in two of them. But to his credit, he was halfway decent with a 4.11 ERA over 184 innings in 2015.

        

    Rusney Castillo, OF, Boston Red Sox

    Rusney Castillo put up 0.8 WAR in only 10 games when he broke through in 2014, at which time he was only getting pennies from his seven-year, $72.5 million contract. He's otherwise a walking, talking example of the term "sunk cost." Not to mention an annoying bit of proof that this project's model has limits.

        

    Hanley Ramirez, DH, Boston Red Sox

    Hanley Ramirez just missed the cut for the bottom 10. After his strong 2016, that might make it seem like something's wrong with our methodology. But let's remember he's 33 years old, prone to injuries, not far removed from a career-worst season and now a designated hitter. His four-year, $88 million contract isn't a victory just yet.

10. Matt Cain, SP, San Francisco Giants

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
    6$127.5M5$100.1M3.10.31

    Matt Cain became the richest right-hander ever when the San Francisco Giants extended him in April 2012. At the time, that seemed fair enough.

    Though he was often lost in Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum's shadow, an average season for Cain from 2007 to 2011 included 216 innings and a 3.26 ERA. He also didn't allow a single earned run in three starts during the Giants' World Series run in 2010.

    At first, things were good. Cain's new contract took effect in 2012, a year in which he pitched a perfect game, finished with a 2.79 ERA over 219.1 innings and helped San Francisco win another title.

    Since then...yeesh.

    Cain slumped to a 4.00 ERA in 2013. And when he hasn't been injured, he's only produced a 5.13 ERA in the three seasons since. He's been one of the majors' worst starters.

    The bright side for the Giants is that 2017 is the final guaranteed year of Cain's contract. The less-bright side is that his rough spring has them at a loss for how to use him. As general manager Bobby Evans put it March 15, the former ace's situation is "hard to classify."

9. Homer Bailey, SP, Cincinnati Reds

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
    6$105M3$37M0.90.24

    Here's what Baseball America had to say when it ranked Homer Bailey as the No. 5 prospect in 2007: "The next great Texas fireballer in the tradition of Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens."

    This seemed to come true in 2013. Following a strong 2012 season that included a no-hitter, the Cincinnati Reds right-hander tossed another no-no in '13 and finished with career bests in innings (209), ERA (3.49) and strikeouts per nine innings (8.6). And he did it with some of the majors' best velocity.

    Then came his extension in February 2014, a happy occasion from which all sorts of trouble has sprung.

    Bailey was solid when he could pitch that year, but knee and neck injuries limited him to just 23 starts. Then Tommy John surgery limited him to eight starts in 2015 and 2016. Most recently, he had surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow in February. According to C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer, Bailey said he hopes to return in June.

    Don't think there's a way for this situation to sound even worse? How about this: Bailey is on the wrong side of 30, and the big money in his contract hasn't even come yet.

8. James Shields, SP, Chicago White Sox

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    Jon Durr/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
    4$75M2$31M0.70.23

    The San Diego Padres seemed to be putting the finishing touches on a contender when they signed James Shields in February 2015.

    After all, the right-hander had an impressive track record. Shields was fresh off a successful two-year stint in Kansas City that capped an eight-year run in which he averaged 223 innings and a 3.64 ERA.

    With a 3.91 ERA in 202.1 innings, Shields wasn't bad in his first season in San Diego. But he did lose velocity and suffer from a big spike in his home run rate. When attached to a pitcher in his mid-30s, such things don't portend a bright future.

    Indeed, things got darker for Shields in 2016. He had a 4.28 ERA in 11 starts with the Padres before they shipped him to the Chicago White Sox, for whom he posted a 6.77 ERA in 22 starts. He gave up a majors-worst 40 home runs and, with minus-1.1 WAR, was the worst starter in the game.

    The silver lining for the White Sox should be that they're only on the hook for $22 million of the $44 million Shields is still owed. But even that sounds like too much for the 35-year-old.

7. Melvin Upton Jr., OF, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
    5$75.254$58.80.80.14

    When the Atlanta Braves signed Melvin Upton Jr. (then B.J. Upton) in November 2012, they were signing a guy coming off a career-high 28 homers who had also stolen 31 bases and logged a .752 OPS.

    In retrospect, they should have paid more attention to the .298 on-base percentage Upton had.

    That encapsulated a handful of serious problems, such as a strikeout tendency that had always been there and plate discipline that had taken a turn for the worse. And despite his occasional flashes of brilliance, nobody had ever been able to call Upton a consistent player.

    The deal was a disaster right away. Upton was one of the worst hitters and least valuable regulars in baseball in 2013. He hasn't been that bad since, but the list of players who have produced less value over the last four seasons is awfully short.

    The positive is that the 32-year-old is easy to miss now. He's entering the final year of his contract as a platoon player in a loaded Toronto Blue Jays lineup. It's hard to be outraged by his presence.

    But disappointed? That's fair.

6. Victor Martinez, DH, Detroit Tigers

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    Duane Burleson/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
    4$68M2$32M00

    Before anyone brings it up, it's true: Victor Martinez is here largely because of one bad season.

    The Detroit Tigers veteran earned his $68 million contract with a brilliant 2014, hitting .335 with an American League-best .409 OBP and MLB-best .974 OPS. But then he hurt his left knee in February 2015 and never really recovered.

    V-Mart's hard-hit rate from the left side dropped from 37.6 to 31.3, a sign that he lacked strength in his knee. Without it, he was doomed to a .667 OPS. He was a DH who couldn't hit, hence his minus-1.6 WAR.

    But Martinez bounced back in 2016. He proved the health of his left knee by boosting his hard-hit rate to 40.2 percent and finished with an .826 OPS and 27 homers.

    His WAR, however, only reached 1.6. That's reflective of two things. One is that Martinez was still short of his offensive peak. Another is that offense isn't at a premium like it was in 2014. All of MLB is hitting more, so a DH has to really hit in order to stand out.

    At 38 years old, Martinez probably isn't a man for the job anymore.

5. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B, Washington Nationals

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
    6$100M3$42M00

    The Washington Nationals already had Ryan Zimmerman signed through 2013 when they gave him his big extension in February 2012. They didn't need to be in a rush to extend him even further.

    Nor should they have been. At the time, Zimmerman was coming off a season in which he had a good-but-not-great .798 OPS in just 101 games. In addition, his once-great defense at third base had started to show cracks. These were bad omens that have since continued.

    Zimmerman, 32, is now a shell of his former Gold Glove-winning self on defense. Problems with his right shoulder have all but destroyed his ability to throw the ball, forcing him to move from third base to left field and then from left field to first base.

    Meanwhile, injuries have limited him to 271 games since 2014. His bat hasn't carried him when he has played, as he has just a .720 OPS over that span, including a career-low .642 mark in 2016.

    That contributed to Zimmerman posting minus-1.1 WAR last season, making him one of baseball's worst players and wiping out the modest 1.1 WAR he'd accumulated in 2014 and 2015. Such things make it hard to have faith in his future.

4. Hector Olivera, INF/OF, Free Agent

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
    6$62.5M2$32.21M-0.1-0.03

    The Los Angeles Dodgers included a $28 million signing bonus in the $62.5 million contract they gave Hector Olivera in March 2015. Clearly, they thought he could be an immediate upgrade.

    As a 30-year-old with a .321 career average in Cuban baseball, Olivera did have the experience and the goods. But he was also out of practice, having played just one season of baseball since 2011. That's the sort of thing that spells bust potential.

    Less than two years later, "bust" is too kind a word for Olivera.

    He ended up with the Braves in July 2015 and proceeded to not hit in the majors. He owns just a .674 OPS in 30 career games. He then went from disappointing to downright toxic in 2016, getting arrested for assault in April, suspended for 82 games in May and convicted and sentenced to jail time in September.

    Sometimes, the inconvenient truth in these situations is that the toxic player in question has enough youth and talent to get another shot. But Olivera has neither of those things. While he may not be technically retired, his major league career is all but finished.

    The only trace of him is in San Diego, where the Padres are on the hook for the $28.5 million he's still owed.

3. Matt Garza, SP, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
     4$50M3$37.5M-0.7-0.19

    Matt Garza was coming off several injury-marred seasons when he hit free agency in winter 2013. The Milwaukee Brewers chose to ignore that.

    "I'd rather talk about his upside, what he brings in terms of performance to the staff, and also what he brings in leadership," said owner Mark Attanasio, according to Adam McCalvy of MLB.com. 

    It was a risky roll of the dice. Three years later, it's safe to say it hasn't panned out.

    After averaging 32 starts and 202 innings between 2009 and 2011, the right-hander averaged just 21 starts and 130 innings while dealing with a variety of injuries in 2012 and 2013. Not much has changed in the last three seasons. Garza has averaged just 24 starts and 138 innings in between bouts with the injury bug.

    He's also put up a 4.57 ERA in the process. One of his problems has been a loss of velocity that, even with good health, was probably inevitable once he hit his 30s.

    The Brewers' best hope for the 33-year-old now is that he'll show enough life in 2017 to become a trade chip. But even if he does, moving him would likely involve eating some of the $12.5 million he's still owed.

2. Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Boston Red Sox

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
    5$95M2$37M-1.1-0.30

    Sure, Pablo Sandoval's offense was steadily declining from its peak when the Boston Red Sox signed him in 2014. And sure, he was fighting a never-ending battle to keep his weight in check.

    But, he was also only 28 and coming off a red-hot postseason. That made him worth $95 million, right?

    Well, we all know how the story goes from here.

    Sandoval showed up looking fluffy in 2015 and proceeded to post a career-worst .658 OPS while playing terrible defense. His minus-0.9 WAR made him one of the worst players in baseball. Not so coincidentally, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington lost his job.

    Sandoval followed suit in spring 2016, ceding third base to Travis Shaw after showing up out of shape (again) and playing poorly. He then played in only three regular-season games before undergoing a season-ending shoulder surgery that came off as an excuse to put him out of sight.

    To Sandoval's credit, he committed to getting in shape over the winter and has reaped the benefits with a strong spring. These could be the 30-year-old's first steps toward salvaging his contract.

    But given his recent past, any optimism for Sandoval's future can only be of the cautious variety.

1. Yasmany Tomas, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Rob Foldy/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
    6$68.5M2$13M-1.8-1.38

    After fellow Cubans Jose Abreu ($68 million) and Rusney Castillo ($72.5 million) had signed for even bigger money, the Arizona Diamondbacks seemed to have struck a bargain when they signed Yasmany Tomas in November 2014.

    However, the red flags were there. All the reports on Tomas raved about his power but warned his other tools were subpar. Thus, he was coming to America with no small measure of bust potential.

    Tomas' debut season in 2015 brought all the worst fears about him to life. In 118 games, he mustered only nine home runs with a .305 OBP and no value on the basepaths or on defense. His minus-1.3 WAR made him one of the worst regulars in baseball.

    Tomas did find his power last season, launching 31 home runs in 140 games. But power alone doesn't have much value in today's MLB, which is flooded with homers. And since his other flaws remain, even the 26-year-old's power didn't save him from a sub-replacement-level fate.

    This deal isn't the only reason Dave Stewart lost his job as Arizona's general manager. It's certainly a big one, though, and the Diamondbacks will be paying for it for a while.

        

    Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs. Contract information courtesy of Baseball Prospectus.

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