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Best and Worst Seasons in MLB History for Superstars After Mega-Contracts

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistMarch 28, 2019

Former San Francisco Giants player Barry Bonds waves to fans before throwing the ceremonial first pitch prior to the Giants' baseball game against the Miami Marlins on Saturday, July 8, 2017, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot/Associated Press

After spending most of the offseason discussing money across Major League Baseball, it seems like a good time to explore the history of long-term contracts in the sport. 

MLB teams appear to have done a good job scaring players into not wanting to test free agency. ESPN's Jeff Passan noted Tuesday 10 players have agreed to new long-term deals with their current clubs:

Jeff Passan @JeffPassan

In the last week, Major League Baseball teams have guaranteed more than $1 billion to 10 players via contract extensions. Five of those deals -- Mike Trout, Chris Sale, Jacob deGrom, Paul Goldschmidt and Alex Bregman -- were for nine figures. The total spent: $1,073,000,000.

Kyle Hendricks became the 11th player to join that group later in the day, signing a four-year extension with the Chicago Cubs. 

Rather than simply accuse owners of being cheap, let's look at what has happened to players immediately after signing a blockbuster contract. It will include a sample size of 20 contracts looking at the 10 best and worst performances in the first season of a mega-deal. 

The contracts included had to be multi-year agreements—setting a one-year record through arbitration wasn't factored into the equation—and only the first season after signing was factored into the equation.

Even if the deal was an extension that added years to an existing contract, the year in which they signed it was factored into their equation.

Here are the top 10 performances by a player in the season after signing their blockbuster deal:

         

1. Roger Clemens, SP, Toronto Blue Jays (1997): 21-7, 264 IP, 2.05 ERA, 292 K, 1.03 WHIP, 10.7 WAR

2. Barry Bonds, OF, San Francisco Giants (1993): .336/.458/.677, 46 HR, 123 RBI, 129 R, 29 SB, 10.5 WAR

3. Ken Griffey Jr. OF, Seattle Mariners (1996): .303/.392/.628, 49 HR, 140 RBI, 125 R, 16 SB, 9.7 WAR

4. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels (2014): .287/.377/.561, 36 HR, 111 RBI, 115 R, 16 SB, 8.3 WAR

5. Clayton Kershaw, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers (2014): 21-3, 1.77 ERA, 198.1 IP, 239 K, 0.857 WHIP, 8.0 WAR

6. Alex Rodriguez, SS, Texas Rangers (2001): .318/.399/.622, 52 HR, 135 RBI, 133 R, 18 SB, 7.8 WAR

7. Albert Pujols, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals (2004): .331/.415/.657, 46 HR, 123 RBI, 133 R, 7.8 WAR

8. Greg Maddux, SP, Atlanta Braves (1993): 20-10, 2.36 ERA, 267 IP, 197 K, 1.049 WHIP, 7.5 WAR

9. Todd Helton, 1B, Colorado Rockies (2001): .336/.432/.685, 49 HR, 146 RBI, 132 R, 7.1 WAR

10. Max Scherzer, SP, Washington Nationals (2015): 14-12, 2.79 ERA, 228.2 IP, 276 K, 0.918 WHIP, 6.4 WAR

            

By the standard of today's contracts, the deals signed by Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. look like the biggest bargains in professional sports history. 

Clemens' three-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays gave him the highest average annual salary for a pitcher in MLB history ($8.25 million). He responded with one of MLB's greatest seasons by a pitcher in 1997. 

Rocket led the AL in innings pitched, ERA, complete games, shutouts and strikeouts en route to winning the fourth of his seven career Cy Young awards. He also sent a message to the Boston Red Sox front office, who decided not to re-sign him after the 1996 season, in his return to Fenway Park. 

Bonds joined the San Francisco Giants in December 1992 after signing a then-record deal worth $43.75 million over six years. He responded by winning his second straight NL MVP award and third overall by leading the league in on-base percentage (.456) and slugging percentage (.624). 

Bonds' 1993 season was the second-best in MLB during the 1990s by wins above replacement (10.5). Only Cal Ripken Jr.'s AL MVP campaign in 1991 was better (10.6).

Ken Griffey Jr.'s 1996 contract extension worth $34 million over four years with the Seattle Mariners passed Bonds' average annual salary ($8.5 million to $7.29 million) for the highest in MLB.

The Hall of Famer responded by having the best season by WAR (9.7) of his career, but he could only manage a fourth-place finish in AL MVP voting. 

One negotiating tactic teams try is signing players to long-term deals early in their pre-arbitration or arbitration years and buy out a couple of free-agent years. This approach served the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Angels well with Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. 

Odds are very good Trout could end up on this list twice, assuming his 2019 season is in line with everything else he's done in his career. 

For now, though, he warrants placement for his six-year, $144.5 million extension signed in March 2014. His $24.1 million average annual salary was the largest in MLB history for a player with fewer than three years of service time. He proceeded to win his first AL MVP award and led the Angels to the AL West title with an MLB-high 98 wins.

When Pujols signed his extension with the Cardinals in 2004, he became just the seventh player in MLB history to receive a $100 million contract. It also made him the quickest player to receive a nine-figure agreement after just three seasons. 

The player who previously held the record for fastest to receive a nine-figure agreement was Todd Helton, who signed his nine-year, $141.5 million deal with the Colorado Rockies in April 2001.  

Even in a season which saw him spend more than one month on the injury list, Clayton Kershaw's seven-year, $215 million deal signed prior to the 2014 campaign started out great.

The southpaw became the first pitcher in history to lead MLB in ERA four straight years with a career-best 1.77 mark on his way to winning the NL Cy Young and MVP awards. 

Before Clemens became the highest-paid pitcher in MLB, Greg Maddux held the crown with his five-year, $28 million deal with the Atlanta Braves prior to the 1993 season. The Professor won the second of his four straight NL Cy Young awards in his debut year for the Braves. 

For all the hand-wringing about Alex Rodriguez's 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers, it's not like he was the reason they struggled on the field. He led the AL with 52 homers and 393 total bases in 2001. 

Max Scherzer is the prototype for a free-agent pitcher in this era. He proved himself as an ace with the Detroit Tigers, hit the market after his age-29 season and found a massive $210 million contract with the Washington Nationals. 

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

After signing his deal, Scherzer recorded 276 strikeouts and led the NL in complete games (four) and shutouts (three) in his debut season. The strange thing is it might be his worst season with the Nationals, since he's finished in the top two of NL Cy Young voting each of the past three years. 

Here are the 10 worst performances by a player in the season after signing their mega-contract:

           

1. Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Boston Red Sox (2015): .245/.292/.366, 10 HR, 47 RBI, 43 R, -1.2 WAR

2. Hanley Ramirez, OF, Boston Red Sox (2015): .249/.291/.426, 19 HR, 53 RBI, 59 R, 6 SB, -1.2 WAR

3. Melvin Upton Jr., OF, Atlanta Braves (2013): .184/.268/.289, 9 HR, 26 RBI, 30 R, 12 SB, -0.9 WAR

4. Eric Hosmer, 1B, San Diego Padres (2018): .253/.322/.398, 18 HR, 69 RBI, 72 R, 7 SB, -0.1 WAR

5. Carl Crawford, OF, Boston Red Sox (2011): .255/.289/.405, 11 HR, 56 RBI, 65 R, 18 SB, 0.0 WAR

6. Yu Darvish, SP, Chicago Cubs (2018): 1-3, 40 IP, 49 K, 4.95 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 0.3 WAR

7. Rusney Castillo, OF, Boston Red Sox (Career): .262/.301/.379, 7 HR, 35 RBI, 45 R, 7 SB, 0.9 WAR

8. Tim Lincecum, SP, San Francisco Giants (2012): 10-15, 186 IP, 190 K, 5.18 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 0.9 WAR

9. Jason Heyward, OF, Chicago Cubs (2016): .230/.306/..325, 7 HR, 49 RBI, 61 R, 11 SB, 1.0 WAR

10. Barry Zito, SP, San Francisco Giants (2007): 11-13, 196.2 IP, 131 K, 4.53 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 1.6 WAR

            

If you want to understand the benefit of being a big-market team with seemingly endless supplies of money to spend, look at the Boston Red Sox in the early part of this decade.

They signed four players on this list since 2011, yet they have won two World Series titles despite those poor financial investments. 

Boston's offseason prior to 2015 has to go down as one of the worst in MLB history. Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez were the team's two big additions, signing for a combined total of $183 million. The duo wound up being net negatives, costing the Red Sox 2.4 wins above replacement. 

Ramirez was at least able to rebound with a strong 2016, hitting .286/.361/.505 to help the Red Sox win the AL East, but he struggled through the next two seasons before being released 44 games into 2018. 

Rusney Castillo received the largest deal ever for a Cuban defector when the Red Sox signed him for $72.5 million over six years in August 2014. He was given a brief trial run in the big leagues that same year, hitting .333/.400/.528 in 10 games. 

After starting 2015 in the minors, Castillo hit .253/.288/.359 in 80 games following a call-up in May. He has only appeared in nine MLB games over the past three seasons. The 31-year-old hit a respectable .319/.360/.416 at Triple-A in 2018, but he doesn't appear to be any closer to returning to Fenway Park. 

Long before Sandoval, Ramirez and Castillo turned into busts, the Red Sox got burned by Carl Crawford in 2011.

It seemed like a good idea when Boston gave him $142 million over seven years in December 2010. He had just finished his age-28 season by hitting .307/.356/.495 with 19 homers, 90 RBI and 47 stolen bases for the Tampa Bay Rays. 

Things immediately went south for Crawford as soon as he put on a Red Sox jersey. He was being paid like a superstar but was the definition of a replacement player based on his 0.0 WAR. 

The Red Sox can thank the Los Angeles Dodgers for taking Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett off their hands in August 2012. That trade allowed Boston to get out from Crawford's deal that expired in 2017 and Gonzalez's seven-year contract that would have run through 2018. 

The Atlanta Braves tried to build a super outfield in 2013 by signing Melvin Upton Jr. and acquiring Justin Upton to play with Jason Heyward. 

Melvin's $75.25 million contract immediately became an albatross, as he finished 2013 as the sixth-worst player in MLB by WAR with a -0.9 mark.

Speaking of Heyward, the concerns some analysts had about his bat not being worth a blockbuster contract turned out to be prescient. He established value throughout his career largely as an elite defensive right fielder who got on base at a solid 35.3 percent clip from 2010-15. 

When the Chicago Cubs signed him for $184 million over eight years in December 2015, he was supposed to be a key piece in the team's quest for a championship. 

With the exception of a speech given during the brief rain delay in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series against the Cleveland Indians,  Heyward turned into a bust right away for the Cubs with his ability to hit seemingly vanishing overnight. 

The one upside for Heyward is he will forever be remembered by Cubs fans thanks to his presence on that championship team. 

The Cubs also appear on this list for last year's signing of Yu Darvish. The star pitcher managed just eight starts in 2018 after agreeing to a six-year, $126 million deal to play in Chicago. 

The San Francisco Giants have two players on this list, though Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum will be forgiven their struggles because the team won multiple championships during their stints with the organization. 

Zito left the Oakland Athletics for $126 million over seven years from the Giants prior to the 2007 season. The former AL Cy Young winner never returned to his glory days, starting with his difficult first year in San Francisco with a 4.53 ERA and a lower WAR (1.6) than Daniel Cabrera had for the Baltimore Orioles (1.7). 

Lincecum signed a two-year, $40.5 million extension with the Giants in January 2012. It looked reasonable for a two-time NL Cy Young winner coming off four straight All-Star appearances and a 2.74 ERA with 220 strikeouts in 217 innings the previous year. 

Unfortunately, his control problems would finally catch up to him during the 2012 season. The right-hander posted a 5.18 ERA and walked 90 in 186 innings. 

The San Diego Padres will be hoping they don't get burned twice after signing Manny Machado to a 10-year, $300 million contract this offseason. Their last major financial investment already looks dreadful, with Eric Hosmer finishing 2018 as one of nine players with a negative WAR. 

Hosmer waited out the market last year before receiving $144 million over eight years from the Padres. The deal looks particularly bad considering how well everything else seems to be going in San Diego. 

The addition of Machado comes as the Padres boast MLB's best farm system with 10 players ranked among the top 100 prospects, per MLB.com

With so much talent heading to San Diego in the near future, Hosmer can get away with just being an adequate player instead of one who has to carry the torch for the franchise. 

             

Contract info via Spotrac; WAR totals via FanGraphs.com.

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