MLB's Most Overpaid and Underpaid Player at Every Position for 2021 SeasonMarch 24, 2021
MLB's Most Overpaid and Underpaid Player at Every Position for 2021 Season
The 2021 MLB offseason was defined by some record-breaking contracts. San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. signed a $340 million, 14-year megadeal and Trevor Bauer signed an unorthodox four-year contract with his hometown Los Angeles Dodgers.
However, some contracts don't age quite as well as others. Tatis may end up being a bargain in the later years of his contract, but there are a few players on long-term deals who could be considered overpaid when you take into account their production, or lack thereof in some cases.
Conversely, there are many more players who end up not being paid as much as they should because MLB's contract structure greatly favors owners over players.
As long as salaries, incentives and bonuses are made public, then there will be debate over who is underpaid and who is overpaid. This list was created using Fangraphs' 2021 Steamer projections for WAR and players' 2021 salaries. But it's not just a matter of dollars and cents, so players' importance to the team and their individual roles were also taken into account.
Also taken into account was years of service time. Pre-arbitration players were not included, and all players on this list are active and on 40-man rosters.
Payroll and salary data are all courtesy of Spotrac.com, and stats are all from Fangraphs and Baseball Reference.
Overpaid: David Price, Los Angeles Dodgers ($16 million)
The Los Angeles Dodgers don't exactly need David Price, especially after signing Bauer. The former Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox ace posted a 4.28 ERA in 2019, which was his worst since 2009, before being traded to the Dodgers as part of the Mookie Betts deal. He opted out of his first season in Los Angeles, so the expectation for the season is somewhat unclear.
The 35-year-old lefty might earn $16 million this year and next as a back-end starter, which probably speaks to how deep the Dodgers' rotation is.
Underpaid: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets ($22 million)
Mets ace Jacob deGrom is still the best value in baseball. He's durable, he's diligent and he's taken on more of a leadership role within the Mets clubhouse in recent years as well. The two-time NL Cy Young Award winner was mentored by former captain David Wright, so he's become even more valuable to a team with title aspirations.
Overpaid: Craig Kimbrel, Chicago Cubs ($16 million)
The 32-year-old right-hander was fantastic for the Red Sox in 2018, converting 42 saves with a 2.74 ERA. He was extremely influential in Boston's World Series run. He went all of winter 2018-19 without a new team, but he finally found one in the Chicago Cubs in June 2019, only to go down with a knee injury two months later. He pitched only 20 2/3 innings in 2019 and 15 1/ 3 in the pandemic-shortened 2020.
Baseball's contract structure causes problems like this. Players are underpaid in their prime, and teams then pay for their decline in free agency. Veterans like Kimbrel end up getting paid based on what they've already done for another team instead of what they're capable of doing moving forward.
Underpaid: Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers ($6.675 million)
Josh Hader has been among the best relievers in baseball since he entered the league in 2017. The Milwaukee Brewers right-hander was nothing short of dominant in his first three seasons and was rewarded with All-Star selections in 2018 and 2019. Steamer projections show a 3.09 ERA with 25 saves from him in 2021, and ZiPS has an even better 2.77 ERA with 25 saves.
Hader is still under the Brewers' control for three more seasons, so he'll continue to be one of the best bullpen bargains in baseball.
Overpaid: James McCann, New York Mets ($8.15 million)
DeGrom's new batterymate is in the first year of a four-year, $40.6 million contract, but it's his bat that makes him valuable. McCann had two strong seasons at the plate with the Chicago White Sox and parlayed them into a big payday, hitting .273 with 18 homers in 2019 and .289 in an abbreviated 2020 season. However, it's yet to be seen if he can maintain that offensive production.
Steamer and ZiPS are projecting a regression. One could make the case for Buster Posey over McCann, but Posey gets the edge since his projected WAR is higher (2.3) than McCann's (1.0).
Underpaid: Christian Vazquez, Boston Red Sox ($6.25 million)
The Red Sox backstop got a raise this year to better match his value, but he's still underpaid considering how important he is to the team. Like McCann, he's also 30 and coming off two good offensive seasons, but he's still under team control through 2022. Vazquez is one of few remaining members of the 2018 World Series team, so knowing what it takes to win will be crucial to a rebuilding team.
Overpaid: Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles ($23 million) and Albert Pujols, Anaheim Angels ($30 million)
This one is a tie between two very different players but two very bad contracts. Chris Davis was one of the best hitters in baseball until he signed his seven-year, $161 million contract before the 2016 season. It's not just that he's failed to live up to it but how badly he's failed to live up to it. He struck out 219 times in 2016. He hasn't hit more than .221 in a season and hasn't had an OPS of more than .791 since 2016.
Albert Pujols is a future Hall of Famer, but he's now 41 on the last year of a 10-year contract with the Los Angeles Angels. Pujols was one of the best players in the league at the time he went from St. Louis to Anaheim, but it's always risky handing out a contract like that to a player over age 30. The Angels were hoping he would help get them to their first World Series since 2002, but the Halos have only been to the postseason once since Pujols has been with the club (in 2014) and were swept by the Kansas City Royals. At this point, he's mostly a designated hitter. He's been good for about 20 home runs a year over the past five years, which isn't exactly worth the $30 million he's being paid.
Underpaid: Matt Olson, Oakland A's ($5 million)
One of the Oakland A's many cost-controlled players, Olson has solidified himself as one of the top first basemen in the league. The two-time Gold Glove winner has a career .839 OPS.
Steamer projections have Olson hitting 38 home runs and 122 wRC+. The 26-year-old just hit his first arbitration year, so the A's should have a few years of production from their versatile first baseman/outfielder. But then again, few players are untouchable in Oakland.
Overpaid: Rougned Odor, Texas Rangers ($12.3 million)
The 27-year-old's numbers have steadily declined since he agreed to a six-year, $49.5 million contract with the Rangers before the 2017 season. He's coming off a dismal season in which he hit just .167, and Steamer projections give him a 0.2 WAR for 2021.
Robinson Cano of the New York Mets would have taken the top spot on this list, but he won't be paid his $24 million salary ($3.75 million of which would have been paid by the Seattle Mariners) this year because of a PED suspension. Cano is suspended for 162 games as a repeat offender. The trade that brought him and closer Edwin Diaz to New York in exchange for prospect Jerred Kelenic is looking worse every season.
Underpaid: Ketel Marte, Arizona Diamondbacks ($6 million)
Ketel Marte is on year four of a five-year, $24 million contract with the Diamondbacks. But the contract is heavily backloaded, so his salary this year will be a bargain if he continues to play the way he has since he arrived in Arizona.
Marte is versatile, able to play second base, shortstop and center field with his speed and range.
Overpaid: Evan Longoria, San Francisco Giants ($16.5 million)
Evan Longoria and David Price helped the Rays get their first World Series in 2008, but they were long gone by the time one of the smallest of the small-market teams got back there 11 years later. At the time Longoria signed his six-year, $100 million contract he was still a key piece for Tampa Bay, but now he's one of the San Francisco Giants' many aging veterans.
The 35-year-old Longoria was unable to get going the last two years as he battled injuries. In 2019, he had a shoulder injury and plantar fasciitis. Last year, there was a strained oblique and a glute muscle injury. Already he's battling plantar fasciitis in spring training.
Underpaid: Yoan Moncada, Chicago White Sox ($6.8 million)
Moncada is in the second year of a five-year deal that gives him incremental increases each season, which makes him a steal this season. Moncada's 2020 season was affected by the coronavirus. He believes it affected his strength and his power numbers. He didn't even attempt a stolen base.
In 2019, Moncada hit .315 with 25 home runs and owned a 5.6 WAR. Steamer projections look something in between his scorching hot 2019 and his down 2020, with a 3.0 WAR and 25 home runs.
Overpaid: Brandon Crawford, San Francisco Giants ($15.2 million)
The Giants built a dynasty using a core of homegrown players, and Crawford was one of them. The club initially tried to keep that core together to go for a fourth World Series title, but many of those players have now departed, and the ones left are in their 30s. The two-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove award winner is now 34 and has hit just .244 with a .702 OPS since 2018.
Crawford is in the final year of his contract so the decline is expected. A Bay Arena native who grew up rooting for the Giants, Crawford doesn't have anything left to prove after winning two World Series with his hometown team, and he can help mentor the club's young talent in what may be his last year in San Francisco.
Underpaid: Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres ($1.715 million)
One of the most exciting young players in the game, Tatis' record-breaking contract pays him more as he gets older. Tatis' contract is based on a small sample size since the 22-year-old has only played 143 games in the major leagues, but the San Diego Padres saw all they needed to see in those games.
He's slashed .301/.374/.582 with a .956 OPS. With a projected WAR of 5.9 in 2021, Tatis costs just under $300,000 per WAR, which is incredible value for one of the best players in baseball and the best player in the game at his position.
Overpaid: Justin Upton, Anaheim Angels ($23 million)
Justin Upton was productive for the Angels in 2018 but endured his worst season in the majors in 2019. He was better in 2020 but still basically a replacement-level player. The Halos are desperately trying to get Mike Trout to the playoffs, and Upton was viewed as a key piece who could aid in that mission. However, he'll be 34 this summer, and that's a lot of money for a replacement level player.
He's under contract through 2022 and set to make $28 million in his final season in Anaheim.
Underpaid: Juan Soto, Washington Nationals ($8.5 million)
The Washington Nationals will shift Soto over to right field this season, but since the 22-year-old has primarily played in left field since he entered the league, we'll put him at left field for the purposes of this list.
Soto has already posted an OPS+ of 151, which is the 11th highest in history among players of the same age with a minimum of 500 plate appearances. He's already better than many hall of fame players were at his age.
Cabrera and Pujols are the old guard and Tatis, Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr. are baseball's future. Soto has a chance to become baseball's richest player with the pressure on the Nationals to exceed Tatis' contract. Soto could be baseball's first half-billion-dollar player.
Overpaid: Kevin Kiermaier, Tampa Bay Rays ($11.6 million)
The Rays were rumored to be shopping their center fielder over the offseason, which was unsurprising. The reigning AL champs have one of the smallest operating budgets in the league, and they tend to cycle players like Keirmaier out quickly in favor of cheaper talent.
Keirmaier has a high-risk/high-reward style of play, often running into walls at full speed to chase down fly balls, so he's been somewhat injury-prone, which hurts his value.
Steamer projects a .229 average with a 1.5 WAR in 2021 for Keirmaier and 11.6 is a lot for a team like Tampa Bay to pay. But the Rays are probably still better with Keirmaier in the lineup since there isn't another outfielder waiting to step into his place in center.
Underpaid: Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta Braves ($5 million)
Acuna, the 2018 NL Rookie of the Year plays all outfield positions and has played 147 games in center field and 147 in left field over the last three seasons. He decided to accept a long-term contract with the Atlanta Braves at just 21 years old. It's an eight-year, $100 million deal that could become a 10-year, $124 million contract if the Braves exercise the option for his final two years. The club knew his value would rise steeply if they waited to sign him, but his value rose even faster than anyone anticipated.
However, most of the value in Tatis' contract comes from the term, since he has two, possibly four more years than Acuna. There is $180 million on the back end that covers his ages 31 through 35 seasons. The defensive position of Tatis also increases his value.
They're considered comparable talents, and you can put Soto in that group as well. Acuna's 5.3 WAR projection would be the third-highest behind Trout and Cody Bellinger. He has a career line of .281/.371/.538 with a .909 OPS, and if he continues to improve this contract will continue to be a steal.
Overpaid: Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs ($23.5 million)
Since Heyward has been in Chicago, he's been good but not great. He's productive at the plate, hitting .253 with a .721 OPS and 143 career defensive runs saved in right field. But Heyward is earning the type of money that serious sluggers get, and he hasn't exactly been that.
Heyward has three years and $72.5 million left on his contract. The 31-year-old is projected to have another good, but maybe not great season with a 1.2 WAR.
Underpaid: Joey Gallo, Texas Rangers ($6.2 million)
The Texas Rangers outfielder is a good example of a three true outcomes player; he hits for power and is still only 27 years old, so at $6.2 million he's underpaid. Plus, he still has two years of team control (2021 included).
Gallo will receive a raise next year in arbitration. If he hits 40 or more home runs like he did in 2017 and 2018, he'll set himself up for a big free-agent payday in 2023 if the Rangers don't extend him first.