The Best and Worst Bang-for-Your-Buck Contracts of 2021 MLB Season

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistOctober 9, 2021

The Best and Worst Bang-for-Your-Buck Contracts of 2021 MLB Season

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    G Fiume/Getty Images

    Building an MLB roster is all about maximizing value from the high-priced superstars all the way down to the last guy on the bench.

    With that in mind, a team that gets good bang for its buck is going to be in a better position to field a competitive and well-balanced roster. That's especially true for a team like the Tampa Bay Rays working under more strict payroll restraints than some of the league's more free-spending teams.

    Looking back at the recently concluded regular season, we've highlighted the best and worst bang-for-your-buck players at each position in 2021.

    Since injuries are an unavoidable part of the game, players were not penalized for missing time because of injury. Instead, the focus for worst value was on players who simply underperformed relative to expectations and their salaries.

    Players making less than $1 million were also excluded from the conversation. Otherwise, all of the best value spots would have simply been occupied by the best pre-arbitration player at each each position. The focus here was on value relative to cost, and all pre-arbitration players are good values by default.

    Players were chosen based solely on their production relative to their salary in 2021. Past production and potential future value were not part of the equation.

    For context, the average MLB salary in 2021 was $4.17 million.

    Let's get to it!

Catchers

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    Mike Zunino
    Mike ZuninoMary DeCicco/Getty Images

    Best Value: Mike Zunino, Tampa Bay Rays

    Salary: $2 million

    After logging a 50 OPS+ and minus-0.3 WAR in 118 games with the Rays in 2019 and 2020, Mike Zunino had a $4.5 million club option declined at the start of last offseason. The 30-year-old ultimately returned to Tampa Bay on a new one-year, $2 million deal that includes a 2022 club option, and he put together the best season of his career.

    He earned his first All-Star nod and posted a 138 OPS+ with 33 home runs and 3.7 WAR in 109 games, and the pitching staff had a 3.58 ERA in 860.1 innings with him in the crouch.

                  

    Worst Value: James McCann, New York Mets

    Salary: $8.2 million

    James McCann was an All-Star in 2019, and he posted a 143 OPS+ in 111 plate appearances in 2020, setting himself up for a solid four-year, $40.6 million payday in free agency. The 31-year-old was part of a busy offseason for the Mets under new owner Steve Cohen, but it hasn't panned out.

    He hit .232/.294/.349 for a 77 OPS+ with a 27.9 percent strikeout rate, tallying minus-0.2 WAR in 121 games. The backloaded deal will pay him another $8.2 million in 2022 before he earns $12.2 million in 2023 and 2024.

First Basemen

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    C.J. Cron
    C.J. CronDenis Poroy/Getty Images

    Best Value: C.J. Cron, Colorado Rockies

    Salary: $1 million

    C.J. Cron joined his fifth team in five years when he signed a minor league deal with the Colorado Rockies during the offseason. He played his way onto the Opening Day roster during spring training and quickly seized the everyday first-base job.

    The 31-year-old hit .281/.375/.530 with 31 doubles, 28 home runs and 92 RBI, and his career-high 3.4 WAR ranked ninth among all first basemen. The Rockies rewarded his performance with a two-year, $14.5 million extension earlier this month.

                 

    Worst Value: Eric Hosmer, San Diego Padres

    Salary: $21 million

    Among first basemen, only Paul Goldschmidt ($26 million), Joey Votto ($25 million) and Freddie Freeman ($22.4 million) had a higher salary in 2021 than Eric Hosmer. He still has four years and $60 million remaining on his eight-year, $144 million contract.

    The 31-year-old had a 104 OPS+ with 12 home runs and 65 RBI in 151 games, and the Padres front office explored the idea of packaging him with a top prospect at the July 30 trade deadline in an effort to offload his remaining salary.

Second Basemen

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    Matt Carpenter
    Matt CarpenterAssociated Press

    Best Value: Brandon Lowe, Tampa Bay Rays

    Salary: $2.5 million

    Jorge Polanco ($4.3 million) and Ozzie Albies ($3 million) both deserve mentions as terrific bargains at second base, and veteran Josh Harrison ($1.25 million) also exceeded expectations. However, the pick here has to be Brandon Lowe, who is halfway through a team-friendly six-year, $24 million deal that could extend through 2026 with a pair of club options.

    The 27-year-old logged a 142 OPS+ with 31 doubles, 39 home runs and 99 RBI in a 4.8 WAR season for the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays. Even with a slight raise next year, he'll still be a steal with a $4 million salary.

                         

    Worst Value: Matt Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals

    Salary: $18.5 million

    Once a staple in the middle of the St. Louis lineup, Matt Carpenter moved into more of a backup infielder/pinch-hitter role in 2021.

    The 35-year-old posted a career-low 65 OPS+ in 249 plate appearances, hitting .169/.305/.275 with just 15 extra-base hits and a 30.9 percent strikeout rate. He has indicated that he wants to play in 2022, but he'll likely have to play his way onto a team as a non-roster invitee next spring.   

Third Basemen

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    Rafael Devers
    Rafael DeversJustin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Best Value: Rafael Devers

    Salary: $4.6 million

    Jose Ramirez ($9.4 million) remains drastically underpaid, and Joey Wendle ($2.25 million) deserves a tip of the cap as a first-time All-Star. But it's 24-year-old Rafael Devers who gets the nod as the best bang for your buck at the hot corner.

    Still just 24 years old, he anchored the Boston offense that ranked fifth in the majors in runs scored during the regular season, hitting .279/.352/.538 with 37 doubles, 38 home runs and 113 RBI in 156 games. A sizable raise awaits this offseason in his second year of arbitration.

                        

    Worst Value: Eugenio Suarez, Cincinnati Reds

    Salary: $10.8 million

    Maybe it was the failed attempt to shift him to shortstop, or maybe it was something else, but Eugenio Suarez never looked comfortable in the batter's box during the 2021 season.

    While he hit 31 home runs, the rest of his offensive line was ugly. He hit just .198/.286/.428 for an 80 OPS+ while racking up 171 strikeouts at a 29.8 percent strikeout clip. That all added up to a horrible minus-0.7 WAR in 145 games, and the Reds are still on the hook for another $33.9 million over the next three years.

Shortstops

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    Fernando Tatis Jr.
    Fernando Tatis Jr.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Best Value: Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres

    Salary: $1.7 million

    Fernando Tatis Jr. is going to get extremely expensive in a few years, with his salary steadily climbing as he progresses through a 14-year, $340 million deal, but for now, he's perhaps the best value in all of baseball with a $1 million base salary in the first year of that megadeal and an annual $714,286 signing bonus.

    The 22-year-old led the NL with 42 home runs while swiping 25 bases in 29 attempts. He dealt with some defensive issues early in the season and missed time with a shoulder injury, but he was still worth 6.6 WAR in 130 games and should show up on plenty of NL MVP ballots.

                 

    Worst Value: Didi Gregorius, Philadelphia Phillies

    Salary: $12.8 million

    Yes, Francisco Lindor failed to live up to expectations in his first season with the New York Mets. That said, he was still a 3.1 WAR player, and he finished strong with an .895 OPS, nine home runs and 25 RBI over his final 30 games.

    Instead, the pick here is Didi Gregorius, who hit a punchless .209/.270/.370 with 13 home runs and 54 RBI in 408 plate appearances after returning to Philadelphia on a two-year, $28 million deal last offseason. The Phillies front office has already indicated that he'll need to earn the starting shortstop job next spring, despite a $15.3 million salary in 2022.    

Outfielders (Best Values)

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    Juan Soto
    Juan SotoDylan Buell/Getty Images

    Juan Soto, Washington Nationals

    Salary: $8.5 million

    The Nationals gave Juan Soto an $8.5 million salary in his first year of arbitration last winter, one of the largest salaries ever handed out to someone with his level of service time.

    It's still an absolute steal.

    The 22-year-old hit .313/.465/.534 with 29 home runs, 95 RBI, 111 runs and a staggering, MLB-leading 145 walks on his way to a 7.0 WAR season. He should give Bryce Harper a run for his money in NL MVP balloting after a torrid finish.

                   

    Hunter Renfroe, Boston Red Sox

    Salary: $3.7 million

    The Rays designated Hunter Renfroe for assignment last offseason rather than paying him an estimated $3.5 million in arbitration. The AL East division-rival Red Sox scooped him up on a one-year deal before trading Andrew Benintendi to the Kansas City Royals, and he turned out to be one of the best bargains of the winter.

    He had a 112 OPS+ with 33 doubles, 31 home runs and 96 RBI in 144 games, and he continued to show off one of the best outfield arms in baseball with 16 right field assists. The 29-year-old is arbitration-eligible through the 2023 season, so that one-year free-agency deal he signed is essentially a no-risk three-year pact.

                  

    Jesse Winker, Cincinnati Reds

    Salary: $3.15 million

    The final spot here came down to Jesse Winker or Harrison Bader ($2 million), and both NL Central outfielders had terrific seasons while playing for a fraction of their market values.

    Winker, 28, missed time during the second half, but he still hit .305/.394/.556 with 32 doubles, 24 home runs and 2.7 WAR in 110 games while earning his first All-Star selection. The longtime top prospect has officially developed into a core player in Cincinnati.

Outfielders (Worst Values)

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    Cody Bellinger
    Cody BellingerRobert Gauthier/Getty Images

    Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers

    Salary: $16.1 million

    Two years removed from winning NL MVP honors, Cody Bellinger struggled through the worst season of his career. He hit just .165/.240/.302 and his 45 OPS+ ranked 260th out of the 262 players who made at least 300 plate appearances in 2021.

    Earning a record $11.5 million in his first year of arbitration in 2020 has set him up to be paid handsomely throughout his remaining years of club control. Would the deep-pocketed Dodgers consider a trade or even a non-tender this offseason?

                         

    Jackie Bradley Jr., Milwaukee Brewers

    Salary: $6.5 million

    That list of 262 players referenced above? Jackie Bradley Jr. was the guy in the No. 262 spot with a brutal 34 OPS+ in 428 plate appearances in his first season with the Milwaukee Brewers.

    His $6.5 million salary might not seem exorbitant at first glance, but his $9.5 million player option for 2022 comes with a uniquely high $6.5 million buyout. That essentially makes it a one-year, $13 million deal if he walks this winter.

                 

    Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs

    Salary: $23.5 million

    Jason Heyward remains a terrific defensive right fielder (4 DRS, 13.2 UZR/150), and he is an unquestioned leader in the Chicago Cubs clubhouse. But there is little doubt he's among the most overpaid players in baseball.

    His offensive game bottomed out in 2021, as he hit .214/.280/.347 with 25 extra-base hits in 353 plate appearances and ranked in the 29th percentile in average exit velocity. The rebuilding Cubs are still on the hook for another two years and $49 million.

Designated Hitter

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    Shohei Ohtani
    Shohei OhtaniSteph Chambers/Getty Images

    Best Value: Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels

    Salary: $3 million

    The Angels signed Shohei Ohtani to a two-year, $8.5 million extension in February to avoid two years of the arbitration process, and he will be arbitration-eligible for one more year at the back end of that contract before reaching free agency after the 2023 season.

    The 27-year-old was worth 4.9 WAR as a designated hitter and another 4.1 WAR as a starting pitcher, providing a season the likes of which we've never seen at the MLB level. How much is he going to command on the open market when he reaches free agency?

                                 

    Worst Value: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers

    Salary: $30 million

    A surefire Hall of Famer and living legend, Miguel Cabrera is no longer the dynamic Triple Crown threat he was in his prime, but he's still being paid like a superstar and has two years and $64 million remaining on his contract.

    The 38-year-old hit .256/.316/.386 with 16 doubles, 15 home runs and 75 RBI in 130 games this year, and one of those home runs was the 500th of his storied career. He'll be a welcome veteran voice in a young clubhouse in the coming years, but there is little doubt he's vastly overpaid.

Starting Pitchers (Best Values)

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    Walker Buehler
    Walker BuehlerMatthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers

    Salary: $3.75 million

    Walker Buehler has looked poised to develop into one of baseball's elite starters since he first broke into the league, and he had the best season of his career in 2021 when he went 16-4 with a 2.47 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 212 strikeouts in 207.2 innings.

    The Dodgers bought out his first two years of arbitration with a two-year, $8 million extension in February, and he'll have another two years of arbitration on the back end. A long-term extension figures to be a top priority for the Dodgers in the near future.

                       

    Robbie Ray, Toronto Blue Jays

    Salary: $8 million

    Robbie Ray has always had elite swing-and-miss stuff, and he's been successful in the past, including an All-Star appearance and a seventh-place finish in NL Cy Young voting in 2017. However, he struggled mightily with his command in 2020 and finished with a 6.62 ERA and 45 walks in 51.2 innings.

    He showed enough after joining the Blue Jays at the 2020 deadline for the team to bring him back on a one-year, $8 million deal, and he's likely going to walk away with AL Cy Young honors this year. The 30-year-old led the AL in ERA (2.84), WHIP (1.05), strikeouts (248) and innings pitched (193.1), and a nine-figure payday likely awaits this winter.

                   

    Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee Brewers

    Salary: $3.28 million

    An 11th-round pick in 2014, Brandon Woodruff earned his second All-Star selection in 2021, and he finished with a 2.56 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 211 strikeouts in 179.1 innings over 30 starts.

    The 28-year-old will be in his second year of arbitration this winter, and a hefty raise is likely coming his way after a terrific season pitching alongside pre-arbitration Corbin Burnes at the top of the Milwaukee starting rotation.

                    

    Carlos Rodon, Chicago White Sox

    Salary: $3 million

    The White Sox non-tendered Carlos Rodon at the start of last offseason after another injury-plagued campaign in 2020. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft pitched just 42.1 innings in 2019 and 2020, and after testing the open market, he ultimately made his way back to the South Siders on a one-year, $3 million deal.

    After winning the No. 5 starter job in spring training, he sprinted out of the gates with a no-hitter in his second start and finished the year at 13-5 with a 2.37 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 185 strikeouts in 132.2 innings. The 28-year-old was largely a non-factor after the All-Star break, but his first half was good enough to earn him a spot on this list.

                        

    Freddy Peralta, Milwaukee Brewers

    Salary: $1.3 million

    More than a few eyebrows were raised when the Brewers inked Freddy Peralta to a five-year, $15.5 million extension prior to the 2020 season following a 5.29 ERA in 85 innings the previous year. After serving as a swingman in 2020, he was baseball's best No. 3 starter this year with a 2.81 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 195 strikeouts in 144.1 innings while limiting opposing hitters to a .165 average.

    Other starting pitchers who were a terrific value this year include Chris Flexen ($1.7M), Frankie Montas ($1.8M), Tyler Mahle ($2.2M), Jameson Taillon ($2.3M), Tyler Anderson ($2.5M), Max Fried ($3.5M), Julio Urias ($3.6M), Lucas Giolito ($4.2M), Jose Berrios ($5.6M), Lance McCullers Jr. ($7.1M), Adam Wainwright ($8M) and Lance Lynn ($9.3M).

Starting Pitchers (Worst Values)

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    Patrick Corbin
    Patrick CorbinMatthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Patrick Corbin, Washington Nationals

    Salary: $24.4 million

    Signed to a six-year, $140 million deal prior to 2019, Patrick Corbin went 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 238 strikeouts in 202 innings in his first year with the Nationals to help secure a World Series title.

    After scuffling to a 4.66 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 65.2 innings last year, things went from bad to worse in 2021. The 32-year-old was shelled to the tune of a 5.82 ERA in 171.2 innings while serving up 37 home runs, and the final three years and $83.2 million of his deal could be messy.

                        

    Dallas Keuchel, Chicago White Sox

    Salary: $18 million

    The White Sox gave Dallas Keuchel a three-year, $55.5 million deal in hopes he could provide a veteran presence to a young pitching staff. Now he finds himself left off the team's postseason roster after posting a 5.28 ERA in 162 innings in 2021.

    The 33-year-old really struggled down the stretch with an 8.62 ERA over his final eight appearances, but he's just a year removed from posting a 1.99 ERA in 63.1 innings in 2020. Can he bounce back in the final guaranteed year of his contract next season?

                              

    David Price, Los Angeles Dodgers

    Salary: $32 million

    All things considered, David Price had a productive season. After opting out of the 2020 campaign, he returned as a reliever this year and ended up serving as a valuable swingman when the injury bug bit the Dodgers staff.

    The 36-year-old went 5-2 with two holds and one save while posting a 4.03 ERA in 73.2 innings spanning 11 starts and 28 relief appearances. A useful arm? Sure. Worthy of the ninth-highest salary in all of baseball? Not even close.

                 

    Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs/San Diego Padres

    Salary: $6 million plus $2 million buyout

    The Cubs chased some nostalgia by bringing back 2015 NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta on a one-year, $6 million deal that included a $2 million buyout on a 2022 mutual option, and things could not have gone much worse.

    He was finally released Aug. 12 after posting a 6.88 ERA and 1.76 WHIP in 20 starts with the Cubs. He was added to a depleted San Diego Padres rotation a few days later and he went 0-3 with a 10.95 ERA in four starts before suffering a groin strain.

                    

    Jordan Lyles, Texas Rangers

    Salary: $8 million

    The Rangers hit on free-agency deals with Mike Minor, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson, but the two-year, $16 million deal they gave Jordan Lyles has been a big whiff.

    The rebuilding club trotted him out for 30 starts this year, and he chewed through 180 innings. But he was knocked around regularly with a 5.15 ERA, 1.39 WHIP and an MLB-leading 38 home runs allowed. He was worth minus-1.3 WAR over the life of that two-year contract.

Relief Pitchers

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    Josh Hader
    Josh HaderJohn Fisher/Getty Images

    Best Value: Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers

    Salary: $6.7 million

    Josh Hader was the 23rd-highest paid relief pitcher in baseball in 2021, and there's an easy case to be made that he's the game's most overpowering bullpen arm. He had a 1.23 ERA and 15.6 K/9 with 34 saves in 35 chances and reached 100 strikeouts for the third time in his career.

    Other relievers worth a mention here include Brad Boxberger ($1M), Richard Rodriguez ($1.7M), Kendall Graveman ($1.8M), Chad Green ($2.2M), Andrew Chafin ($2.8M), Michael Fulmer ($3.1M), Aaron Loup ($3.3M) and Mark Melancon ($4M).

                   

    Worst Value: Andrew Miller, St. Louis Cardinals

    Salary: $12 million

    One of just 10 relievers making north of $10 million in 2021, Andrew Miller spent the season pitching in low-leverage situations in the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen.

    He had a 4.75 ERA and 1.58 WHIP with five holds in 40 appearances, wrapping up a three-year, $34.5 million deal in forgettable fashion. After Brett Cecil and Miller both disappointed, the St. Louis front office might think twice before shelling out big money to a lefty reliever in free agency again anytime soon.

                

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. Contract information comes via Spotrac.

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