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The 15 Worst Contracts in Baseball

After evaluating the best deals in MLB, it's time to determine which ones you should run away from

Mike Trout. Andrew McCutchen. Ryan Braun. We’ve broken down the 50 most valuable trade assets in baseball, a list stuffed with MVP candidates and colossal bargains.

Unfortunately, many teams aren’t lucky enough to have blue-chippers signed to wildly favorable contracts. Worse, some of those teams are carrying players signed to deals that are so miserable, you couldn’t give them away for free. We’ve brought you Grantland’s MLB Trade Value Rankings. Time for the Negative Trade Value Rankings.

The players you’ll find on this list aren’t uniformly bad. In fact, several of them would be great assets to all 30 teams; that is, if their contracts weren’t so terrible for their employers. But all of them would attract little to no interest if they were made available for trade tomorrow. In many cases, you’d have to pay the other team just to take these players off your hands (see the sidebar for a full list of Trade Value rules).

Let’s meet our albatrosses.

Honorable Mention

Jonathan Papelbon, pitcher, Philadelphia Phillies:
Let’s start with the usual arguments against paying big bucks for closers. They have a limited impact on the game, throwing one-third or even one-quarter as many innings as top starters; they have a high attrition rate, whether due to injuries, diminished performance, or both; and good closers usually come from humble beginnings and can thus be had cheap. Eric Gagne was an amateur free agent and a failed starter before he became an elite closer, while Fernando Rodney looked washed up before the Rays signed him for next to nothing and turned him into the 2012 version of Mariano Rivera. Still, with Rivera’s season-ending injury last season, Papelbon owns the longest uninterrupted track record of health and success for any closer in baseball, with a seven-year run that includes a 2.32 ERA, a best-in-baseball 2.52 FIP, and a strikeout-to-walk rate of about 5-to-1. If you’re a team with money to spend, and you’ve got a dominant relief pitcher in your sights, giving him a lucrative long-term deal isn’t the end of the world.

So what’s the problem with the three years and $39 million left on Papelbon’s contract (four years, $52 million assuming he hits some very reachable performance markers and sees his 2016 salary vest)? It’s the rigid way that managers use closers, with Charlie Manuel one of the game’s worst offenders. Whether due to fear of being second-guessed, fear of using pitchers in anything but the most predictable circumstances, or simple inertia, closers get used far more often in easy-to-manage, up-two, bases-empty, ninth-inning situations than they do in tie games with runners on and the game actually on the line. Crashburn Alley ran an excellent post documenting the times Manuel could have and should have used Papelbon in high-leverage situations, only to see the manager save his closer for a save situation and have the Phillies go on to lose instead. This happened seven times. Publication date of that post? June 10.

Until the Phillies start using him in situations where he’s actually needed, rather than almost exclusively in spots that nearly any pitcher with a pulse can handle successfully 85–90 percent of the time, Papelbon will remain the $200,000 Aston Martin that never leaves the garage. The reason Papelbon merits only honorable mention is because someone, somewhere, might use him properly if the Phillies ever traded him. In a way, this is more of a tragic waste of resources than an untradeable contract.

Carlos Marmol, pitcher, Chicago Cubs:
Sort of like Papelbon in terms of overpaying a pitcher with a limited role, except the Cubs are only on the hook for one more year at a shade less than $10 million. That and unlike Papelbon, Marmol is not a good pitcher, and has more trouble finding the plate than just about anyone else in the big leagues. Even teams who believe in the mystique of the Proven Closer probably wouldn’t touch Marmol at this point.

Alfonso Soriano, outfield, Chicago Cubs:
Now that we’re down to the final two years of Soriano’s hideous-from-day-one eight-year, $136 million contract, you can close your eyes, squint, and make out a not-that-terrible ending. Soriano cranked 32 homers and was a four-win player in 2012; given the going rate for a win on the open market lies somewhere between $5 million and $6 million, you could theoretically argue that Soriano might be a bargain with two years and $36 million left on his deal. Of course two of Soriano’s prior three seasons resulted in numbers barely above replacement level. Moreover, this offseason has featured a glut of available corner outfielders: If Jason Kubel is available for $7.5 million a year (and not exactly attracting an army of suitors), what chance does Soriano have at two and a half times that number?

Mark Teixeira, first base, New York Yankees:
It’s hard to know exactly what’s happened to Teixeira in the four years since he joined the Yankees. An MVP-caliber player when he first put on pinstripes in 2009, his numbers have fallen precipitously since then. Here are his BA/OBP/SLG:

2008 .308/.410/.552
2009 .292/.383/.565
2010 .256/.365/.481
2011 .248/.341/.494
2012 .251/.332/.475

It might be that Yankee Stadium’s short porch has goaded Teixeira into more of an uppercut swing from the left side. Perhaps the leaguewide trend toward defensive shifts has led to more outs, whether due to better defensive positioning or Teixeira overcompensating with a different approach. (Teixeira’s batting average on balls in play since 2007: .342, .316, .302, .268, .239, .250 — so either defenses have figured him out, or he’s on a hellaciously bad streak.) Or maybe age has slowed his bat, leaving the soon-to-be-33-year-old switch-hitter headed in the wrong direction with four years and $90 million left on his deal. There might be another guy on this team getting a lot more grief for his declining skills and terrifying contract. But the Yankees are stuck with Teixeira at this point, almost as much as they are with that other guy.

15. Albert Pujols, first base, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Let’s check off the many reasons why any team would want Pujols first. Few players in the game’s history started their careers with a decade as dominant as his was. After a brutal start to the 2012 season, he hit .312/.374/.589 from May 15 on, returning to near-peak form. He’s going to win a bunch of games for his team over the next few years and topple a bunch of milestones too.

Now the bad news. He’s owed a stupefying $228 million over the next nine years, plus $10 million in potential milestone bonuses and more. That’s not an unreasonable payout for a superstar in today’s game, given the leaguewide explosion in revenues. Except Albert Pujols’s days as a superstar may well be gone for good. In 2012, Pujols set career lows in walks, homers, and isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average), while also posting his highest strikeout rate since his rookie season. He’s no longer an asset on the basepaths, isn’t the all-world defender he once was (though he’s still better than average), and turned 33 last month. He was a four-win player in 2012, and even in this pumped-up market, you don’t pay someone $25 million a year until a player’s early forties when you’re starting at that level. Sure, the Dodgers could always trade for Pujols and make him their new shortstop/no. 3 starter/clubhouse attendant. More likely, he’ll be the Angels’ burden to bear, a still-very-good but basically unmovable player who’ll put a strain on one of the hardest-to-strain team revenue streams in baseball.

14. Adrian Gonzalez, first base, Los Angeles Dodgers

if Pujols raises concerns over signs of decline, what do we make of Gonzalez? The worst full season of his career was 2012, with Gonzalez hitting just .299/.344/.463. As with Pujols, Gonzalez’s power numbers and walks tailed off last season. But in Gonzalez’s case, the dropoff was more extreme, with career lows of 18 homers and 42 walks; consider that he played most of his career in the tough hitter’s environment of Petco Park and those numbers look even more troubling. He fared no better in L.A. than in Boston following The Trade, hitting just three homers and posting an underwhelming .785 OPS over 36 games with the Dodgers. Gonzalez struggled with a shoulder injury in 2010 and claims it sapped him of some power in 2011. That might be, but that’s hard to square against the 151-point drop in OPS from 2011 to 2012. This might be a simple aberration. Or it might be the start of yet another early-thirties decline for yet another first baseman making a ton of money. The Dodgers absorbed two other questionable contracts to get their hands on Gonzalez, figuring with fewer and fewer elite players making it to free agency, it made sense to overpay to get one via trade. At just 30 years old, there is at least a chance that Gonzalez might never be an elite player again. Which would make the six years and $127 million left on his contract — plus the remaining big outlays for Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett — hurt a lot. Or it would for the 29 teams who are not the Dodgers, all of whom aren’t trading for any of these guys.

13. Brandon League, pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers

Another entry for the Dodgers, because when you’re owned by a team with $160 billion in assets under management, with a GM whose track record includes heartily supporting a multiyear deal for Neifi Perez, why not make every day Spearmint Rhino Day? League is a groundball pitcher with below-average strikeout rates who struggled to find the plate last season, evoking memories of the younger, wilder version of himself. But because he’s saved a bunch of games over the past two seasons, and because the Dodgers give exactly zero F‘s, they tossed $22.5 million over three years to League. We’re not going to say there’s absolutely, conclusively nothing to the notion that a pitcher having closing experience lets us better evaluate whether he’s up for the job in the future. But when you’ve got established, superior-skilled setup men in the Grant Balfour mold going for barely more than one-third what League’s making (with numerous other closers being paid millions or even tens of millions more for closing experience), maybe we’re overrating the intangibles just a smidge. No one’s knocking down Ned Colletti’s door to trade for Brandon League any time soon, let’s put it that way.

12. Adam Dunn, designated hitter, Chicago White Sox

It’s been talked about in board room strategy sessions and huddles with managers, written on by stat mavens and beat writers. Now the notion that teams are emphasizing defense at the expense of offense has turned from intriguing theory to an actual, verifiable trend. Witness the modest contracts doled out to solid-offense, lousy-defense/minimal-positional-value players like Josh Willingham, Jason Kubel, and others. If you’re going to pay an offense-only player $15 million a year in that climate, he’d better be Babe Ruth crossed with Rickey Henderson crossed with a St. Bernard puppy who brings you neck-barrels of Cristal.

Adam Dunn is not that guy. He’s not quite a full-time DH yet but he might as well be, costing his team two to three wins a year when he was a full-time outfielder and remaining a net negative when shifted to first base. And while the 33-year-old slugger regained his power in smashing 41 homers last year, he still hit just .204/.333/.468. Of course that’s a marked improvement over Year 1 of Dunn’s four-year deal, when he “hit” .159/.292/.277 and offered his usual negative baserunning and defensive value; FanGraphs calculated that Dunn made his team lose three more games than your typical replacement-level player that year, making his 2011 season one of the worst recorded by any player in the game’s history. At least we’re down to the final two years of Dunn’s anachronistic deal.

11. John Danks, pitcher, Chicago White Sox

This feels like a good time to bring up some of the players who didn’t make the top 15, or Honorable Mention, but at least warranted consideration for these ignominious awards. In no particular order:

Kevin Correia (2 years/$10 million)
Ricky Romero (3 years/$24 million)
Mark Buehrle (3 years/$48 million plus some deferred signing bonus money)
Jeremy Guthrie (3 years/$25 million)
Michael Young (1 year/$16 million)
Tim Lincecum (1 year/$22 million)
Jeff Francoeur (1 year/$6.75 million)
Dan Uggla (3 years/$39 million)
Andre Ethier (5 years/$85 million)
Heath Bell (2 years/$21 million)
Jonathan Broxton (3 years/$21 million)
C.J. Wilson (4 years/$67 million)
Josh Beckett (2 years/$31.5 million)

We can debate whether, say, Ethier is truly that tough to trade given multiple teams reportedly showed interest in the should-be-platooning corner outfielder when a mere whisper of a rumor started floating around; if players like Young and Bell are that unmovable since their former employers are picking up big chunks of their salaries; if Lincecum and Romero are really so far removed from their former glory or if 2012 was simply an ugly aberration, etc. But the main point is to note the large number of contracts for starting pitchers that have the potential to blow up in teams’ faces, with many of those deals being difficult or impossible to swallow for some hypothetical trading partner.

Given the money being paid to some truly mediocre pitchers over the next few years, we can’t go too nuclear on the four years and $57 million left on Danks’s deal. In Danks, the White Sox also have a 27-year-old lefty starter who averaged about four Wins Above Replacement per season from 2008 through 2011. On the other hand, Danks got hammered for a 5.70 ERA over nine starts last season, didn’t throw a single pitch in a major league game after May, and had shoulder surgery in August. The White Sox are saying he’ll be ready for Opening Day, but we’ve heard plenty of similar promises for pitchers coming off shoulder surgeries in the past, many of them later broken. The hope is that we’re overrating the recency effect here, that Danks will rebound to career norms shortly, and that a year from now, this ranking will look ridiculous. And that the words “Carl Pavano” and “Yankees” will never be uttered at New Comiskey.

10. Johan Santana, pitcher, New York Mets

With all the Kevin Correias and Jeremy Guthries out there making real money, it might seem nuts to jump on a one-year commitment for a pitcher who just a few years ago might’ve been better than anyone else on earth. But Santana’s not the pitcher he once was, his fastball now topping out in the high 80s and his numbers nowhere near where they once were. He can still be useful if he can stay healthy, but back problems and a $31 million tab for his 2013 performance (plus 2014 buyout) will make Santana tough to shop this summer, unless the Mets pick up a ton of salary.

9. Brian Roberts, second base, Baltimore Orioles

Roberts has had his career ravaged by injuries, playing in just 115 combined games over the past three seasons. He’s finally back to at least lifting weights, running, and hitting off a tee. But that’s about all the good news we can muster for the former All-Star second baseman. That and the fact that his four-year, $40 million deal mercifully comes to an end this year.

8. Juan Uribe, third base, Los Angeles Dodgers

Dodger no. 3. We said that we wouldn’t pick on the Greg Dobbses of the league for this list, and you could argue that Dobbs might actually offer more value to a major league club as a lefty pinch-hitter and occasional spot starter than Uribe does with … whatever it is that he does. But unlike your typical 25th man on a roster, Uribe’s making real money, with one year and $8 million left on the three-year deal he never should have landed in the first place. That contract was really just an extension of the two-year, $22 million deal Aubrey Huff got that same offseason, with both deeply flawed veteran players getting rewarded for big random seasons that coincided with the Giants winning their first World Series in 56 years. Just as Giants GM Brian Sabean saw the Huff era end with a benchwarmer who offered no real on-field value, so too will Sabean’s former top lieutenant likely see that end with Uribe in L.A. Of course the Dodgers can always hope for a similar team result, given the Giants went on to win a second World Series in three years with Huff cheering from the pine. So hey, maybe overpaying for past performance in the afterglow of a championship will turn out to be the new market inefficiency.

7. John Lackey, pitcher, Boston Red Sox

Yes, Red Sox fans, your nightmare is three-fifths over. The final two years of Lackey’s contract offer a stark reminder of how Theo Epstein’s tenure in Boston ended: with a burst of extravagant spending and no success to show for it, with the Sox now entering Year 4 since their last playoff berth, and all the big-money players from that mini-era gone save for the one most directly linked to the team’s recent failures. We’re told that Lackey’s decline into punching bag status is a result of not being able to hack the rigors of playing in Boston after years of coddled bliss on the West Coast. In reality, this was simply about a pitcher with good-but-not-great stuff moving to a much tougher ballpark, actually faring pretty well in Year 1 of the grand experiment, then having his arm give out like tens of thousands of pitchers in many other cities did before. As things stand, the Sox are paying $15.25 million a year to a pitcher who didn’t throw a single inning in the big leagues in 2012 and will open 2013 as the team’s no. 5 starter if everything breaks perfectly.

There are plenty of Sox fans who’ve been critical of management’s moves this offseason, wondering if the team is wasting money by offering multiyear deals to thirtysomething, past-prime players like Ryan Dempster and Shane Victorino. The rebuttal here is simple: Boston fielded a truly terrible team last year, filled with high-priced talent that couldn’t stay healthy and replacements who were the living embodiment of replacement level. Basically, if you want to know why the Sox spent real money to get competent-if-unspectacular players this winter, look no further than John Lackey.

6. Barry Zito, pitcher, San Francisco Giants

Counting the $7 million buyout they’ll hand out the second this season ends, the Giants owe Zito a staggering $27 million for one more year of service as their fifth starter. Of course it’s not Zito’s fault that Brian Sabean mistook a friendly home ballpark, some good luck, and an off-the-charts win-loss record for seven years of guaranteed future dominance. Now, the Giants couldn’t get a bag of beans for $27 million worth of Zito. Instead, they’re left with an innings eater who’s made 32 or more starts in every full season of his career but one, but isn’t particularly good at getting hitters out. Still, every once in a while, his seductive curveball will baffle the opposition. If only he’d ended his Giants career like this.

5. Vernon Wells, outfield, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Someday, hundreds of years from now, our highly evolved, gigawatt-obsessed successors will occupy their daily lives trying to answer the one unanswerable question of the universe: What could have possibly possessed Tony Reagins to trade Mike Napoli for $84 million worth of Vernon Wells? The tab is down to half that. Actually, not exactly half that. There’s still the matter of a $100,000 bonus if he gets the most All-Star Game votes in the league.

4. Jayson Werth, outfield, Washington Nationals

Werth isn’t Juan Uribe or Vernon Wells. He’s still a good hitter with superior on-base skills who can be a serious asset for his team if he can shake off the injuries that chopped his 2012 season in half. But while the masses are often wrong, they got it right here: There was no way the Nats were going to get their money’s worth when they threw a seven-year, $126 million contract at a late bloomer on the wrong side of 30. Even if this was a statement signing, the deal has missed its mark to date. That the Nationals head into 2013 as one of the favorites to win it all isn’t because Werth’s payday opened free agents’ eyes to the allure of playing in D.C. The homegrown products — Ryan Zimmerman, Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and the prospects who got converted into Gio Gonzalez — have done that almost entirely by themselves.

3. Ryan Howard, first base, Philadelphia Philles

Signing a player to a gigantic long-term extension a year or more before his existing deal ends has become a relatively common practice, with Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria, and others working out variants of that arrangement. But when Ryan Howard put pen to paper on a five-year, $125 million extension back on April 26, 2010, with nearly two full seasons left on an existing three-year pact, this was something new. It was, according to multiple baseball analysts, a catastrophe. Or as Keith Law put it at the time:

This is one of the worst extensions of its kind — it’s an overpay in both years and dollars. Howard is one of the last guys in the middle of the lineup I’d give that kind of money, too. He’s 30, has a bad body, is not a good defender, and has struggled to make contact versus lefties — he’s gone backwards in that area over the past couple of years. If you were locking him up through age 31, it’s not so bad. How happy are you if you’re Albert Pujols? If Howard is worth $25 million, Pujols is worth $50 million a year.

Other than that Pujols bit, that’s pretty damn spot-on. Howard did get in better shape not long after signing the extension. He also suffered a brutal Achilles injury at the end of the Phillies’ 2011 playoff run, which combined with a late-2012 broken toe and other ailments cost Howard 91 games and limited his season numbers to a hideous .219/.295/.423. Year 2 of the megacontract is in doubt, too, with Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. saying he doesn’t expect Howard to fully heal from his torn Achilles until some point during the season. This was the worst-case scenario, to be sure. Still, the Howard contract, which has four years and $105 million left on it (counting a $10 million 2017 buyout), was yet another in a long line of deals signed more on the basis of past performance than realistic future expectations. It was also a case of overrating power hitting above all other skills. As much as we’ve learned about the value of defense and baserunning — of being a well-rounded player, really — it’s the Ryan Howards of the league who still rake in the biggest bucks. Unfortunately, this particular example isn’t as good as the others, and is damaged goods. The Phillies wanted a long-term commitment. They’ve got one now, whether they still want it or not.

2. Carl Crawford, outfield, Los Angeles Dodgers

When a player goes from a signature offseason pickup to a poison pill tacked onto a massive, multi-player deal in a span of less than two years, something has clearly gone terribly wrong. That the Dodgers willingly took on more than five years and $100 million worth of Crawford, when an elbow injury had already knocked him out for the year and raised questions about his future health, was bad enough. Another major drawback can be filed under opportunity cost. With Guggenheim Partners at the helm, the Dodgers have been delighted to overspend on all manner of players — you’ll note that Crawford is the fourth Dodger on this list, and that L.A. gladly forked over another $147 million to reel in Zack Greinke. Problem is, a baseball team only has so many lineup spots available to be filled. It’s possible that Crawford’s fully healed by Opening Day and spends the next half-decade playing like the championship-level player he was at the end of his time in Tampa Bay. But despite his often questionable batting eye and checkered past, wouldn’t you rather bet on Josh Hamilton for an extra $5 or $6 million a year? It’s possible that Crawford can’t stay healthy and effective in L.A., the Dodgers declare him a sunk cost, and they sign the next big-ticket outfielder to hit the market. But for now, the Dodgers are stuck with second-best … at best.

1. Alex Rodriguez, third base, New York Yankees

You’ve probably sensed a pattern with many of these players by now. You could easily argue that John Lackey and Ryan Howard and Carl Crawford and others on this list would be highly overpaid and tough to move even if they were perfectly healthy. But these players’ injuries have turned them into statues, at least for the foreseeable future.

So it is with Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod took a ton of grief for the quarter-billion deal he signed to join the Texas Rangers 12 years ago. But if any player has ever earned his keep on anything close to that enormous a contract, it’s Rodriguez. In his seven years under that contract, he hit .304/.400/.591. Even adjusting for his home park’s extraordinarily hitter-friendly environment, A-Rod was a reasonable MVP candidate in each of his three years in Arlington; from 2001 through 2007, he ranked right there with Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds as the most valuable player in baseball over that stretch. Of those seven seasons, A-Rod could make a reasonable argument for AL MVP in five of them. At the end of the 2007 season, Rodriguez exercised an opt-out clause in his contract, making him a free agent. He’d just completed a season in which he hit a ridiculous .314/.422/.645, with 54 homers and his third MVP trophy. Given the player they had on their hands, they had to ante up. Given the records he was sure to topple, they had no choice.

But here’s the thing. By the time he signed a new 10-year, $275 million deal in December 2007, Rodriguez was already 32 years old. With or without enhancements, A-Rod likely would have gone down as one of the 10 or 15 best position players of all time. Players with that kind of talent tend to have more in the tank well into their thirties or even approaching 40 than do your typical really good players. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of risk attached. You make the deal, you live with the consequences. Especially if you’re the Yankees. Welcome to the consequences. A-Rod’s numbers dropped steadily over the next four years.1 Many wondered if his world-beating days ended as soon as he admitted to PED use in early 2009, though he maintained he only used from 2001 through 2003. The latest PED scandal suggests A-Rod might have still been using far more recently. The evidence is hardly conclusive at this point, but it’s another potential negative to add to the pile.

Whatever Rodriguez did or didn’t use, at whatever time, this is also a player suffering from that most universal of performance-stomping causes: aging. He has missed a couple dozen games a year from 2008 through 2010, but still managed to put up strong, if not quite MVP-caliber numbers. The past two seasons have proven much harsher. He has missed a total of 103 games during that time. His latest, most serious injury may well be the one that derails his record-breaking ambitions for good. By the time A-Rod’s 2012 season ended, he looked like a shadow of his former self, a debilitating hip injury drastically curtailing his once otherworldly power, and turning him into a cipher at third base.

We don’t know when he’s going to play next. Estimated recovery time after his mid-January surgery is four to six months, but that’s a wide range, and he might need a while to regain his timing even after the injury heals. As with Howard and Crawford, we can’t yet write off A-Rod as a good player, maybe even a very good one. But his best days are surely behind him, even as five years and $118 million2 are still owed. In any other year, the Yankees could handle a former star spending months on the DL, even one making as much as A-Rod will. But this season, the one in which Hal Steinbrenner has decided that fiscal restraint is finally in order, we might see the Yankees miss the playoffs for just the second time in 19 years. If that happens, the most untradable contract in baseball will be one of the biggest reasons why.

Filed Under: Baseball, Jonah Keri, MLB, People, Sports

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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