Carl Crawford landed the biggest free agent contract of the season. But did it constitute one of the five worst?
Every year, terrible contracts are handed out for contract extensions or to free agents. Sometimes a team drastically over-estimates what a player is worth (Randy Wolf, Carlos Silva, Gary Matthews Jr.), sometimes a team feels like they're justified in overpaying at the end of the deal so that they can reap the benefits early on (Alex Rodriguez (the last one), Alfonso Soriano), sometimes a player's unique situation or iconic status makes a difference (Derek Jeter), and sometimes a team banks on a player duplicating their great years only to see them under-perform (Vernon Wells, Barry Zito).
Largely, the Twins have been able to avoid such mistakes. Of course, Joe Mauer's contract might fall into one of those categories at some point, but it's not near that stage yet. But in the whole of the baseball world, this winter has been no different than any other in recent memory, and there were a handful of contracts signed by smiling franchises who may not be smiling when all is said and done.
Here are five of the worst contracts signed over the winter which, for a few different reasons, I expect the signing team to regret by the end.
#5: Paul Konerko, 1B, Chicago White Sox
Contract: 3 years, $37.5 million
Age during contract: 35 - 37
There are a couple of reasons that Konkero is number five on this list, instead of higher. First, even though he'll be 37 in the final year of his contract, I don't expect him to completely fall off the table and become a negative pull on Chicago's offense. He's a very, very talented hitter, and even assuming less playing time and a less productive version of Konerko, he should still be worth 1 to 2 Wins Above Replacement. Second, the Sox will only be paying $6.5 million of the $13.5 million dollar salary he'll be owed in the final year on the deal ($1 million deferred each year for seven years).
But the reason Konerko is on this list is simply because there aren't many hitters in the game who are worth nearly $40 million going into their late 30s. It's a big risk, considering that from 2007 to 2009 he was worth just 3.8 WAR combined (BRef). So it's not that I expect the White Sox to regret having him on the roster, it's that I expect they'll regret committing so much money to Konerko.
Four more after the jump, including players from New York, San Francisco, Washington and Texas.
#4: Aubrey Huff, 1B, San Francisco Giants
Contract: 2 years, $22 million (3rd year option would make it 3 years, $30 million)
Age during contract: 34 - 35 (maybe 36)
This is the classic mistake where a guy gets paid off a career year. Early in his career, when Huff was coming up with the Rays, he looked like one of the game's best talents going forward as from 2002 to 2004 he hit .307/.364/.524, for a combined 8.6 WAR (BRef).
Since then it's been a game of disappointment and mediocrity, as in spite of a 3-win season in '08 he accumulated just 2.0 WAR from 2005 through 2009. Then came 2010, when he hit like a true middle-of-the-order threat by amassing an .891 OPS and 5.6 wins above replacement at age 33. His .388 wOBA was the highest of his career.
Of course, if Huff duplicates that performance over the next two (or three) seasons, then he'll be an absolute bargain. The odds are stacked against it though. Bill James expects a still decent, but not masterly, .801 OPS in 2011. ZiPS sees .813. Those numbers seem realistic, and reachable...and certainly not worth $10 million a season. The only saving grace is that this is just a two-year deal, but I don't imagine that will be of much consolation over 2011 and 2012.
#3: Adrian Beltre, 3B, Texas Rangers
Contract: 5 years, $80 million (vesting option makes it 6 years, $96 million)
Age during contract: 32 - 36 (maybe 37)
After his monster 2010 (6.1 WAR, .919 OPS, league-leading 49 doubles, 28 HR, brilliant defense), somebody was going to pay him. And the Rangers clearly weren't looking to stand pat after a World Series run, proving their desire to be a contender this season by out-bidding the two franchises who were considered to be Beltre's main suitors: the Red Sox and the Angels.
Over the next two or three years, I don't doubt that Beltre will help the Rangers be a good team. But we already know how up-and-down Beltre's offensive campaigns can be, as from 2005 to 2009 he was essentially a league-average third baseman in terms of offensive value (101 OPS+). Over that same period he averaged 2.8 WAR (BRef) per season. By the time he's 35, is it realistic to think he'll still be worth $17 million?
As Beltre ages and his power drops, and his timing goes, his low walk rates won't be doing him any favors. If he's still with the Rangers in 2014 and 2015, expect them to do what they need to do to ensure his option for 2016 doesn't vest.
#2: Rafael Soriano, RP, New York Yankees
Contract: 3 years, $35 million (Soriano can take $1.5 million buyout after 2011 or 2012)
Age during contract: 31 - 33
It's not the age that Soriano will be over the life of this deal. And this isn't about how effective he might (not) be by the time 2013 rolls around. It's the money that the Yankees are paying for a set-up man ($10 MM in '11, $11 MM in '12, $14 MM in '13), and the fact that they lost their first-round draft pick for a relief pitcher. But this view shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, as even Brian Cashman knew this was a stupid idea.
The mantra from Bomber ownership is clearly: win at any cost. And to be fair, the Yankees are quite possibly the only team in Major League Baseball who can run a team that way. Most organizations know there is a boundry where cost and value collide, and while mistakes or incorrect evaluations happen, this move takes that boundry and essentially pretends it doesn't exist.
Soriano, in the four seasons since '06 he's been healthy, has combined for 7.8 wins above replacement. That's pretty good. And there's no denying that the Yankee bullpen will be formidable. But there's also no doubt that they could have accomplished the same task by spending less money and not losing a draft pick.
#1: Jayson Werth, OF, Washington Nationals
Contract: 7 years, $126 million
Age during contract: 32 - 38
The only reason that New York's stupid Soriano signing isn't number one is because the Nationals think they'll be winning a World Series sometime before 2017. Honestly, that has to be it, otherwise how can you explain the Nationals paying $20 million plus for Werth from ages 35 to 38?
Well, other than the fact that he wouldn't have signed with the Nationals unless they drastically overpaid for him, of course.
Obviously Washington felt they needed to replace Adam Dunn's middle-of-the-order bat, and they felt that making a big splash with Werth would make a statement to their fans, other free agents who maybe would never consider the Nationals as a destination, and to Major League Baseball in general. And I'm willing to grant them one thing: paying Werth just $10 million in 2011 is probably going to be a bargain in terms of one-year value. Since becoming a permanent full-time player in 2008, the former Phillie has accumulated 12.6 WAR (BRef).
After that it does get a bit more dismal for the Nationals. While Werth may not have a lot of mileage on him for his age, his track record is also comparatively short for a free agent of his age. Over the last four seasons he's come into his own in Philadelphia, hitting .282/.380/.506 from ages 28 to 31. That's worth paying for, no doubt. But those are also his prime years. Werth profiles as the kind of player who shows up for a brief moment in time, giving the world of baseball a beautiful and spectacular few seasons, before fading away.
Essentially, Washington has paid to watch Werth's production decline. I'm reminded of one of the many, many classic lines from Casablanca:
...you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
Well, not life. But life of the contract, definitely. My bet is by 2014, at the latest.