A list of the worst contracts in baseball inherently requires some projection and subjectivity. Every player on this list has shown (to varying degrees) the capability to produce at All-Star levels in the past; nevertheless, the arrows are trending downward for all of them at this point, and these contracts look, at the moment, to be among the most detrimental in baseball. It is, of course, worth noting, that the player themselves has the ability to play their way off of this list (Ryan Zimmerman, for instance, would likely have made this list preseason, but his outstanding start to 2017 has all of a sudden made him look like a bargain for Washington). At this moment in time, though, here are seven of the worst contracts in Major League Baseball.
1. Albert Pujols- 5 years/$140 million
Almost undoubtedly the worst contract in MLB right now, Pujols’ deal borders on crippling for the Angels. After years of elite production in St. Louis, Pujols’ performance took a steep hit nearly immediately after he put pen to paper on a back-loaded, 10 year deal worth $240 million with Los Angeles. Most striking is the drop-off in his once-elite plate discipline. Pujols has chased over 30% of pitches outside of the strike every year in Anaheim, causing his walk rates to plummet to abysmal levels, and, while still a power threat, he is pulling more ground balls than ever before in his career, making him a low on-base, one-dimensional power hitter, with a similar overall profile to Kendrys Morales, who received a 3 year, $33 million deal this winter that some considered to be an overpay for this type of player. Throw in declining defense and foot injuries that likely limit him to DH duty, and owner Arte Moreno’s unwillingness to exceed the soft cap luxury tap threshold, and its Pujols’ contract that likely keeps GM Billy Eppler awake at night.
2. Giancarlo Stanton- 11 years/ $309.5 million, full NTC, player opt-out clause after 2020
The largest contract in MLB history, Stanton’s deal remains, to some extent, a mixed bag. On the one hand, Stanton is productive, having hit at least 20 home runs in every season of his major-league career and currently slashing a strong .253/.325/.521 with 11 homers and a track record of above-average defense in right field. Still just 27 years of age, Stanton seems likely to be at worst a good everyday player for the foreseeable future, with astronomical upside given his prodigious power. On the other, he combined to play in just 193 games from 2015-2016 and his average exit velocities have decreased over that time from 95.9 MPH (which ranked #1 in MLB among all players with at least 50 batted balls) to 93.8 (#3) to 90.2 so far this season (#35). Additionally, with the Marlins rumored to be in a precarious financial situation, Stanton’s deal has the potential to become very onerous for the franchise in the future and could be impossible to move if the last-place organization elects to rebuild. As a very good but not elite overall player with a spotty health history, Stanton will need to drastically outperform expectations in the coming seasons to prevent his contract from topping this list for years to come.
3. Miguel Cabrera- 7 years/$228 million
[the_ad id=”384″]While it may seem blasphemous to include one of the game’s unquestioned elite hitters, Cabrera’s contract oozes downside potential. At 34 years of age with well over $200 million still outstanding, he will have to continue to hit an elite level deep into his 30’s to make this deal a worthy investment for Detroit. Already though, Cabrera has begun to show the first signs of a potential decline at the plate. He currently has a career-high chase rate and his highest swinging-strike percentage since 2003. While he continues to hit the ball hard nearly as consistently as any hitter in MLB, his 7 point jump in strikeout rate is somewhat concerning, and while Cabrera’s current .248/.342/.400 line appears to be more a function of poor luck than anything else (Statcast’s Expected Weighted On-Base Average, which attempts to strip luck out of the equation by evaluating a hitter’s batted ball quality, still ranks Cabrera as a top 10 hitter in baseball), he will need to maintain his elite production of years past into the 2020’s to earn this newest mega-deal, a difficult task for a player his age already showing some warning indicators.
4. Pablo Sandoval- 3 years/$58 million
An unmitigated disaster immediately, Sandoval began his Red Sox tenure with a -2 WAR (per Fangraphs) season in 2015, easily the worst mark among qualified players. His contact quality fell precipitously, with over a 6% drop off in hard contact rate from the season before coupled with a 6% increase in his groundball rate. Altogether, he slashed just .245/.292/.366, which, coupled with his typical poor baserunning abilities and a sharp decline in his defensive metrics, made him arguably the worst player in baseball at the outset of his deal. After a 2016 season that saw him lose his starting job and spend most of the year on the DL, Sandoval’s first 67 plate appearances this season (before yet another injury) give little confidence that he can ever return to even average production, let alone the consistently above-average output that Boston was expecting when they signed him on the heels of multiple strong postseason runs in San Francisco. Still owed $58 million on an immovable contract and unable to separate himself from a pack of third base options on the Red Sox roster comprising Josh Rutledge, Brock Holt and Deven Marrero, Sandoval seems like an entirely sunk cost at this point, having offered one of the lowest returns on investment for a marquee free agent in recent memory.
5. Shin-Soo Choo- 4/$82 million, limited NTC
Texas rewarded Choo for his spectacular 2013 season in Cincinnati with a seven-year deal worth $130,000,000. While his on-base ability has remained in Arlington, his combination of below-average power and defense limit the overall package. He was quite productive in 2015, running a .276/.375/463 line over 653 plate appearances. Since then, however, four separate DL stints (all due to different areas of his body no less) have limited him to 365 somewhat underwhelming plate appearances. While his feel for the strike zone has remained elite, his high ground ball rates and tendency to spray the ball around the field likely cap his power upside at average or below. For a player whose defensive metrics in the corner outfield (he has -26 Defensive Runs Saved in his Rangers’ career) suggest that he is likely due to become a full-time DH in the near future- if he is not at that point already- the lack of power makes him a below-average overall player moving forward with little margin for error in his plate discipline, to say nothing of the injuries. Due over $20 million per year through his age-37 season, the Rangers likely did not get the consistent production or health from Choo on the front-end of his contract to justify what should be an ugly back-end.
6. Jordan Zimmermann- 4/$91 million, full NTC through 2018, partial NTC through 2020
[the_ad id=”693″]Due to volume, Zimmermann’s deal lacks the downside of some of the other deals on this list. He is only under contract for 3 years beyond 2017, and the total value remaining is less than $100 million. However, he comes in at # 6 due to the seeming lack of upside remaining. After years of resembling a consistent, middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher in Washington, Zimmermann has looked completely different since getting to Detroit. While never a dominant strikeout pitcher, he has fallen from respectable in that regard (he averaged a strikeout rate of just under 20% in his five full years as a starting pitcher with the Nationals) to abysmal, following up a 14.7% strikeout rate last season with just a 12.6% mark so far in 2017 (for reference, Jered Weaver is currently sporting an identical 12.6% mark for San Diego). Zimmermann has also taken steps back in his ability to get hitters to chase pitches outside of the strike zone and has seen a nearly 2 MPH drop in fastball velocity from 2015, all of which are reflected in his career-worst walk rate, ERA, and FIP so far this season. To compound matters, Tigers GM Al Avila acknowledged that the organization’s payroll was getting beyond manageable this offseason, and committing nearly $25 million per season from 2018-2020 to a seeming replacement-level arm certainly won’t aid their cause to get under budget.
7. Jason Heyward- 7 years/$169 million, partial NTC, player opt-out clause after 2018/2019
A somewhat controversial deal when first signed, the Cubs were betting on Heyward to solidify their outfield defense and to tap into more power as he got into his late 20’s. The former has proven true; the latter, not so much. While Heyward was outstanding in right field in 2016, his bat not only did not improve, it plummeted. Heyward hit just .230/.306/.325 with 7 home runs, making him 28% below average as a hitter by wRc+, with a nearly 2 MPH drop-off in his average exit velocity on balls hit in the air somewhat supporting his downturn in power. While he has bounced back somewhat in the early going in 2017, his .253/.333/.364 line is still well below-average, and it seems unreasonable to believe that his plus defense will remain at its elite levels as he ages. Despite whatever intangible value he may provide, Heyward needs to return to being at least average at the plate to make this expenditure worthwhile for the Cubs.
Devastated by Injury, Saved By Insurance
- Prince Fielder, Rangers (4 years, $72 million)- Sadly, Fielder’s career was prematurely ended by multiple herniated discs in his neck sustained over the past few seasons. While Fielder will still be entitled to the remaining $96 million on his contract ($24 million of which the Tigers are on the hook for) after having been declared medically disabled, insurance policies will limit the Rangers’ expenditures on the injured Fielder to $36 million over 4 years .
- David Wright, Mets (4 years, $67 million, full NTC)- Spinal stenosis has limited the Mets’ captain to just 75 games since the start of 2015, none this season, but an insurance policy allows the Mets to recoup 75% of his salary if he is placed on the 60-day DL.
Short-term, high-salary deals
- Joe Mauer, Twins (2 years, $46 million, full NTC)- While the Twins initially received a great return-on-investment with Mauer in 2012 and 2013, his $184 million extension has not worked out in the team’s favor in the long run. A first baseman full time since 2013 due to recurring concussion troubles, Mauer has been a merely average hitter over the past four seasons while collecting an average annual salary of $23 million. Fortunately for the organization, Mauer’s contract comes off the books after the 2018 season, at which point his illustrious tenure with the organization will likely come to a close.
• Carl Crawford, Dodgers (1 year, $21 million)/Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (1 year, $21 million)- Despite both Crawford and Rodriguez having now been long released by their former teams, both players will collect $21 million salaries this season in the final years of their long-term contracts.
Too soon to judge
- David Price, Red Sox (6 years, $187 million, opt-out after 2018)
- Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks (5 years, $157.5 million, limited NTC)
- Justin Upton, Tigers (5 years, $110.625 million)
- Chris Davis, Orioles (6 years, $126,712,692, limited NTC)
While none of these players have performed at elite levels since the onset of their contracts, all of them have been at least serviceable in the early going, with enough reason to believe that they could conceivably earn these large deals in the future. While it seems likely that one or more of this group will eventually join the list of the worst contracts in the sport in the future, they offer enough upside to avoid this list at this point.