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Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Albatrosses

It has become habit for me to refer to "contractual albatrosses," especially during these months, when teams are weighing their investment options. I was asked last week what exactly I meant by applying this term to several players on the Giants and what exactly qualifies. While I haven't fashioned anything more than a fast and loose definition, I can say that the albatross metaphor comes from the famous Samuel Coleridge poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which the narrator kills the bird, cursing himself and his crew, and is forced to wear the bird's corpse around his neck. As such, the albatross metaphor refers to a weighty burden or punishment of incredible duration. Attempting this explanation, of course, makes the baseball application seem a little ridiculous, but what I'm implying is that large, lengthy contracts given to players whose production wanes soon after signing can leave a franchise "wandering" for many years, economically crippled by overpriced commitments and shrinking revenues.

Here are what I see as the fifteen worst contracts in the major leagues going into the 2010 season. Some of these contracts haven't yet become irredeemable, but are on the verge of being.

15. Brad Lidge - RP - Philadelphia Phillies
3 yrs./$37.5 Mil. thru 2011 ($12.5 Mil. Opt./$1.5 Mil. Buyout)

He's one of the highest-paid closers in the game, yet he blew more saves than anybody in history in '09. There's still a very real chance he bounces back next year, but Phillies fans have to very nervous. Before Lidge's contract expires, Philadelphia will have to negotiate contracts with Jayson Werth, Cliff Lee, and Shane Victorino. If Lidge's contract prevents them from locking up any one of those guys, he had better be back to shutting the door with much greater frequency than he did in '09.

14. Michael Young - 3B - Texas Rangers
5 yrs./$80 Mil. thru 2013 (Limited No-Trade Clause)

Again, this shouldn't imply that Michael Young isn't a fine player. Perhaps he will earn every dollar of this deal, but coming out of '09 it raises some red flags. First of all, the Rangers proved that they are a borderline contender this season, but their ownership spiraled into bankruptcy and the team in unlikely to have much payroll flexibility this offseason or next. They have been forced to part ways with useful players like Marlon Byrd and Kevin Millwood. It was especially odd that the Rangers handed him this mega-deal than immediately admitted that they didn't know how he best fit into their long-term plans. They wisely moved him from shortstop in order to clear the way for Elvis Andrus, but now he may be blocking their ability to advance Chris Davis and Justin Smoak, and get the most out of Mike Lowell. It would appear to me, at least at this juncture, that although Young is a very good player, Texas paid marquee money, probably higher than his market value, which could've been used to fill more glaring needs on the pitching staff and at catcher.

13. Juan Pierre - OF - Los Angeles Dodgers
5 yrs./$44 Mil. thru 2011 (Limited No-Trade Clause)

Juan Pierre has behaved like a saint in Los Angeles so far. First Andruw Jones, then Manny Ramirez pushed him into a reserve role (making him the most expensive pinch-runner in the National League). He, like Orlando Hudson, did not fuel any media controversy by criticizing his manager or demanding a trade, but you can tell he is itching to get back in a starting lineup. During Manny's suspension Pierre batted .318 with 32 R, 21 SB, and a .381 OBP, making a strong case that he could be helping any number of teams who are looking for a quality leadoff hitter. The problem is that he's still owned $18.5 Million over the next two seasons. He makes more money than Jimmy Rollins or Carl Crawford, meaning the Dodgers would have to eat some of it just to get rid of him. That could mean a lot more biding his time, stewing on the bench for Pierre.

12. Alex Rios - OF - Chicago White Sox
7 yrs./$70 Mil. thru 2014 ($13.5 Mil. Opt/$1 Mil. Buyout in '15, Limited No-Trade Clause)

Alex Rios is quite possibly the single most talented player on this list. He has all five tools and some of them in spades, but his offensive production has mysteriously dropped off a cliff since he signed this monster deal prior to the 2008 season in Toronto. Over the last three seasons his OPS+ has dropped from 122 to 111 to 80 (100 is average), despite the fact that at 28 years old, he is smack in the center of his so-called "prime." By picking him up off waivers in August, the White Sox gambled that Rios would find his stroke again in a new environment, while shoring up centerfield, which has been a festering sore on the South Side since Aaron Rowand left in '06. Rios defiantly failed in this task, batting .199 over his remaining 41 games. He has over $60 Million left on his contract, which is now exclusively the Chicago White Sox problem.

11. Oliver Perez - SP - New York Mets
3 yrs./$36 Mil. thru 2011

He made more money this season than Matt Cain, Dan Haren, and Cliff Lee combined. They each won fourteen games (and each would've won more, had they not suffered from poor run support), while Perez made fourteen starts and won three games. More to the point, the division rival Braves signed an almost identical contract (3 yrs./$34.5 Mil.) with Cy Young-contender Javier Vazquez. The rumors about the Wilpon's investments in the Madoff scandal suggest that the Mets won't be buying their way out of mistakes like these as they might've done in the past (or as their crosstown rival so often does). They enter next season with question marks at every position but third base and closer, as the health of Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, and Johan Santana continue to be of concern. In the end, this may be the deal that defines Omar Minaya's legacy.

10. Jeff Suppan - SP - Milwaukee Brewers
4 yrs./$42 Mil. thru 2010 ($12.75 Mil. Opt./$2 Mil. Buyout in '11, Limited No-Trade Clause)

On a team filled with off-the-charts talent, Jeff Suppan is the highest-paid player. The Brewers may have a limited window of time in which to use their spectacular core (Fielder, Braun, Gallardo, Hart, Weeks, Parra, etc.) of homegrown players to make a serious run at a championship. They are one or two pitchers away from being as dangerous as the Phillies, Dodgers, Cardinals, and Cubs. One wonders if it hadn't been for Suppan's contract whether they might've made a more serious run at resigning Sabathia, or maybe could be making a serious run at Halladay. By the end of next season, it may be too late for the "Baby Brewers"?

9. Jake Westbrook - SP - Cleveland Indians
3 yrs./$33 Mil. thru 2010

The Indians get a lot of press for being a well-run franchise. And it's true, this past season aside, they are routinely competitive despite coming from a small market. One wonders, however, what they might be like if they hadn't handed out their three biggest contracts to Jake Westbrook, Travis Hafner, and Kerry Wood. Westbrook has made only five starts since signing this deal. Next season he will attempt to work his way back from Tommy John surgery. Then he will become somebody else's problem...or, with his value suppressed, he'll sign elsewhere for cheap and be comeback player of the year in 2011. Either way, it's not a pretty picture for the Tribe.

8. Aaron Rowand - CF - San Francisco Giants
5 yrs./$60 Mil. thru 2012 (Limited No-Trade Clause)

Along with the Indians, they are the only team with multiple Albatrosses (and Edgar Renteria wasn't far from making this list), which makes it peculiar that Peter MacGowan was so eager to resign Brian Sabean. Rowand's tenure with the Giants hasn't been a total waste. He has kept himself in the lineup and plays solid defense. But when you consider what he gets paid, a 743 OPS over the past two seasons is a little discouraging. When the Giants handed him this deal, they were eager to make a splash after the ends of the Bonds era in the Bay Area, but they would be in such a better position had they held onto that money for a couple of years, dedicating it to going after a Texeira, a Holliday, or a Fielder, or to locking up Cain and Lincecum.

7. Travis Hafner - DH - Cleveland Indians
4 yrs./$57 Mil. thru 2012 ($13 Mil. Opt./$2.75 Mil. Buyout in '13, Limited No-Trade Clause)

Hafner is only 32, but thoses back-to-back 1000+ OPS seasons in '05 and '06 seem like a long time ago. Injuries have been the main problem, but one has to be concerned that repeated shoulder surgeries could sap Pronk's power permanently, much as they did Scott Rolen's. It rarely pays to make a full-time DH your keystone, but that's what the Indians chose to do. Since then, they've waved goodbye to C. C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez, Casey Blake, and Franklin Gutierrez. Coincidence?

6. Gary Matthews Jr. - OF - Los Angeles Angels
5 yrs./$50 Mil. thru 2011 (Limited No-Trade Clause)

In November of 2006, G-Matt was coming off easily the best season of his career, playing in the bandbox ballpark in Arlington. The Angels gambled that he was a late-bloomer. It turned out that 2006 was an abnormality and that Matthews Jr. was actually the journeyman fourth outfielder he appeared to be while playing for the Cubs, Padres, Pirates, Mets, and Orioles. Somehow the Angels missed that memo, so now they pay him $10,000,000 a year to play late-inning defense.

5. Alfonso Soriano - LF - Chicago Cubs
8 yrs./$136 Mil. thru 2014 (No-Trade Clause)

The Fonz moved up this list in a hurry in '09. Was this his "jumping the shark" moment? A repeat performance in 2010 could catapult him to the very top. But there is also the chance that this was a fluke, that he's still a legitimate $100 Million-Dollar Man. Cubs fans would probably tell you, however, that they aren't holding their breath.

4. Barry Zito - SP - San Francisco Giants
7 yrs./$126 Mil. thru 2013 (Vesting $18 Mil. Option for 2014 based on IP, No-Trade Clause)

This is probably the most famous albatross, largely because it was so clearly a mistake from the very moment the contract was signed. For the rest of his life Brian Sabean will wake up sweating with the cackling of horned versions of Scott Boras and Billy Beane still ringing in his ears. There is no way to look past the idiocy of this signing. All the signs were there. Everybody saw it, except for Sabean. But, at least Zito is going to make 30+ starts and pitching 180+ innings every year. He is the most overpaid innings-eater of all time. But those teams who signed similarly massive deals with Mike Hampton, Kevin Brown, Denny Neagle, and Chan Ho Park will tell you: be thankful for your innings, your double digit wins, and your league-average ERA. It could be a lot worse. You could've signed Carlos Silva...

3. Carlos Silva - SP - Seattle Mariners
4 yrs./$48 Mil. thru 2011 ($12 Mil. Opt./$2 Mil. Buyout in '12)

When Seattle signed Silva, they were under no illusion that he would be an Ace. What they though they were getting was exactly what Silva had given the Twins for the previous four seasons, an average of 31 starts, 12 wins, and 194 innings per season, with a thoroughly average ERA (4.42) and WHIP (1.36). One can certainly question whether even those numbers would've been worth $12 Million/year, but thusfar Seattle has received much less. In the first two years of his contract Silva has made only 34 starts, during which he has gone 5-18 with a 6.81 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if the Mariners pay Silva $25.5 Million over the next two years not to pitch for them.

2. Eric Chavez - 3B - Oakland Athletics
6 yrs./$66 Mil. thru 2010 ($12.5 Mil. Opt./$3 Mil. Buyout for '11, Limited No-Trade Clause)

The good news for the A's is that it's almost over. The bad news is, Chavez's appearances have declined in every year since he signed his deal, culminating in a mere eight games and thirty at-bats in '09. He hasn't gotten to 350 AB since '06, the last time the A's were above .500. This is Billy Beane's nightmare. He had to choose one player to be the face of the franchise, the investment which would provide some stability on a roster subject to continual turnover. He could've had Miguel Tejada or Tim Hudson or Jermaine Dye or Barry Zito or Rich Harden or Nick Swisher. But he chose Eric Chavez. It could've been worst. He could've gone with Mark Mulder (remember him?).

1. Vernon Wells - CF - Toronto Blue Jays
7 yrs./$126 Mil. thru 2014 (No-Trade Clause)

When wells signed this extension in December of 2006, he was coming off a four season stretch in which he had maintained a very solid 853 OPS and averaged 29 HR and 97 RBI per year. He had also won three consecutive Gold Gloves. He had just turned 28. There was no reason for the Blue Jays to believe he wouldn't be their franchise player for many years to come. Unfortunately, that's not how it has worked out so far. Over the last three seasons Wells has managed only a 743 OPS, 16 HR, and 75 RBI. Worse yet, the contract was severely backloaded, so that Toronto will be forced to pay Wells $21-23 Million in each of the next four seasons, by the end of which, considering the steepness of his recent decline, there is a fairly high likelihood he won't even be a starter. Some have even suggested that the Blue Jays would be best served by simply eating much of his remaining salary either in a lopsided trade or by simply non-tendering him. Sadly, Vernon Wells may go down in history as the quintessential albatross, the most prohibitive contract ever signed.

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