If you work, you have a boss. If you have a boss, they pay you. If they pay you, they expect you’ll produce value for the business. If your boss is smart, they’re paying you less than you’re truly worth. They’re hoping you’re satisfied with your pay but that you’ll create more value for the business during your time there. The difference between what you’re paid and what you’re worth is called surplus value. Smart businesspeople seek it wherever they can.
The baseball players I’m about to discuss produce no such value. In fact, they produce the opposite of surplus value. I’ll brusquely call this opposite metric “dead weight”. In homeowner’s terms, it’s an underwater mortgage — when you own a house that’s worth less than what you owe to your lender. But I like “dead weight” because it conjures an image of these players’ contracts as corpses: stiff, heavy, and tough to move. Yet move they must; their teams are contractually obligated to carry them forward.
Got that fun image in your head now? Great; now I’ll wash it out with some math. You can skip this section if you wish.
Here’s how I calculated the surplus value for each player:
- I used data from Baseball Reference to compute how many years of control each player is under. I assumed no options were exercised and no opt-outs were taken. I also capped the number of years at five, because …
- I projected the next five years of WAR for each player, using a simple system developed by Tom Tango. This system isn’t perfect but the results pass the smell test.
- I used data, again from Baseball Reference, to project salary. Here’s where things got tricky:
- I used exact salary data when it was available.
- I used arbitration projections from MLB Trade Rumors when such data was available.
- When Arb-1 years were not projected, I projected them based on a simple linear model I created that uses the WAR a player has at the time they hit arbitration.
- After I had one arb year projected, I projected remaining arb years using work by Kevin Creagh at The Point of Pittsburgh that show salary increases by 15 percentage points from Arb-1 to Arb-2, 20 points from Arb-2 to Arb-3, and 10 points from Arb-3 to Arb-4.
- I valued 1 WAR at $8.5 million for 2017 and added 5% inflation for each subsequent year.
- With these values in hand I computed surplus value as (Value of WAR * WAR Under Control) – Salary Under Control.
The players highest on this list are the young stars of today’s game: Kris Bryant, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, and so on. These guys get paid chicken feed to produce 5, 6, and 7-WAR seasons.
But today I don’t care about these guys. I’m here to discuss the players lowest on in this list. These are the seven contracts in baseball with the most dead weight on them for the next five years.
7. Jacoby Ellsbury, New York Yankees: $75.4M Dead Weight
Do you remember the year Ellsbury hit 32 home runs? I didn’t, but FanGraphs tells me it was 2011. That year Ellsbury hit .321/.376/.552 (150 wRC+), played excellent defense, and was worth an absurd 9.4 WAR. That’s Mike Trout territory, one year before Trout began dominating the league. Although Justin Verlander took home the AL MVP award, that year put Ellsbury on the map.
The next year, he missed three months after colliding with Reid Brignac on the bases. He did have a great walk year, compiling 5.6 WAR in 2013 and helping the Red Sox win a World Series. That offseason, the rival Yankees signed him to a seven-year, $153M contract.
Ellsbury will be 33 next year and has four years and $84.56M left on his deal. Tango’s system projects him for just 0.9 WAR during this timeframe. Yikes.
6. Pablo Sandoval, Boston Red Sox: $78.3M Dead Weight
Someone will make a weight joke here. Is it you? I see you. You’re thinking it. That’s fine; go ahead and say it.
Don’t cry for the Red Sox; they can afford to spend nearly $80M more on Sandoval than they should. After a successful career with the San Francisco Giants in which he hit for a 122 wRC+, was worth over 2 WAR every year except one, and won three World Series rings, the Red Sox signed Sandoval for 5 years and $95M.
He immediately became the worst player in baseball. Literally; no full-time player in 2015 recorded a WAR below Sandoval’s -2. He then proceeded to play just three games in 2016, giving him a -0.2 WAR. (Yes, that’s right — Sandoval not playing is worth nearly two full wins more than Sandoval playing.)
Of everyone on this list, Sandoval has the best chance to regain some value. He’ll be just 30 next year and has reportedly shed weight this offseason. But right now, Tango’s system projects him for -2.5 WAR during the remaining three years of his deal; he’ll earn $54.8M for the privilege.
5. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals: $80.2M Dead Weight
Timing is everything. Zimmerman was on the original 2005 Nationals squad and has played for them every year since. When they were truly terrible in 2009 and 2010 he excelled, putting up 6.6-WAR seasons both years. He never matched those heights again but remained average-to-good into the Nationals’ first postseason appearance (since the 1981 Expos, anyway) in 2012.
Since then he’s turned over the mantle of ‘team star’ to Bryce Harper and watched the team build around Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, and — to some extent, anyway — Daniel Murphy. Meanwhile Zimmerman has moved from third base to first due to trouble throwing the ball accurately. As a no-longer-great hitter, his value took a nosedive when he was (essentially) removed from defense.
The Nationals have Zimmerman for three more seasons, during which they’ll pay him $46M for a projected -3.5 WAR. The good news is that although he’s feels like a grizzled veteran to me, he’ll be just 32 next year.
4. Shin-Soo Choo, Texas Rangers: $96.3M Dead Weight
I never heard too much about Choo until the Indians traded him to the Reds prior to 2013. Immediately afterwards he seemed like a hot commodity. Luckily for him, he backed up the hype with an excellent walk year: 150 wRC+ on the strength of a .285/.423/.462 batting line leading to 5.5 WAR. He and Votto helped the Reds reach the NL Wild Card game that year.
I knew some team would overbid for Choo that winter. The Texas Rangers, two seasons removed from back-to-back World Series appearances and one season removed from an AL Wild Card Game loss, were that team. They bestowed a seven-year, $130M contract on him and he jumped at the chance.
Choo hasn’t done much to justify his pay. Although he had a good 3.6-WAR year in 2015, he was barely replacement level in 2014 and missed most of the 2016 season due to injuries: a strained right calf, a straight left hamstring, lower back inflammation, and a fractured left forearm. The Rangers dealt with these injuries alongside those to many other players.
He can still work the count: his lowest OBP in a Texas uniform is .340. And being that he’s on a Texas team, I have a soft spot for him. But he’ll be 34 next year. Texas will pay him a staggering $82M for a projected -1.4 WAR for the next four years.
3. David Wright, New York Mets: $101.7M Dead Weight
Poor Wright. He’s the captain of the New York Mets, a big-money franchise in a big-money city that went to the World Series in 2015 and the NL Wild Card Game in 2016. He’s a franchise icon, beloved by all, and was rewarded financially for his loyalty — but he can’t stay healthy and produce on the field.
Wright signed his current deal after the 2012 season. It seemed like a good deal; he’d just hit .306/.391/.492 with excellent defense and an impressive 7.4 WAR. He’d also completed nine very good years in New York, earning MVP votes, All-Star appearances, and/or Gold Gloves in many of them.
After signing the contract he hung in there for an amazing 2013 season, compiling 6 WAR in just 112 games on the field. But the wheels fell off quickly. He managed 134 games in 2014 but with just a 99 wRC+. He could barely stay on the field the next two years, playing 38 games one season and 37 games the next.
The culprit is injuries; Wright seems beset by them. In recent years he’s been hit by pretty severe ones, including spinal stenosis in 2015 and a herniated disc in his neck in 2016. Now, his contract is an anchor around the Mets. Wright will be 34 next year and his deal runs for four more years. He’ll earn $67M while contributing a projected -3.4 WAR on the field.
2. Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks: $103.4M Dead Weight
Greinke had a successful early career with the Royals, winning the Cy Young in 2009. After bouncing around a few teams in trade, he signed a six-year, $147M contract with the Dodgers in 2012. The contract contained an opt-out clause Greinke could exercise after three years. In this potential walk year, he pitched 220+ innings with a 45 ERA-, easily leading the league and finishing second in Cy Young voting.
Like any smart person, Greinke opted out of his deal and landed another six-year contract — this time for $206.6M, and this time in Arizona. At the time the Diamondbacks intended to contend in the NL West. They had A.J. Pollock in the fold and (in)famously traded Ender Inciarte and Dansby Swanson to Atlanta for Shelby Miller. Problem was, Pollock fractured his elbow, Miller was a huge bust, and Greinke was mortal. Now 31, he threw fewer than 159 innings and ended with a 100 ERA-. That’s what you’d expect from a guy like Miller, not from a front-line, big-money starter like Greinke.
Greinke’s not a bad pitcher. The projection system puts him at 6.5 WAR over the next 5 years. That’s worth having on the hill. But is it worth the $172.5M he’ll make? Not a chance.
1. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim): $197.4M Dead Weight
We all knew it was coming. (Mostly because I gave it away with the picture up top.) Pujols is a Hall of Fame slam dunk. He put together 10 stellar years in St. Louis, two of which ended in a World Series title. Upon reaching free agency he’d amassed a .328/.420/.617 batting line, including 445 HR, that translated to an absurd 167 wRC+. In those ten years he compiled a superlative 81.4 WAR, more than any of his peers.
So it only made sense that the Angels signed him to a 10-year, $240M deal before 2012. At the time it was the second-largest contract in the game, behind only A-Rod’s. Writers were delicate at first. “We’re thinking there will come a day when the Angels’ higher-ups greatly regret the structure of the Pujols deal,” wrote Drew Silva at Hardball Talk. But as the years took their toll on Albert, criticism intensified. A sampling:
- In 2014 Jonah Keri called Pujols “a 34-year-old first baseman who’ll have to move to DH at some point … and could struggle to hit .290 with 30 homers again.” Keri ranked Pujols’ contract the second-worst in baseball.
- In 2015, Nick Lampe at Beyond the Box Score noted “this deal will almost certainly end much worse for the Angels … Pujols would have needed to produce a high surplus value at the beginning of his contract
- Prior to 2016, Dan Szymborski crowned Pujols the worst contract in baseball at ESPN (Insider; story here).
They’re all right. They’re still right. We can see clearly now: heading into his age-37 season, and based on a five-year projection of -5.4 WAR and a remaining salary of $140M, Albert Pujols’ contract has the most dead weight in all of baseball. Period.
Wondering how Pujols’ deal compares to the rest of MLB? He’s quite the outlier:
He’s unlikely to cede the crown anytime soon. The other large contracts in baseball belong to good players: Clayton Kershaw, Scherzer, Freddie Freeman, Buster Posey, David Price, Johnny Cueto, Joey Votto — these guys will all earn $100M+ during the next five years but project to be much more valuable on the field.
Sorry, Albert. You certainly earned the right to market your services to whomever would pay you, but you’re the king of dead weight now and for the foreseeable future. I hope your MVP awards, hundreds of millions of dollars, and eventual Hall of Fame plaque dry your tears at night.
I don’t begrudge any of these players their contracts. I support and celebrate them for putting up with below-market salaries for so long, knowing they they would be earning more on the free market. They had every right to sign the deals they did.
It’s the fans of these particular teams who may be worried. Having Pujols on the roster undercuts the ability of Billy Eppler, the Angels’ GM, to put a better team around Mike Trout before Trout leaves for free agency. Having David Wright on the field undercuts the ability of Sandy Alderson to capitalize on his amazing starting rotation that includes Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, and Matt Harvey.
Somehow these teams may find a way. The Mets are contenders. So are the Nationals. The Angels maaaaay have a shot this year. But if they do succeed, it’ll be in spite of the dead weight they’re carrying.