The average MLB salary is $4.47 million per year, according to a 2017 survey conducted by USA Today Sports. Despite this, Major League Baseball has no hard salary cap, allowing players to sign long-term contracts for exorbitant amounts. The New York Yankees became notorious for signing big-time free agent players, especially in the 2000’s with stars like Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and of course, Alex Rodriguez.
As the 2000s led into the 2010s, the Yankees moved away from a team of hired guns to a squad of homegrown talent. Other teams began handing out large contracts to star players. While some of these signings have worked out, and players have lived up to their salaries, others have not panned out so well.
This list looks at 15 such cases where players have not performed up to the expectations that their contracts placed upon them. As a result, teams are stuck with an albatross around their team’s payroll, having to pay an underperforming player millions of dollars for multiple seasons.
This list is not meant to project the future of these players as failures just because of their respective contracts. It simply accounts for the value of the contract compared to the value of the player’s past contribution to his team, current production, and future prospects based on age and injury history. Hindsight being 20/20, these teams would probably wish to rescind, or at least restructure some of these contracts.
15 Matt Kemp
Kemp emerged as a star for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the late 2000's, winning the Silver Slugger Award in 2009 and 2011. Kempt led the National League with 39 home runs and 126 runs batted in 2011, and signed a mammoth eight-year, $160 million contract extension at season's end.
Kemp struggled with injuries over the next two seasons, and was limited to 106 and 73 games in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Kemp now plays for the Atlanta Braves, and is putting up solid numbers this season. As of June 28 he has 12 home runs and is batting .320.
Why would the Braves want to get rid of Kemp's deal? Well, the 33-year-old still has power but has struggled with injuries in recent seasons. Kemp is under contract until 2019 at $21.5 million per season. That's a big bet for the Braves to take for an injury-prone slugger. He has already landed on the disabled list once this season, and the Braves have to hope he doesn't land there again.
14 Ubaldo Jimenez
Jimenez has fallen off considerably since his All-Star season of 2010. Then with the Rockies, Jimenez went 19-8 with a 2.88 earned run average. By 2012, Jimenez struggled to a 9-17 record with the Cleveland Indians.
The Baltimore Orioles signed Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million contract in 2014. Jimenez has gone 28-34 so far during his Baltimore tenure, averaging a 5.05 ERA in that span. Jimenez struggled out of the gate in 2017, pitching to a 7.71 ERA in his first eight starts before being demoted to the bullpen in May. He returned to the starting rotation on June 18.
Fortunately, the Orioles might be able to rid themselves of Jimenez's contract, since the 33-year-old is in the final year of his deal. If he turns his fortunes around this season, he can still find a team willing to sign him. However, it won't be on the level of his current four-year, $50 million deal.
13 Yasmany Tomas
Yasmany Tomas signed a six-year, $68.5 million contact with the Diamondbacks in 2014. It was the largest in club history, and has an opt-out clause after the fourth year (2018).
Tomas appeared in 118 games in 2015, the first year of his deal. He hit .273 but managed just nine home runs and 48 RBI. His .305 on-base percentage left much to be desired given his nearly $5.4 million cap hit.
Tomas improved his totals in 2016, to the tune of 31 home runs and 83 RBI. He batted .272 that season, his first full MLB campaign.
Unfortunately, Tomas landed on the 10-day disabled list in early June and, as of June 28th, has yet to rejoin the Diamondbacks. Tomas was batting .241 with eight home runs and 32 RBI through 166 at-bats in 2017.
At 26, Tomas is in the prime of his career, and can still live up to his contract. However, the early inconsistencies and injury risks are cause for concern for Arizona's management. Worst of all, Tomas' contract is back-loaded, as he is due $9.5 million in 2017, $13.5 million in 2018, and $32.5 million combined from 2019-20. If he doesn't perform up to expectations, that cap hit will hang like a dark cloud over the team, unless of course Tomas opts out after 2018.
12 Matt Cain
It seems like years since Matt Cain reigned as the ace of the San Francisco Giants. Well, it was, actually, if you consider the fact that his last winning season came in 2012. He had an All-Star season that year, winning 16 games while boasting a 2.79 ERA, and pitching a perfect game.
His hefty five-year, $112.5 million contract seemed like a great deal at the time. Unfortunately, Cain’s production declined in 2013. From 2013-2016, Cain went 19-35 as a starter while averaging a 4.90 ERA. He also proved increasingly fragile, landing on the disabled list in every one of those four seasons.
The good news for the Giants comes in the fact that 2017 is the final year of Cain’s contract, although he has a player option for 2018. Accounting for Cain’s previous accomplishments, the Giants likely never foresaw how the 32-year-old would collapse into a shell of his former self.
11 Homer Bailey
Bailey began his career with the Cincinnati Reds in 2007. By 2012, he emerged as a top pitcher on the team’s staff, going 13-10 with a 3.68 ERA, capping it off by throwing a no-hitter that September. He followed that up with a career year in 2013, finishing with a career-best 3.49 ERA and 199 strikeouts in 209 innings pitched. He also tossed his second no-hitter in as many seasons.
On the heels of those two great seasons, the Reds signed Bailey to a lucrative six-year contract extension in 2014. However, injuries took their toll from then on. Tommy John surgery limited Bailey to just eight total starts from 2015-2016. He went 1-4 in those starts. Bailey missed the start of the 2017 season recovering from surgery to remove bone spurs in his elbow. He made his 2017 debut in late June.
Bailey has two years remaining on his deal after this season, and is due a whopping $44 million in that span. For a 31-year-old injury-prone pitcher, that’s a tough pill for the Reds to swallow.
10 James Shields
James Shields is in the third year of a four-year $75 million contract, which he originally signed with the San Diego Padres in February 2015. He pitched fairly well that season, going 13-7 with a 3.91 ERA and 222 strikeouts and 202 innings.
2016 was a different story for Shields, as his ERA ballooned to 4.28 in his first 11 starts and he gave up 69 hits in 67.1 innings. The Padres dealt him to the Chicago White Sox in June of 2016, where he continued to struggle. Shields went 4-12 over his final 22 starts with the White Sox that season, and gave up a league-worst 40 home runs that season.
Shields has rebounded somewhat in his age-35 season. He owns a 4.26 ERA through his first five starts of 2017. Still, the White Sox are on the hook to pay Shields $21 million in both 2017 and 2018. That doesn't even account for Shields' $16 million player option for 2019.
9 Yan Gomes
Yan Gomes had a standout season for the Cleveland Indians in 2014, hitting .278 with a career-high 21 home runs and 74 RBI in 485 at-bats. Gomes clearly proved himself worthy of the six-year, $23 million extension he had signed before that season began.
Unfortunately, he hasn't lived up to his contract in the years since. He missed a good portion of 2015 with an MCL sprain. 2016 was an especially low point, as Gomes' average dropped to .167 in 251 at-bats, with nine home runs and 34 RBI. It proved to be another injury-shortened season for Gomes after he separated his shoulder in July.
Gomes is finally healthy this season, and his numbers reflect it. However, odds are if the Indians knew how injury-prone he'd become, and how his play would suffer, perhaps they would've signed him to a cheaper deal.
8 Ryan Zimmerman
Ryan Zimmerman has been a cornerstone piece to the Washington Nationals franchise for over a decade. Since his MLB debut in 2005, Zimmerman proved to be a clutch hitter and a reliable fielder. Zimmerman signed a hefty six-year, $100 million contract extension before the 2012 season, despite him being under contract until 2014 at the time.
Unfortunately, Zimmerman suffered numerous shoulder injuries in the years since, resulting in an eventual move from his natural position at third base to first base in 2015. His average dropped to .249 and .218 in 2015 and 2016, respectively, as he appeared in 210 games in that span. His OPS dropped to a career-worst .642 in 2016 as well.
Zimmerman bounced back in strong fashion so far in 2017, boasting a .350 average with 19 home runs and 59 RBI through June 27
What makes Zimmerman's extension unfavorable for the Nationals is the fact that it's back-loaded. Zimmerman will earn $28 million combined in 2017-2018. In 2019, his age 35 season, the Nationals owe him $18 million. For an oft-injured veteran, that's a large price to pay. The Nationals have to hope he maintains his 2017 production into the 2019 season in order to get their money's worth.
7 Matt Garza
When the Milwaukee Brewers signed Matt Garza to a four-year $50 million contract in 2014, they figured they were getting the pitcher who averaged 202 innings pitched per season from 2009-2011, instead of the one who averaged 130 innings from 2012-2013.
Unfortunately, the Brewers got the latter, as Garza largely proved to be a disappointment during his time with the Brewers. Although he is in the final year of his deal, the Brewers probably wish they weren’t paying him the $12.5 million he is owed. Garza went 8-8 with a 3.64 ERA in his first year with the Brewers. His fortunes went downhill from there.
From 2015-2016, Garza went 12-22 with a 5.07 ERA. In September 2015, the Brewers went so far as to bench the veteran for the rest of the season to take a look at younger pitchers.
Of course, Garza is in a contract year, so the Brewers could certainly trade him. However, they would still need to eat some of his $12.5 million salary.
6 Hanley Ramirez
It has been over a decade since Hanley Ramirez burst onto the MLB scene and won the National League Rookie of the Year Award. He proved himself as one of the most consistent hitters while with the Marlins, batting at least .300 from 2007-2010. Ramirez was traded to the Dodgers in a July 2012 trade, and battled injuries over the following two seasons.
The Red Sox took a chance on the talented shortstop, signing him to a four-year, $88 million deal in November 2014. Ramirez played 92 games in left field during the 2015 season, and his defense suffered. The Red Sox moved him to first base for the 2016 season, where his defense rebounded. He also put up great offensive numbers, including 30 home runs and a career-high 111 RBI.
However, the 32-year-old Ramirez has struggled out of the gate so far in 2017 as Boston’s designated hitter, batting .241 with a .406 slugging percentage through June 27 (his lowest since his injury-shortened 2011 season). Of course, there is a chance Ramirez can turn his game around, but with his injury history and inconsistent play so far this year, that $22.75 million annual cap hit for 2017 and 2018 looks more and more ominous for the Red Sox.
5 Jason Heyward
As a four-time Gold Glove winner, Jason Heyward has earned a reputation as a stalwart defensive outfielder. The 27-year-old began his career with the Atlanta Braves in 2010, earning All-Star honors in his first year in the league. As a free agent in 2015, Heyward signed a massive eight-year, $184 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. While he did manage to help the Cubs break their 108-year championship drought in 2016, he struggled mightily on offense that season.
Heyward batted .230 with seven home runs and 49 RBI in 2016. His .306 on-base percentage was a career-low, as were his seven home runs. Granted, Heyward is not a power-hitter, but the Cubs probably expected more from a player who earned $28.1 million last season.
Heyward had been playing well in 2017 before landing on the DL in June. He can still redeem himself from last season’s struggles. Heyward is due over $56 million by the end of the 2018 season, after which he can opt out. If he chooses to stay in Chicago, that deal will run through 2023. Heyward will earn $24.5 million in each of those final two seasons. The Cubs have to hope his production rebounds or else they’ll be regretting that deal for a while.
4 Adam Wainwright
There is no debating Wainwright’s significance to the St. Louis Cardinals organization. He won two World Series titles with the team, ranks in third in franchise history in wins and second in strikeouts. Despite his legacy, Wainwright has battled numerous injuries in recent seasons, which have affected his pitching prowess on the mound. His five-year, $97.5 million contract took effect in 2014, a season in which he went 19-6 with a 2.38 ERA. He missed most of the 2015 season while rehabbing from surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon.
He struggled to shake off the rust in 2016, giving up 220 hits in 198.1 innings over 33 starts. His 4.62 ERA that season was his highest since 2005.
Wainwright’s ERA sits at 5.85 through his first 15 starts of 2017, but if can stay healthy, he is undoubtedly an important pitcher for St. Louis. Is he still worth $19.5 million per year at 35 years old? Probably not, but he still means a lot to the Cardinals organization. His contract runs through the end of next season.
3 Rusney Castillo
Castillo is in the third year of his seven-year $72.5 million deal, and he is not even playing in the majors this season. The Red Sox signed the highly-touted Cuban outfielder back in 2014, and hoped to have him take center field for the next decade. Instead, Castillo's underwhelming play landed him in Triple-A last June, where he still plays today.
Castillo played well through the start of the 2017 season, hitting .311 with nine home runs and 28 RBI through 238 at-bats for the Pawtucket Red Sox. However, he suffered a groin injury on June 21st, putting a halt on his hot play. Despite Castillo's strong showing in the minors, he should be playing in the majors given his mammoth contract and age (29). It doesn't look like Castillo is any closer to a promotion to the Red Sox, who are stuck with his contract through the end of the 2020 season.
2 Jacoby Ellsbury
The Yankees are no strangers to signing big-time free agents to massive contracts. From Alex Rodriguez to CC Sabathia to Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees have lured many players to the Big Apple.
So when Jacoby Ellsbury signed a seven-year, $153 million contract with the Yankees in 2014, it seemed like nothing new. The only issue is that Ellsbury has not lived up to that deal in the slightest. The Yankees figured they were getting a player with speed, defensive prowess, and high baseball IQ. Instead, Ellsbury’s tenure in the Bronx has been marred by injury and inconsistency. He stole more than 30 bases just once since the 2014 season, and never topped a .275 batting average from 2014-2016.
Ellsbury started 2017 with renewed focus, hitting .281 with four home runs and 14 RBI through his first 135 at-bats. Unfortunately, he suffered a concussion in late May and did not return to the lineup until June 26. This injury marked his second prolonged DL stint since arriving in New York in 2014. The 33-year-old is under contract until 2021, and if he can’t stay healthy, will be an albatross on the Yankees payroll for the remainder of that deal.
1 Pablo Sandoval
When the Red Sox signed Pablo Sandoval away from the San Francisco Giants in 2014, the slugger was fresh off his third World Series title, and just two seasons removed from his second-straight All-Star appearance. He also finished with 16 home runs and 73 RBI in 2014, his fourth straight season of hitting at least .278.
Now, three years into his massive five-year $95 million contract, Sandoval has not come anywhere close to those numbers. In fact, his ten home run, 47 RBI season in 2015 marked his lowest output since 2009. To make matters worse, the Red Sox replaced Sandoval at third base for the start of the 2016 season due to lack of conditioning. Sandoval missed most of last season due to injury, taking just six total at-bats over three games.
Sandoval had trouble shaking off the rust in 2017. He managed just four home runs and 12 RBI in 99 at-bats before landing on the disabled list with an ear infection in June.
Sandoval's contract ends after the 2019 season.
The Red Sox can either exercise a $17 million club option for 2020, or buy him out for $5 million. It's safe to say the Red Sox will probably choose the buyout.