Every offseason, you can find baseball teams willing to throw globs of cash at free agents. We as fans often remember the bad contracts. Names like Josh Hamilton, Alex Rodriguez, and Carl Crawford come to mind. Obviously, not every team is going to sign the player they once were. But we often don’t give credit to the guys who had a big payday and kept up their high level of play. This article will rank those guys who were worth the paychecks they received.
In order for a player to make this list, they will have to fulfill the following requirements: First, only players who signed a contract in the year 2000 or later were considered. Secondly, the player had to get paid AT LEAST $10 million annually over the span of a contract that lasted AT LEAST four years.
The final order of this list was determined by their salary per one WAR. To do that, we took the WAR total for the duration of the contract listed on the Fangraphs website, as well as the player's contract listed on the Baseball Reference website. The amount of money a player makes will be divided by their WAR to determine how much a team has paid or is paying that player per one WAR. Of course, guys who have signed in this past offseason will not be featured on this list since there isn’t enough of a sample to use.
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15 Nelson Cruz
Contract: 4 Years, $57M
Salary Per 1 WAR: 8,260,869.57
Kicking off this list is a player who still hasn’t finished out his contract. Nelson Cruz is only on the second year of this contract that he had to earn after serving a PED suspension in 2013 with the Rangers. He signed a one year deal with the Orioles in 2014 to prove his power wasn’t solely the cause of steroid use. After hitting 40 home runs with Baltimore, teams weren’t so skeptical anymore.
Cruz is doing some amazing things with the boom stick, especially for a guy who plays in a pitchers ballpark. Last year, he batted over .300 while hitting 40 home runs. The only other two players to achieve that in Mariners history are named Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. By the time this contract is up, Cruz should jump up a few spots on this list. He is already on pace to hit over 40 home runs this season and currently has a slash line of .280/.366/.543.
14 Curtis Granderson
Contract: 4 Years, $60M
Salary Per 1 WAR: 8,108,108.11
While he still has the rest of this season and all of 2017 before this contract expires, the Grandy Man has quietly been one of the better free agent signings in terms of value. Curtis Granderson doesn’t get paid like a superstar, nor does he play like one at this stage in his career, but he has certainly performed up to the level of expectation at the top of the Mets lineup.
While with the Mets, he has maintained an OBP above .320 through his first two years and seems to be on pace to do that again in 2016. His speed isn’t what it once was, but he still shows excellent patience at the top of the lineup with enough pop in his bat to hit over 20 home runs a season. He is already at 15 this year and is tied with Jose Reyes for the most leadoff home runs in Mets history with 17.
13 Cliff Lee
Contract: 5 Years, $120M
Salary per 1 WAR: $6,282,722.51
There won’t be many pitchers who appear on this list, and that’s because many pitchers who received a big contract ended up being a bust. Guys like Johan Santana, Barry Zito, and Mike Hampton are prime examples of why teams should be weary when signing a free agent pitcher to a long term contract. Cliff Lee, on the other hand, was a major success in comparison to most free agent pitchers.
For as good as Lee was, it’s surprising how many teams he bounced around with in such a short time span. He was with the Indians from 2002-09 before being traded during the 2009 season to the Phillies. He would lose the World Series with the Phillies and get traded in the offseason to Seattle. Then he was traded to the Rangers during the 2010 season. After that, he signed this contract to return to Philadelphia, where he pitched alongside one of the greatest assembled rotations on the 2000s. In his first three seasons, he averaged over 220 innings pitched with a 2.80 ERA. His 2014 season signaled the end of the aging pitcher's career, as injuries kept him from staying on the field.
12 Jason Giambi
Contract: 7 Years, $120M
Salary per 1 WAR: 5,504,587.16
When Jason Giambi signed to the Yankees prior to the 2002 season, it was one of the greatest heel turns in baseball. Oakland fans were especially upset after having lost to the Yankees in the 2001 ALDS. While Giambi would not hit for average like he did in Oakland, he still possessed incredible power with a good eye at the plate. His OPS was among the top 20 in the league in four of his seven seasons.
While Giambi, like another Yankee on this list, would never win a World Series title with the club, he was still able to put together a number of impressive seasons. Although he would miss much of the 2004 season with a tumor, he was able to win the AL Comeback Player of the Year award the following season. In his final year with the club, he proved he was still a power bat by hitting 32 home runs at the age of 37.
11 Torii Hunter
Contract: 5 Years, $90M
Salary per 1 WAR: $5,487,804.88
Torii Hunter began his career as an all-around player in Minnesota, where he would collect seven straight Gold Glove Awards before signing this contract with the Los Angeles Angels. The only contract bigger than this one in the 2007-08 offseason was Alex Rodriguez’s 10 year mega deal with the Yankees. With the Angels, Hunter would collect a WAR of two or higher in every season, including a 5.2 WAR in the final year of this contract at the age of 36.
He originally began playing with the Angels as a center fielder but would eventually make the transition to right field in his late thirties. His defensive success continued as he would go on to win two more Gold Glove Awards along with two trips to the All-Star Game in 2009 and 10. Hunter aged like fine wine and still put up good numbers even after his time with the Angels before calling it quits with his original team.
10 Manny Ramirez
Contract: 8 Years, $160M
Salary per 1 WAR: $5,405,405.41
The infatuating career of Manny Ramirez was highlighted by his time with the Red Sox, where he contributed to bringing two long awaited championships to the city of Boston. As a member of the Red Sox, Ramirez averaged an OBP over .400 and managed to slug over 30 home runs in all but one season with the club. He would finish the remainder of this contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers before his career would take a turn for the worse thanks to his steroid use.
If this list only took offense into consideration, Ramirez would hold a top three position, but his defensive metrics bump him down considerably. Oddly enough, he did play for an American League team who could have used him in the DH position, but the future Hall of Famer David Ortiz forced Ramirez to take the field. Luckily, we were able to witness plenty of “Manny being Manny” moments in left field that we can all enjoy watching in blooper highlight videos.
9 Paul Konerko
Contract: 5 Years, $60M
Salary per 1 WAR: $5,128,205.13
After capturing a World Series title and watching the departure of Frank Thomas, who is probably the greatest hitter in White Sox history, General Manager Kenny Williams was essentially able to pass the torch to Paul Konerko with this contract. Konerko would go on to be named the team captain and would end up with the second most home runs in White Sox history, trailing only Thomas.
Konerko began his White Sox career long before his signed this contract. After playing just 26 games for the Reds, Cincinnati decided to trade Konerko following the 1998 season. Konerko would remain a mainstay in the White Sox lineup for the next decade and a half, never missing significant amounts of time due to injury. Over the course of this contract, he averaged 145 games a season with over 30 home runs and 90 RBI.
8 Matt Holliday
Contract: 7 Year, $120M
Salary per 1 WAR: $4,838,709.70
Unlike most players on this list, Matt Holliday had played with three different major league clubs in his career by the time he hit free agency. He started with the Rockies in 2004, and really made a name for himself by hitting over 30 home runs for the 2006 and 2007 seasons. In 2009, the Rockies traded him to the Oakland A’s where his time was short lived. He was traded to the Cardinals that same season and his offensive numbers spiked upward for the rest of that year.
When his contract was up at the end of the season, the Cardinals were able to keep him on the team with a generous seven year offer. Over the course of this contract, he has put together a string of five straight seasons of 20 or more home runs. Despite playing in only 73 games in 2015, Holliday has remained a consistent threat in the heart of the Cardinals lineup.
7 Carlos Beltran
Contract: 7 Years, $119M
Salary per 1 WAR: $4,047,619.05
In 2004, Carlos Beltran was fresh off a historic postseason performance and was in line for a huge contract. The Mets signed him in hopes of bringing a World Series title to Queens, but most fans have bitter memories of Beltran missing a lot of time due to injury and striking out in Game 7 of the NLCS to end the 2006 season.
Despite this, Beltran was still able to put together an impressive stay in New York, averaging over 20 home runs a season while finishing fourth in MVP voting in 2006. He won an outfield Gold Glove Award for three straight years and was also named to the All-Star Game five times as a Met. Beltran has one of the highest WAR totals in Mets history and, as of now, he is the greatest center fielder the franchise has ever had.
6 Adrian Beltre (Part 1)
Contract: 5 Years, $64M
Salary per 1 WAR: $4,000,000
When the Mariners signed Adrian Beltre in 2005, they were probably hoping they signed the guy who hit nearly 50 home runs with a .334 batting average for the Dodgers the season before. While Beltre was never able to amass 30 home runs or a .280 batting average for Seattle, his defense was able to bail him out and make this contract surprisingly valuable.
Since defensive metrics are still not perfect, this ranking will go down with a question mark next to it, despite the fact that Beltre has been regarded as one of the best fielding third baseman in the game. Fangraphs defensive metrics grade Beltre as an off the charts defender, giving him the best defensive grade of any player. He won two Gold Gloves with the Mariners and is still on top of his game well into his 30s with the Rangers. However, his poor offensive numbers still leave Mariners fans wondering how good Beltre really could have been during his stay in Seattle.
5 Johnny Damon
Contract: 4 Years, $52M
Salary per 1 WAR: $3,909,774.44
While Johnny Damon was never the best player on his teams, he was certainly above average and incredibly consistent throughout his career. If you look at his four years with the Red Sox and his four years with the Yankees, the numbers are almost identical. With Boston he posted a WAR of 13.9 and in New York it was 13.3. His slash line with Boston was .295/.362/.441 while in New York it was a similar .285/.363/.458.
As a Yankee, Damon was able to use the short porch in right field to post a career high 24 home runs in a season for 2006 and 2009. He also kept his speed element with the Yankees, averaging over 20 stolen bases a season, despite being in his mid-30s. Had he gotten paid over 10 million dollars with the Red Sox, he would have made this list twice.
4 Alex Rodriguez
Contract: 10 Years, $252M
Salary per 1 WAR: $3,605,150.21
In 2007, A-Rod controversially used his player option to opt out of this contract. The Yankees ended up giving him a new 10 year contract that would last until the end of the 2017 season. But had he played out his original 10 year contract, it would be one of the most valuable contracts given to any player of our time, despite all the money that was given to him.
From 2001-11 (the duration of the original contract) Alex Rodriguez either made the All-Star team or finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting. The only player to have better offensive numbers during that time span was Albert Pujols. His second 10 year contract was not nearly as good as the first, but Yankee fans will be able to rejoice after 2017, when his contract is finally off the books.
3 Vladimir Guerrero
Contract: 5 Years, $70M
Salary per 1 WAR: $3,465,346.53
Vladimir Guerrero burst onto the scene in 1998 as an Expo, hitting for a .324 average with 38 home runs and 109 RBI. In Montreal, he would earn the reputation as a hard-throwing right-fielder who could hit for average and power. When he signed a five year deal with the Angels in 2004, he immediately made an impact by winning the MVP Award in his first season with the club.
He would follow that season up with a third place finish in MVP voting for both the 2005 and 2007 seasons. He made the All-Star team four out of six seasons with the Angels and is arguably a future Hall of Famer, despite never winning a ring. Over the course of this contract he would finish with a slash line of .319/.381/.546. Pretty soon, we may be able to see his son doing similar things on a major league field.
2 Mike Mussina
Contract: 6 Years, $88.5M
Salary per 1 WAR: $3,127,208.48
After spending nearly ten years with the Baltimore Orioles, Mike Mussina decided to jump ship to the division rival Yankees before the start of the 2001 season. His name was overshadowed in a three-headed rotation with names like Roger Clemens and Andy Petitte. Despite that, he was easily the Yankees best pitcher over the span of his contract, compiling a record of 92-53 with an ERA of 3.80 in 1200.2 IP.
Surprisingly, Mussina never won a World Series with the Bronx Bombers. The team had won for three straight years from 1998-2000, but were not able to take the championship in Mussina’s first year as a Yankee in 2001. At the end of the 2006 season, Mussina would sign a two-year contract to remain with the Yankees until 2008. Funny enough, the Yankees would win the World Series in 2009. Despite never capturing a ring, this contract was easily one of the best since the turn of the century.
1 Adrian Beltre (Part 2)
Contract: 5 Years, $80M
Salary per 1 WAR: $2,730,375.43
Since he signed with Texas in 2011, Adrian Beltre has averaged a WAR above 5.0 per season. His consistency over the course of his career and well into his 30s will help his case for a trip to Cooperstown when it’s all said and done. His defense is among the best for third basemen, having won four Gold Glove Awards (two in Seattle, two in Texas), but his offensive numbers have bumped up ever since his departure from Seattle.
His batting average as a Ranger is about 40 points higher than it was in Seattle, which has a lot to do with Safeco Field being a pitcher-friendly park and Globe Life Park in Arlington being a hitters paradise. Beltre has been so impressive over the course of his contract, that the Rangers decided to ink him to two year extension at the start of this season. Beltre is the only player to qualify twice on this list as his free agents signings has proven that effective throughout his career.
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