Major League Baseball's Spring Training is only a couple of weeks away. It's been a long winter since the Kansas City Royals won the World Series, but February 17th is finally within sight and soon the boys of summer will be back, preparing for another 162 game grind, some of those players fresh off of signing multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts.
It seems like every winter we go through the same thing. Several big name players hit free agency and teams line up to throw money at them on the open market, regardless of whether or not it will ultimately prove to be a mistake. Often times teams do end up regretting their free agent signings, but in a sport that's flush with money, largely because of massive television deals, teams continue to be willing to repeat the same mistakes, especially if they think it will help them win a championship. We only have to look at the Boston Red Sox to see the perfect example of this. Last winter, they signed Hanley Ramirez to a four-year, $88 million deal and Pablo Sandoval to a five-year, $100 million contract. Both players had disastrous 2015 seasons and the Red Sox tried with no luck to shop Ramirez this offseason, while simultaneously preparing to hand out more big money deals.
It's a practice that isn't likely to end anytime soon and one that most teams need to engage in if they want to remain successful. With no restrictions on player salaries and a luxury tax that doesn't really frighten teams away as the only means of punishment for massive payrolls, salaries will continue to escalate and teams will continue handing out huge contracts in an effort to improve their roster. You can easily look back at any offseason and pinpoint the worst signings. Here are the ones from this offseason:
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15 Joakim Soria - Three Years, $25 million
The Kansas City Royals proved in 2015 that you can build a championship caliber bullpen on the cheap, but then they went out and signed former Royal Joakim Soria to a three year, $25 million deal that includes a mutual $10 million option for a fourth year. The 31-year-old, right handed reliever split 2015 between the Tigers and Pirates, saving 23 of 26 games in Detroit before becoming the set-up man in Pittsburgh.
There's a lot to like about Soria, but paying big money for a reliever is always a risky proposition and when you consider that Wade Davis is likely still the closer in Kansas City, you have to wonder if they wouldn't have been better off going for a cheaper option to fill out the bullpen. They are the reigning champions, though, and it's not like this signing prevented them from spending money on a more glaring need, so things could be worse.
14 Ryan Madson - Three Years, $22 million
One of those cheap options in the Royals bullpens in 2015 was Ryan Madson who had a surprisingly good season, pitching 63 1/3 innings with a 2.13 ERA. He didn't pitch as well in the postseason, but was still able to win a World Series and earn himself a three year, $22 million deal from the Oakland Athletics with an additional $1.25 million per year available in incentives. Madson may be able to fill the set-up role for the A's, but he's also 35 years old and coming off of his first full season after having sat out the previous three with injuries. He's still a risky player to roll the dice on, moreso than most relievers, especially for a cash strapped team like the A's. Of course knowing Billy Beane's team, they may just be banking on half a season of success from Madson so that they can parlay him into other assets.
13 J.A. Happ - Three Years, $36 million
Faced with the loss of David Price in free agency, the Toronto Blue Jays were looking for some pitching help and turned to a familiar face, inking J.A. Happ to a three year, $36 million contract. The signing drew a mixed reaction from the Toronto faithful. After all, Happ was nothing special during his first stint with the Blue Jays. During parts of three seasons he posted a 4.39 ERA and found himself moving between the starting rotation, the bullpen, and Triple A. Happ's 2015 season didn't begin much better with the Seattle Mariners, but after a midseason trade to the Pittsburgh Pirates, he caught fire, posting a 1.85 ERA and striking out 69 batters across 63 1/3 innings over eleven starts.
It wasn't just the switch to the National League that led to Happ's success. He made a change in his delivery and threw his four-seam fastball for strikes more often. The Blue Jays are betting that the Happ they're getting is an improvement over the one they traded away, but $12 million per year is quite a gamble to take on a 33-year-old based on less than half a season of success.
12 Ben Zobrist - Four years, $56 million
Ben Zobrist has long been one of the game's most versatile players. As a super utility guy, he is capable of playing pretty much anywhere on the diamond, although he's played second base or in the outfield more than anywhere else. Zobrist slashed .276/.359/.450 with 13 home runs and 56 RBI in 2015 and his offensive production hasn't dropped off much in recent years. However, his defensive play took a hit last season and he had a huge drop-off in WAR while splitting time between Oakland and Kansas City. That didn't stop the Chicago Cubs from giving him a four year, $56 million deal. The Cubs will be expecting him to bounce back, but at 34 years old, Zobrist's best days are probably in the rear-view mirror.
11 Jordan Zimmermann - Five years, $110 million
Jordan Zimmermann was viewed as the top pitcher in the second tier of available starters on the market and he landed himself a five year, $110 million deal with the Detroit Tigers. Typically a reliable starter, Zimmermann's play declined in 2015. He suffered a drop off in his strikeout rate and his HR/FB rate was a league average. His ERA went up a full run from 2.66 in 2014 to 3.66 in 2015. Zimmermann's numbers were still respectable and it's not like he dropped off the map completely, so a bounce back season isn't out of the question, but there is still cause for concern. Given how much the Justin Verlander contract seems to have blown up in their face, you would think the Tigers would be more hesitant to hand out another massive contract to a pitcher who could be on the decline.
10 Zack Greinke - Six years, $206.5 million
Zack Greinke was the top starting pitcher available on the free agent market this winter, so there was never really any doubt that he was going to get paid. It was just a question of how much and from whom. It was a bit of a surprise to see him sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who inked the right hander to a six year, $206.5 million contract. Greinke was very good during his three seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers and was lights out in 2015, posting a 1.66 ERA with 200 strikeouts. His massive contract isn't all that surprising, but any time a team hands a player a deal worth more than $34 million per year you have to wonder if the money wouldn't have been better spent on two or three pitchers rather than one.
9 Jason Heyward - Eight years, $184 million
Jason Heyward has typically been a player who does most things well, but no one thing great. As far as we can measure, Heyward is a very good defensive player. He's also shown an ability to hit for power, hitting 18 home runs as a rookie in 2010 and 27 long balls in 2012, but he also hasn't hit more than 14 home runs in any of his other four seasons. He can steal some bases if he needs to, swiping 23 bags in 2015. He was never great at hitting for average, - his .293 season in 2015 was a career high by 22 points - but he's shown an ability to get on base and has lowered his strikeout totals.
Heyward was viewed as the top centerfielder on the market based on his all around abilities as well as his age and he signed an eight year, $184 contract with the Chicago Cubs. At just 26 years old it's possible Heyward could still develop into a premier hitter, but it hasn't happened yet and I'd be wary of giving so much term and money to player who, while very good, lacks any distinctively great attributes.
8 Chris Davis - Seven Years, $161 million
Chris Davis was clearly the top power hitter available on the market this winter, having hit 47 home runs in 2015 and 53 long balls in 2013. It took longer than many expected for him to sign and ultimately he re-upped with the Baltimore Orioles on a seven year, $161 million deal. The deal will pay Davis an annual salary of $17 million followed by deferred payments of $3.5 million per year from 2023-2032 and $1.4 million per year from 2033-2037.
Davis may hit a ton of home runs, but he also strikes out out a ton - he whiffed 208 times in 2015. He'll be 30 years old by the time the season starts and as we’ve seen in the past with similar guys like Ryan Howard and Adam Dunn, when time catches up to you the power can disappear in a heartbeat.
7 Yoenis Cespedes - Three years, $75 million
After bouncing around between Oakland, Boston, and Detroit the last two seasons, Yoenis Cespedes made his way to the New York Mets in a midseason trade. He caught fire in New York, hitting 17 home runs with 44 RBI and 39 runs scored in 57 games and turned around the Mets offense to lead them to a postseason birth. However, Cespedes play in the postseason was a disappointment. He batted just .150 with a .143 on base percentage in the World Series.
After months of waiting and a five year offer from the Washington Nationals, Cespedes opted to return to the Mets on a three year, $75 million deal. This deal might not look so bad if it was a straight three year deal, but Cespedes can opt out after the first year and $27.5 million. The Mets may have put themselves in a no-win situation here. If Cespedes is a disappointment, he surely won't be worth the amount they're paying him, but if he plays as well in 2016 as he did in the latter half of 2015, then they'll likely have to pay him even more money or lose him on the market next winter.
6 Ian Kennedy - Five Years, $70 million
The San Diego Padres' decision to extend a $15.8 million qualifying offer to Ian Kennedy and his decision to turn it down were both equally surprising. After all, it didn't seem like many teams were going to jump at the opportunity to surrender a draft pick and give a multi-year deal to a pitcher coming off a season in which he carried a 4.28 ERA and gave up 31 home runs. However, one should never discount Scott Boras' ability to make his clients a lot of money.
Kennedy received a five year, $70 million deal to join the Kansas City Royals. The deal includes an opt out clause after year three, but the contract is significantly backloaded. Kennedy had a decent season in 2014 with a 3.63 ERA to go along with 207 strikeouts and 20 of the 31 home runs he gave up in 2015 came in the first half, so there's a chance he could bounce back, but if he continues to falter, it won't be worth the price.
5 Daniel Murphy - Three Years, $37.5 million
If the Boston signing of Pablo Sandoval taught us anything, it's that handing out big money contracts based on postseason play is not a great idea. Apparently, the Washington Nationals never got that memo. Daniel Murphy set a Major League record when he homered in six consecutive postseason games for the New York Mets last fall, picking up MVP honours in the NLCS and leading the Mets to an appearance in the World Series. He then parlayed his strong play into a three year, $37.5 million deal with the Nationals. The deal pays Murphy just $8 million in 2016, but his salary jumps to $12 million in 2017 and then to $17.5 million in 2018.
At 30 years old Murphy is a below average defender who has only once posted a WAR above 1.9 - he had a 3.0 WAR in 2011. The chances of his 2015 postseason success carrying over into 2016 aren't very high and there were better second base options available for the Nationals at a cheaper price, like Howie Kendrick who just re-signed with the Dodgers on a two year, $20 million deal.
4 Kenta Maeda - Eight Years, $25 Million Guaranteed, as much as $90.2 million
After posting a 2.14 ERA across 206 1/3 innings for the Japanese Central League's Hiroshima Carp in 2015, Kenta Maeda was posted and signed with Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers paid the $20 million posting fee and then gave Maeda an eight year, $25 million contract that could pay him as much as $90.2 million with incentives. He'll join a Dodgers rotation that lost starter Zack Grienke to free agency and battled through season ending injuries to both Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy last year.
Maeda will likely earn every dollar he gets and if he disappoints, it won't be a bank-breaking amount to pay him, but an eight year term is a massive risk for a player who has never pitched in the Majors. It's not like there aren't pitchers who have failed to successfully transition from Japan to MLB before.
3 Johnny Cueto - Six Years, $130 million
Over parts of eight seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, Johnny Cueto was able to develop into a front of the rotation starter. However, after a midseason trade to the Kansas City Royals in 2015, Cueto's play dropped off a cliff. He posted a 4.76 ERA with just 56 strikeouts across 81 1/3 innings through 13 starts with the Royals. Cueto's pitching in the postseason wasn't exactly pretty either and left a lot of people wondering how much his stock would suffer in free agency. He did, however, manage to pitch a gem in the World Series, throwing a complete two-hitter in Game 2 against the New York Mets and helping the Royals to a World Series victory.
When free agency arrived, Cueto was able to land a six-year, $130 million contract with the San Francisco Giants. If his struggles in the latter half of 2015 were simply the result of switching from the National League to the American League, than the Giants might not have much to worry about, but if they were a product of a bigger issue and they continue into 2016, then the Giants could be in trouble.
2 David Price - Seven Years, $217 million
Along with Grienke, David Price was the highest profile starting pitcher available this winter. The pair were a step above any other pitcher available on the open market and it was obvious they were both going to get paid huge dollars. When Price finally decided on his destination, he joined the Boston Red Sox on a seven-year, $217 million contract with opt out clause after three years.
What makes this deal worse than most is that the Red Sox were reportedly willing and ultimately did offer $30 million more than any other team. Might Price have still signed in Boston if the Red Sox only offered him $5-10 million more than anyone else? We don't know, but it's unlikely that they needed to offer as much as they did, making this another case of reckless spending for a team that's done more than enough of it over the last two winters.
1 Jeff Samardzija - Five years, $90 million
Jeff Samardzija's pitching was a disaster in 2015. He posted a 4.96 ERA and gave up 29 long balls. However, that didn't stop the San Francisco Giants from rewarding him with a five-year, $90 million contract. Despite being a workhorse capable of racking up 200 or more innings, Samardzija has struggled with consistency throughout his career and hasn't yet been able to establish himself as a reliable starter. Advocates of the 6'5" right hander often cite his strong underlying numbers as proof that he's a strong pitcher, but sooner or later he's going to need to find some real long-term, sustainable success. At 31 years of age, that has yet to happen, making it hard to justify paying him $18 million per year. Between Cueto and Samardzija, the Giants could soon find themselves in a world of hurt financially.
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