Buyer Beware

Major League Baseball’s general managers opened their purse strings wide and often last offseason, and the results, by and large, have not been pretty nearly two-thirds of the way through the season.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to look at only players who were given significant amounts of money to change teams, thus ignoring players who had their contracts extended or who re-signed with their old team. To define “significant,” I chose players who either received at least $5 million for one year or at least $10 million total over multiple seasons.

By my count, there were 33 such players. Those 33 players received approximately $973 million (depending on how incentives and option buyouts are counted) and 103 years (not counting options). That averages out to about $29.5 million over three years per player.

For about $10 million a year over three years, you’d think you would have a pretty good chance of finding a player who is actually, you know, good. You’d think that, but you’d apparently be wrong.

Of those 33 players, only 10-12 of them have performed at what I would consider a good level considering what they’re being paid. The majority of the rest of them have been big disappointments. Since everybody loves bad news, let’s skip right past the players who are making GMs look good and examine the 15 free agent signings—in no particular order—that appear to be the biggest mistakes so far. (All stats are through Tuesday.)

Carlos Beltran, OF, New York Mets

Beltran certainly hasn’t been terrible, but when you give a player $119 million over seven years, you expect to get quite a bit more offense than .268/.316/.439 (.755 OPS). The biggest shock so far for Beltran is that after swiping 83 bases in 90 attempts the last two years, he’s only 5-for-7 in steals this season.

He has had to deal with some injury problems, and now that he seems healthy, he might give the Mets over the final two months what they expected to be getting all year. In fact, of all the people on this list, Beltran’s probably the most likely to improve his performance to the extent that his contract looks reasonable.

Adrian Beltre, 3B, Seattle Mariners

Unlike Beltran, who has been overpaid but not completely terrible, Beltre has been overpaid and almost worthless this year. After hitting .334 with 48 homers and 121 RBIs last year to earn a five-year, $64-million contract, Beltre is hitting .259/.299/.411 (.710 OPS) so far this season.

Only three qualified third baseman in baseball—David Bell, Mike Lowell and Aaron Boone—have a lower OPS than Beltre this year, and only Lowell and Boone have lower on-base percentages. Beltre can’t even blame his home ballpark for his struggles, because he certainly didn’t play in a hitter’s haven last year.

Carl Pavano, SP, New York Yankees

Enticed by his 18-8 record and 3.00 ERA last year with the Marlins, the Yankees gave Pavano $40 million over four years. Instead of replicating that success in New York, Pavano went 4-6 with a 4.77 ERA in 100 innings before getting hurt. He’s already allowed more homers this year (17) than he did all of last year (16).

A lot of people have been wondering what’s wrong with Pavano this year, but his performance really shouldn’t be that big a shock. He’s only had one really good season in his career, and it was in a good pitcher’s park in the league that’s easier to pitch in. Moving to the AL and having to face the Red Sox (6.30 ERA in 10 innings against them) and Orioles (5.27 ERA in 14.2 innings against them) regularly was bound to have an adverse effect on his ERA.

Jaret Wright, SP, New York Yankees

I actually thought Wright might turn out to be a better signing for the Yankees than Pavano, figuring that if he could stay healthy, he’d be more likely to transfer his effective pitching from the NL to the AL. Turns out, he wasn’t able to stay healthy or be effective.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Wright only lasted four starts this season, or 19.2 innings pitched, before he got hurt. During that time, he posted a 9.15 ERA and 2.29 WHIP while allowing 36 hits and six home runs. Whether he was pitching that badly because he was already injured or not, getting him out of the rotation was actually a good thing for the Yankees, who will now probably end up paying him $18 million for two years instead of $21 million for three.

Steve Finley, OF, Anaheim Angels of California

Finley has looked impervious to old age the last few seasons, posting at least an .815 OPS each year since turning 37. The Angels gave $14 million over two years hoping that he could continue to defy the aging process a couple more years, but it looks like he’s finally succumbed to being over the hill.

Now 40 years old, Finley has already missed 24 games (he hadn’t missed more than 22 games in a season since his rookie year in 1989) and he’s only hitting .236/.295/.402 (.697 OPS).

Orlando Cabrera, SS, California Angels of Western America

Cabrera had a good year with the Expos in 2003 and a solid final two months with the Red Sox last year, but he hasn’t been a productive hitter for the majority of his career. Despite that, and the fact that he’s not particularly young at 30, the Angels gave him four years and $32 million.

So far, it’s been a complete waste. Cabrera is barely topping the numbers that got him shipped out of Montreal last year, hitting .242/.296/.346 (.642 OPS). Although shortstop isn’t a huge offensive position, that’s still a terrible OPS and it’s only better than that of two other batting title qualifiers—Cesar Izturis and Jack Wilson.

Armando Benitez, RP, San Francisco Giants

Benitez looked like a decent signing in the offseason, as he’s always been an effective reliever and he was coming off the best year of his career, saving 47 games with a 1.29 ERA for Florida. The Giants gave him $21 million over three years, and then got unlucky when he injured his hamstring in late April.

Benitez has been out since (he might return in early September), meaning he’s only given San Francisco 9.1 innings for the $7 million he’s getting this year. And those innings weren’t even good, as he posted a 5.79 ERA and blew two of his six save chances.

Magglio Ordonez, OF, Detroit Tigers

Ordonez is hitting very well this year, posting a nice .333/.398/.525 (.923 OPS) line. So why is he on this list? Well, because he’s only played in 26 games this year. If you’re giving a corner outfielder $15 million (which the Tigers are giving Ordonez each year for five years), you expect that .923 OPS (at least) and a full season of play.

The injury that sidelined him this year wasn’t the same as the injury that made him a huge risk to sign (and which Detroit included a clause in the contract about), but it doesn’t change the fact that Ordonez isn’t going to earn his salary this year because he’s only going to play 89 games at most this year.

Troy Percival, RP, Detroit Tigers

As much as I disliked the Ordonez contract for the Tigers (because of the sheer amount of money involved on an aging, risky player), I thought even less of the contract they gave Percival. My thinking was that he’d probably only give him 40-50 innings and a 3.50-4.00 ERA, which is not worth the $12-million, two-year deal they gave him.

It turns out I was being optimistic. Percival, in what should not come as a surprise, is on the disabled list for the second time this year and may well be out for the year. He’s only thrown 25 innings, posting a 5.76 ERA. It’s not exactly the best allocation of resources.

Jon Lieber, SP, Philadelphia Phillies

A lot of Yankee fans were actually upset by the $21-million, three-year contract Lieber got from the Phillies, especially when he started the season by going 5-1 with a 2.57 ERA in 49 innings his first eight starts. That, combined with mediocrity/injury from the majority of New York’s rotation, had Yankee fans wishing Lieber had stayed in the Bronx.

Since those eight starts, however, Lieber has been abysmal (even after his nice start Tuesday), going 4-8 with a 5.94 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in 83.1 innings. For the season, he’s up to a 4.69 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. It’s also fun to say that he only has three fewer walks this year (27) than in the previous three years combined (30). While he missed 2003, he did through 318.1 innings in 2002 and 2004 combined and had a phenomenal walk ratio both years.

Russ Ortiz, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks

Ortiz never looked like a great option this offseason. He’d had a couple solid seasons in his career, but his ERA had gone up in each of the last three seasons. Even more troubling, he’d pitched six consecutive years with at least 90 walks and fewer than 170 strikeouts. Despite those warning signs, the Diamondbacks gave Ortiz $33 million over four years this winter.

This season has merely proved what most people suspected then, that it was not a good signing. Even before going on the disabled list in mid-June, Ortiz was not helping the team. He had a 5.89 ERA, a 1.67 WHIP and just 35 strikeouts against 42 walks in 78 innings.

Eric Milton, SP, Cincinnati Reds

Giving Milton $25.5 million over three years was just stupid. Last year, he gave up 43 homers and had a 4.75 ERA, and he’s never had an ERA below 4.30 in his career. So, unless the Reds thought he was somehow going to figure everything out at age 29 in his seventh full season, the best they could hope for was an ERA in the 4.25-4.50 range.

As dumb as the contract was, however, even the biggest Milton hater couldn’t have expected him to be quite this bad. After taking another pounding Tuesday, Milton is now 4-11 with a 7.03 ERA in 122.2 innings. He’s allowed 31 homers in 22 starts, meaning he’s quite likely to surpass last year’s homer total and has a shot at setting a new record.

Richard Hidalgo, OF, Texas Rangers

Hidalgo has been a really good hitter twice in his career, posting a 1.027 OPS in 2000 and a .957 OPS in 2003. In 2001, he had a decent .811 OPS. The rest of the time, he’s been a hitter with decent to good power and almost no ability to get on base.

Despite that, the Rangers gave him $5 million for this season, and the results have been predictable. He has 16 home runs and a .428 slugging percentage, but he’s only hitting .225 and his .291 on-base percentage is atrocious, especially for a corner outfielder.

Among outfielders with enough appearances to qualify for the batting title, only Corey Patterson, who is currently in the minor leagues and soon won’t have enough appearances to qualify, has a lower OBP than Hidalgo. Hidalgo’s .719 OPS is good for 60th among the 66 qualified outfielders.

Al Leiter, SP, Florida Marlins

Leiter is the only player on this list who has actually already had the book on his signing closed. The Marlins gave him $8 million, and he was so bad that they gave him to the Yankees so that they could save $400,000 on the rest of the money they owed him.

Leiter made 15 starts for the Marlins, only three of which were quality starts, with a 6.45 ERA in 74 innings before losing his spot in the rotation. He then made one appearance out of the bullpen, giving up a run in three innings. Then the Marlins put him back in the rotation, he gave up six runs (five earned) in three innings, and they designated him for assignment.

All in all, it was not the best use of $7.6 million.

Cristian Guzman, SS, Washington Nationals

The $16.8-million, four-year contract Guzman got was similar to the deal for Milton in that there was no good reason for it at all, but you still couldn’t have expected it to turn out this badly. Guzman actually does have a good season in his past, but it was back in 2001, when he posted an .814 OPS.

Since then, his OPS has been between .675 and .695 every season, and the Nationals would love for it to be in that range again this year. Instead, Guzman is hitting an unbelievable bad .183/.223/.271 (.494 OPS).

He’s lost his job as a full-time starter (although he still starts sometimes for some reason), so he doesn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. If he did, he would easily have the worst batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage for a shortstop this year.

As is, the only shortstop with at least 100 plate appearances to post a worse OPS than Guzman this year is Seattle’s Wilson Valdez (.489), and even he has a higher batting average (.198) and on-base percentage (.235) than Guzman.

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