We continue our look back at the worst free agent contracts of the past decade, with a focus on the Al and NL Central.
As with our look at the AL/NL East and AL/NL West, this rundown is drawn from ESPN baseball analyst David Schoenfield’s recent list of the best and worst free-agent signings of the decade for all 30 MLB teams.
The five worst AL Central contracts:
Contract: Prince Fielder, 2012 (9 years, $214 million)
Impact on team wins: Detroit went 95-67 in 2011, and 88-74 in 2012. Fielder compiled 4.3 WAR in 2011, and 4.5 WAR in 2012.
Schoenfield: “The Tigers did reach the World Series in Fielder’s first season, as he hit .313 with 30 home runs, but his offense fell way off in 2013, and after just two seasons the Tigers shipped him off to Texas, eating much of his salary in the process. A neck injury unfortunately led to an early end to his career, but even then the contract was going to be a bad one, as Fielder had never recovered the home run stroke he had in Milwaukee.“
Other takes: In November 2018, Bless You Boys’ Ashley MacLennan wrote, “When the Tigers signed Prince Fielder to a nine-year deal worth $219 million, they were telling the baseball world they would do what it took to win. That year, 2012, they went all the way to the World Series.
The next year they went to the ALCS. They did this not solely on Fielder’s shoulders, but he was certainly a cog in the machine. And then the machine broke. This is not a story unique to the Detroit Tigers, but it’s the cautionary tale that every team should be aware of as they mull over deals that might amount to more than $300 million for guys like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
Is the win-now mentality really worth the long term cost of those bloated deals?“
Chicago White Sox
Contract: Adam Dunn, 2011 (4 years, $56 million)
Impact on team wins: Chicago went 88-74 in 2010, and 79-83 in 2011. Dunn compiled 2.2 WAR in 2010, but only -3.1 WAR in 2011.
Schoenfield: “Dunn had averaged 40 home runs over the previous seven seasons, with excellent on-base skills, so he seemed like a safe signing, even as a DH-only player. His first season was one of the worst of all time, as he hit .159/.292/.277. He rebounded to hit 41 home runs the next year and then 34, but his batting average and OBP were still poor, so his overall WAR over the four seasons was minus-0.9.“
Other takes: In December 2019, Jordan Lazowski of Sox and 35th wrote, “Adam Dunn was supposed to be ushering in one of the most promising seasons of White Sox baseball in awhile. 2011 was the “All In” year – Dunn’s first year under contract with the White Sox. Dunn had just come off of back-to-back 38 home runs seasons with the Nationals and found himself in the American League for the first time in his career.
Dunn posted a .159/.292/.277 slash line with just 11 home runs across 122 games. He accumulated -2.9 fWAR in one of the worst seasons for a hitter in major league history.
Dunn followed up his dreadful campaign with a 41 home run performance in 2012, but hit just .204 while teaching the White Sox – and the rest of baseball – a valuable lesson about signing past their prime sluggers to long-term deals.
That is, until the White Sox signed Adam LaRoche from the Nationals two years later…“
Contract: Ricky Nolasco, 2014 (4 years, $49 million)
Impact on team wins: Minnesota went 66-96 in 2013, and 70-92 in 2014. Nolasco compiled 1.8 WAR in 2013, but only 0.0 WAR in 2014.
Schoenfield: “He went 15-22 with a 5.44 ERA in two-plus seasons with the Twins.“
Other takes: In December 2019, Bleacher Report’s Joel Reuter wrote, “In another case of a team overpaying due to a thin crop of starting pitchers during the 2013-14 offseason, Nolasco had a less than stellar 4.37 ERA and 94 ERA+ when he hit the open market. He stuck around for two-and-a-half seasons, stumbling to a 5.44 ERA over 321 innings before he was flipped to the Angels.“
Contract: Nick Swisher (4 years, $56 million) and Michael Bourn (4 years $48 million), 2013
Impact on team wins: Cleveland went 68-94 in 2012, and 92-70 in 2013. Swisher compiled 3.5 WAR in 2012, and 3.8 WAR in 2013. Bourn compiled 6.0 WAR in 2012, but only 2.4 WAR in 2013.
Schoenfield: “After finishing 68-84 in 2012, the Indians oddly dipped into free agency with the fifth- and seventh-largest contracts given out that offseason. They actually won a wild card in 2013 and Swisher (3.6 WAR) and Bourn (2.2 WAR) were OK. But they were worth a combined minus-0.5 WAR in 2014 and traded to Atlanta in 2015.“
Other takes: In December 2019, Bleacher Report’s Joel Reuter wrote, “During an offseason in which the Indians also gave Michael Bourn an ill-advised four-year, $48 million deal, Swisher turned out to be the biggest disappointment. After a productive first season, he hit just .208 with a 70 OPS+ in 2014, and he was wading below the .200 mark the following season before he was traded to the Braves in a salary dump.“
Kansas City Royals
Contract: Alex Gordon (4 years, $72 million) and Ian Kennedy (5 years, $70 million), 2016
Impact on team wins: Kansas City went 95-67 in 2015, and 81-81 in 2016. Gordon compiled 2.8 WAR in 2015, but only 0.8 WAR in 2016. Kennedy compiled -0.4 WAR in 2015, and 4.1 WAR in 2016.
Schoenfield: “The Royals re-signed Gordon after the World Series title and spent a lot on Kennedy as well. Gordon produced just 4.8 WAR in his four years — with all his value on the defensive side — while Kennedy had a good first season in 2016 and then two bad ones, which relegated him to the bullpen in 2019 (where at least he was very good).“
Other takes: In February 2019, KC Kingdom’s Leigh Oleszczak wrote, “The contract was definitely more for what Gordon had given the city and the organization rather than what he’d provide in the future. He was 32 years old at the time the deal was made and that deal was the largest in Royals history. It was a lot of money, but most fans were more than okay with shelling out that cash to Gordo after all he had done for the franchise.
He was responsible for one of the most memorable home runs in Kansas City Royals history and that contract was the perfect thank you gift for hitting that bomb. The first two years of the deal didn’t go according to plan, as the Royals outfielder hit .220 in 2016 and a horrid .208 in 2017.“
The five worst NL Central contracts:
Contract: Edwin Jackson, 2013 (4 years, $52 million)
Impact on team wins: Chicago went 61-101 in 2012, and 66-96 in 2013. Jackson compiled 1.7 WAR in 2012, but only -1.3 WAR in 2013.
Schoenfield: “Let’s give Darvish and Kimbrel more time. For now, Jackson’s deal still takes the prize, as he went 16-34 with a 5.37 ERA in two-plus seasons, drawing his release midway through the third year.“
Other takes: In November 2019, Bleacher Report’s Joel Reuter wrote, “After missing out on signing Anibal Sanchez, the Cubs settled for the well-traveled Jackson in an effort to bolster the starting rotation. He had a 5.58 ERA in 58 starts over the first two seasons of the contract before he was moved to the bullpen, where he pitched adequately before his release in July. No one could have guessed at that time that he would still be active in 2019.”
Contract: Matt Garza, 2014 (4 years, $50 million)
Impact on team wins: Milwaukee went 74-88 in 2013, and 82-80 in 2014. Garza compiled 1.5 WAR in 2013, but only 1.4 WAR in 2014.
Schoenfield: “The Brewers spent the final three years of this contract trying to trade Garza — and finding no takers. He went 26-39 with a 4.65 ERA, with a season high of 163⅓ innings as he had trouble staying healthy.“
Other takes: In October 2019, Reviewing the Brew’s Joseph Siemandel wrote, “When he got to Milwaukee…, the 30 year old Garza had already put a lot of miles on his arm, with more that 1,182 innings thrown in the major leagues. 2014 will go down as his best season in Milwaukee, going 8-8 with a 3.64 ERA and 1.182 WHIP, all in line with his career averages.
In 2015 Garza began to feel the impact of all those innings on his arms, and his performance was so bad that he was shut down for the rest of the season, which didn’t sit well with him, as he didn’t pitch the last month of the season. His 14 losses was a career high and 5.63 ERA was the worst since his first year in the majors. 2016 didn’t go much better, going 6-8, 4.51 ERA and spent time in Single-A on a rehab assignment.
During the 2017 season Garza suffered a shoulder injury in a collision with Jesus Aguilar. He threw the rest of the year but had lost his rotation spot and ended his final year of the contract at 6-9 and had a 4.94 ERA. However after years of use early in his career took a toll on him as he would retire at the end of the 2017 season at age 33.”
Contract: Ryan Ludwick, 2013 (2 years, $15 million)
Impact on team wins: Cincinnati went 97-65 in 2012, and 90-72 in 2013. Ludwick compiled 1.7 WAR in 2012, but only -1.0 WAR in 2013.
Schoenfield: “Hey, if you don’t sign free agents, it’s hard to have a bad deal. Ludwick had a big year for the Reds in 2012 with 26 home runs and an .877 OPS, but they re-signed him as a free agent and he hit 11 home runs with a .666 OPS over two seasons.“
Other takes: In July 2019, Red Reporter’s Fred Regorter wrote, “Back in 2013 the Reds justified not doing a damn thing at the trade deadline because they had convinced themselves that Ryan Ludwick coming off the injured list would be the boost the team needed.
He was the big deadline acquisition to spur them into October, and they didn’t even have to trade for him! Of course he wasn’t, mostly because one-tool players who suffer major injuries to that one tool they have rarely come off the mat at full strength.“
Contract: Clint Barmes, 2012 (2 years, $10.5 million)
Impact on team wins: Pittsburgh went 72-90 in 2011, and 79-83 in 2012. Barmes compiled 2.9 WAR in 2011, but only 1.1 WAR in 2012.
Schoenfield: “Barmes was an excellent defender at shortstop so this wasn’t a total negative, but he produced a 62 OPS+ in 2012-13.“
St. Louis Cardinals
Contract: Dexter Fowler, 2017 (5 years, $82.5 million)
Impact on team wins: St. Louis went 86-76 in 2016, and 83-79 in 2017. Fowler compiled 4.3 WAR in 2016, but only 1.6 WAR in 2017.
Schoenfield: “Fowler had a solid first season in St. Louis, although injuries limited him to 118 games, and then a disastrous 2018 when he hit .180. He bounced back in 2019 with a 1.7 WAR season, but he’s now primarily a corner outfielder, which hurts his value. He has been worth just 1.9 WAR over three seasons and is now entering his age-34 season.”
Other takes: In December 2019, Dan Buffa of KSDK wrote, “Dexter Fowler is a polarizing topic in St. Louis. Just take a listen. There are the faction of fans who think he’s been a bad idea from the jump, a contract John Mozeliak was ill-advised to hand out. And there are the supporters, the ones who fall in love with that infectious smile, World Series past and All Star attitude.
Ever since his first day in St. Louis, those two sides have done battle over the merit of Fowler as a Cardinal. In 2017, he only played in 118 games, but produced a f2.6 WAR with a .488 slugging percentage. 2018 was an abomination beginning to end, where Fowler was among the least productive players in baseball.
2019 was a bounce-back, where Fowler went back to being productive. So, what does 2020 hold for the embattled outfielder? Somewhere in between, folks.“
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