Ryan Howard may have two consecutive games with a home run, but his 18 strikeouts in 58 at-bats and early struggles in the field are the first thing to come up when fans complain that the slugger is only in year three of a five-year/$125 million extension. I’ve been one of the biggest Howard apologists there is, but between those two troubling trends and his injury-riddled 2012 and 2013 seasons, it’s fair to say that Howard is among the most overpaid players in the MLB.
While I would argue that Howard did earn his contract (even though the Phillies awarded the deal prematurely), there isn’t much of a debate that, behind Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols, Howard’s monstrous contract probably is the worst deal in the MLB.
Beyond that, ESPN the Magazine’s 2014 list of the top 25 highest-paid players in the world, shows that Howard is among the most overpaid professional athletes in the world.
Looking up and down this list, the surprising thing is that I think the first four athletes more than earn their money. The first three specifically, are world icons, so even if they don’t perform on the pitch/in the ring, they earn the money back just for their endorsers. In the cases of Messi and Rinaldo, they do so for their clubs in merchandise and ticket sales. Aaron Rodgers is one of the best football players on the planet, and with the exception of last year’s injury, has stayed healthy and MVP-level productive.
What really sticks out to me, is that just about all of the MLB contracts on here, will be disasters if they already aren’t. The idea that Zack Greinke is the 11th highest paid athlete in the world and probably isn’t one of the 11 best pitchers is the MLB, is laughable.
Robinson Cano is in the first year of a ten-year deal with the Mariners, and while he is hitting at a .326 clip, the fact that he is yet to hit any homeruns in Safeco Park, is a sign that maybe he won’t be worth his 10-year/$240 million deal.
For as done as some people feel that Howard is, Mark Teixeira only played 15 games for the Yankees last year, and is already on the disabled list with hamstring problems this year. While Teixeira was one of the top-five first baseman in the league in the first three years of his contract, he can’t stay healthy now, and doesn’t seem to have any ability to hit for average anymore. Sure he can still field, but if Howard can stay on the field more, and still appears to have some power left, I’d tend to think that Howard has just as much left, if not more, than the Yankee infielder.
Joe Mauer is still a great pure hitter (he hit a combined .322 over the course of 2012 and 2013), but with the exception of his 2009 MVP season, has never provided much power. What made him worth an eight-year/$184 million deal, was the fact that not only was he the best contact hitter in the game, he was also the best fielding catcher in the league. Now that he has moved to first-base, largely due to injury-riddled 2011 and 2013 seasons, it’s hard to convince me that Mauer is worth a $23 million price-tag.
I could go on. Albert Pujols has a back-loaded contract, that mixed with his declining health, might end up rivaling A-Rod’s current deal as the worst MLB deal of all-time. Speaking of Alex Rodriguez, he would have been in the top seven, except as part of his suspension this year, he doesn’t get paid. His Yankees’ teammate CC Sabthia is in the same boat as Ryan Howard, as he out-performed his first Yankees deal, but since getting an extension onto his original deal that will keep him in pinstripes through at least 2016, has saw his velocity rapidly decline, and really doesn’t look like he will ever be the same pitcher.
I used to think that Pat Gillick’s idea of not giving players deals past three years long was a prehistoric concept. But seriously, what long-term MLB deals are we seeing work out?
The Tigers are in a run of success right now, and managed to dump the already underachieving Prince Fielder onto the Rangers, but have handcuffed themselves long-term with the extensions that they have given to Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. Verlander has already seen a decline in velocity and overall performance from the two-year stint between 2011 and 2012, when he was pitching on a hall-of-fame caliber, but is under contract through 2019. Chances are he isn’t going to return to that form, and while he still might return to an elite level this year, odds are he isn’t going to earn his $28 million salary in 2018 and 2019. He already isn’t earning the $20 million he is being paid.
Cabrera looks like he is on track to be one of the greatest right-handed hitters that ever lived, but didn’t Albert Pujols look that same way before he signed with the Angels? Think about this: Miguel Cabrera is going to be making $30 million in 2025. 2025! Jay-Z is going to be 56 years-old in 2025, to put things in perspective. Right now, Miguel Cabrera is a transcendent hitter, but is he going to be that in 2018? I can’t even imagine what he will be in 2025. The Tigers are putting themselves on pace to be the Phillies of the late 10’s.
Then we full circle to the Phillies. Howard’s deal is ugly. What about Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels? 2009 doesn’t count when assessing Lee anymore, because that was in his first stint in Philly, and not during his current deal. Lee was incredible in 2011, posting 17 wins and a 2.40 ERA, and finishing third in Cy Young voting. But, in 2012, Lee dipped to a 3.16 ERA. I see that in many regards it was a strange year for Lee, and the bullpen and offense didn’t back him up, but Lee made $21.5 million in 2012, and you can’t just be good for that price. Lee came back last year and posted a 2.87 ERA, which makes me think he is at least close to pitching at the level of his $25 million salary. He has started out slow this year, and while I’d be surprised if he doesn’t end up pitching at an All-Star level, how he holds up his end of the contract is still largely up in the air. He had a tremendous first season, very mediocre second season, and an All-Star third year. But if he struggles this year, and in 2015, what will we think of his contract then? Even if he posts a 3.30 ERA the last few seasons of his contract, he isn’t earning his salary. And everyone likes to conveniently forget that the Phillies either have to pay him $27.5 million to pitch for them in 2016, or $12.5 million to go pitch for someone else. I’d be willing to bet that if he finishes off his entire deal in Philadelphia, which includes 2016 and assumes that he won’t be traded, that Cliff Lee won’t be pitching at a Cy-Young level in his late-30’s. Imagine if he had signed the seven or eight-year deals that the Yankees and Rangers were offering him.
Lee’s deal was only five years long, and I would do it again. I’m not denying that it gave them a shot to win in their World Series window, that has since closed.
As for Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee will always be able to say that with his 2008 and 2010 dominant regular seasons, that he more than earned his five-year/$125 million deal. I’ve never grasped when Cole Hamels showed enough consistency to even get that deal. The 2008 playoffs were great, but you better be a damn good regular season pitcher to back up signing a six-year/$144 million deal. Even when he was the World Series MVP in 2008, he had a really good regular season (3.09 ERA), but not one that was worth an $20 million plus a year deal. The only season that I could legitimately say that Hamels was worth that type of deal, was in 2011 when he posted a 2.79 ERA and won 14 games. That year, not getting great support and keeping his win totals low, was a real excuse. Last year it wasn’t. I don’t care how little run support that he got or how well he pitched in the second half of the year, Hamels posted a 3.60 ERA in 2014. Explain to me how that is even close to touching the contract he has been paid, or why we shouldn’t hold that against him the way that we have held down seasons against Ryan Howard. Why when evaluating his performance on his deal, shouldn’t we hold his current injury against him, if it goes on to define his season? We do the same thing for Howard.
I root for Hamels, I appreciate how he has been a really good pitcher, but I could never fathom how the Phillies felt like giving him this current contract when the offense and bullpen were in clear decline in 2012, was justified. Even if Hamels returns to the level that he was at in 2008, was giving one player that much money when you clearly have bullpen, bench, lineup, and now rotation holes? It isn’t even like he makes up for the bullpen or bench holes once every five days like Roy Halladay did, or Cliff Lee sometimes does, because he rarely goes past seven innings.
My point of writing this article wasn’t to come out as a Cole Hamels hater, because I’m not one. My point was to show that in general, you don’t build a baseball team through deals longer than five seasons. Are there exceptions like Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout? Sure, but those are few and far between. Even as baseball salaries balloon, the idea that most players aren’t good for more than the first three of four seasons, shouldn’t go away. Using the negative history of long-term deals really shouldn’t go away, when you have a lineup that has had holes for a few years now, a bullpen that sucks (that is putting it lightly), and a bench whose most-feared hitter is John Mayberry. Perhaps when Gillick was the general manager and we didn’t see names ending up on this type of list, but the Phillies were beginning the best run in team history, based largely off of pickups like Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, and Matt Stairs, that was how a baseball team should be built. Maybe that’s why Gillick has a plaque in Cooperstown and Amaro will likely be sitting at his house unemployed at this time next season.
I’m not acting like injuries aren’t part of the game, or that some guys don’t earn big deals, but giving monster deals when you can clearly see the holes on your team continuing to develop is irresponsible. Howard and Lee’s deals at least came while the Phillies were putting a great product on the field. Hamels deal came after the run seemed to be up, and more and more holes were appearing. Having three of the highest paid players in the world on your team, isn’t a World Series formula. Ruben could have predicted that Howard wasn’t going to continue to hit at that level, and he gave him the extension over a year before he was due to hit free-agency. He could have seen that Hamels has never been that work-horse type pitcher that typically gets $20 plus million a year, and offered him a more modest five-year/$90 million deal. If Hamels rejected that deal, which he likely would have, then so be it. You let him walk, and you use that $17.5 million annually to get a long-term right-fielder, third-baseman, build any sort of bench, supplement your bullpen, etc. Instead they gave all that money, and actually $6.5 million more, to one player, who really isn’t worth that much. That isn’t a shot at Hamels, because next to no one is worth that much, it’s just the truth.
But that’s where we are now, and Hamels and Howard aren’t going anywhere. For the next few years, the Phillies glaring holes likely aren’t either. Even if Amaro is gone, the Phillies are stuck with at least two $20 plus million deals (Howard and Hamels), and even if those players perform well, they likely won’t earn their deals, and they tie up payroll to actually build a championship team.