As heated as rooting can get for baseball fans defending their teams, one of the things that gets a fan’s blood boiling is thinking about the poor investments made by their team.
We don’t mean the way the owners of the New York Mets lost their shirts (and maybe their franchise) to Bernie Madoff. No, we are referring to big contracts given to players who don’t live up to their high salaries.
Some are truly terrible. Mo Vaughn injured himself in his first game under a huge payout and never really earned the riches he received.
Some even occupy a middle ground. Take Alex Rodriguez, for instance. His numbers prove he’s one of the game’s greatest hitters, but the size of his contract made it difficult for the Texas Rangers to win because they couldn’t pay for other good players.
There are great contracts, too. And one, given to Jackie Robinson, was a true bargain.
While there are several players that didn’t live up to their contracts, this is AdvisorOne’s list of the Top 10 Best and Worst Baseball Contracts. THE WORST
10. CARL PAVANO: 4 years, $39.5 million—New York Yankees
Carl Pavano’s big free agent contract isn’t the biggest on this list, but the team that ponied up the cash didn’t get what it paid for. Pavano was a good pitcher who had a great postseason in 2003 and fine regular season in 2004 while with the Florida Marlins. He parlayed that into his deal with the Yanks.
What followed was a string of strange injuries that left the Yankees with little to show for its expenditure. Pavano’s record was just 9-8 over four seasons, including 2006 when he didn’t throw a pitch—that’s nearly $4.4 million per win. One injury was a “bruised buttocks” that he got while diving for a grounder, which knocked him out for several games. Some teammates even questioned his desire to play. After leaving the Yankees, Pavano found some success with the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins. 9. ALBERT BELLE: 5 years, $65 million—Baltimore Orioles
Albert Belle was an offensive machine for the Cleveland Indians. He was so good at knocking in runs that he helped the sad-sack club make it to the World Series in 1995 for the first time in decades. Off the field, his angry outbursts often attracted unwanted publicity (going after a fan in the stands he says was spewing racist remarks and chasing kids egging his house on Halloween). Eventually the best power hitter of the 1990s (and a pretty fair hitter for average, too) got his big payday with the Orioles. Alas, after a couple good seasons (Belle hit just 60 of his 381 homers and drove in just 220 of his 1,019 RBI for Baltimore), Belle was done. And Baltimore’s birds were out of luck.
8. MO VAUGHN: 6 years, $80 million—Anaheim Angels
Mo Vaughn was a big man. The kind of larger-than-life man with a persona to match. His long home runs added to his aura and his popularity with fans in Boston, where he was the AL MVP in 1995.
With all that in mind, the Anaheim Angels (this was before they changed their name to capitalize on the L.A. market) made him a multimillionaire in 1999. His career in the Golden State was doomed from the start: In his first game he tripped in the dugout and injured himself. By 2001 he was sent packing to the New York Mets. A chronic knee injury soon ended his career. Before his big contract, Big Mo hit 201 home runs; after, he banged out just 98.
7. VERNON WELLS: 7 years, $126 million—Toronto Blue Jays/L.A. Angels (sharing the pain)
When Vernon Wells signed a seven-year extension in 2006 with the Blue Jays, his contract was the fifth biggest in the history of baseball. Injuries and dwindling offensive numbers made the center fielder such a liability that he was traded to the Angels before the 2011 season. He bounced back with a decent year at the plate, but it’s hard to figure why the Halos decided to put themselves on the hook to the tune of $86 million through 2014. Since the contract, Wells has only hit .300 once (in an injury shortened season in 2008) and he hasn’t driven 100 runs in a season, something he did three times before signing.
Since there’s still a few years left for redemption, Wells’ big contract doesn’t get the nod, rather the thumbs down, over the next guy. 6. MIKE HAMPTON: 8 years, $121 million—Colorado Rockies
Mike Hampton was on top of the world at the end of the 2000 season. He was coming off a very good campaign, he was 15-10, in which he helped the New York Mets get to the World Series (the season before he was 22-4 for the Houston Astros). He could pitch and field and, maybe most important, he was a free agent. Spurning the Mets, he signed with the Rockies. A strange choice given that the team’s ballpark was considered the worst for pitchers in baseball.
After he signed, everything went wrong for Hampton. His earned run average ballooned to 6.15 and his record was 7-15 before Hampton was sent off to Atlanta after two seasons where he enjoyed a slight resurgence before injuries and poor performance dogged him until he retired in 2010. BEST and WORST
5. ALEX RODRIGUEZ:
10 years, $252 million—Texas Rangers, and
10 years, $275 million—New York Yankees
You have arrived at the halfway point of our list. And who better to occupy this spot than Alex Rodriguez, know as A-Rod and even the Lightning Rod. He’s a twofer on the list because two teams signed him to insanely large contracts totalling over a half billion dollars. It’s hard to say whether he represents a Best or a Worst Contract. He’s been voted league MVP three times, once with the Rangers, and has belted 629 homers in his career, but his body is showing signs of breaking down with age (he’s 36) and the Yankees will be saddled with his massive contract until he’s 42.
A-Rod’s been a star since he broke in with the Seattle Mariners. Back then he was just a great player. Then the Texas Rangers decided to give him more than a quarter billion dollars and the controversy began. He played great but his team didn’t, and he took the blame. He was traded to the Yankees in 2004 and signed a new 10-year contract in 2007. Despite his high level of play (except in the postseason, generally) he has been at the center of controversies on the field and off. Steroids? Check. Dating actresses? Check. Dissing the Yanks’ sainted captain, Derek Jeter, in a magazine interview? Check. THE BEST
4. GREG MADDUX: 5 years, $28 million—Atlanta Braves
The Chicago Cubs haven’t been to the World Series since 1945 and haven’t won a championship since 1908. Greg Maddux is one of the reasons. Oh, he pitched great for the Cubbies. That was the problem: He was young and a free agent. The Cubs decided not to pay him and he was off the Atlanta Braves. He was the leading pitcher on one of the best rotations in history. Money well spent on a tough competitor who, to steal from an ad, just did it. For his career Maddux won 355 games and four consecutive Cy Young Awards from 1992-95. 3. REGGIE JACKSON: 5 years, $2.96 million—New York Yankees
Reggie Jackson was smart (he went to Arizona State), talented (he hit an iconic home run off a transformer in the 1971 All-Star Game in Detroit) and brash (he was part of the “swingin’ A’s,” the Oakland teams known as much for their three straight titles as their clubhouse fights and sniping with owner Charlie Finley). After a stop in Baltimore (where he hit a homer in six consecutive games, tying a record), he signed with the Yankees in 1977.
Fitting into a wild locker room led by manager Billy Martin, Jackson proved his value in October with three home runs against the Dodgers in a single World Series game. Jackson got another shot at free agency and signed with the Angels in 1981. That team won two division titles. The total of that contract is elusive (it was about $4.5 million including bonuses for fan attendance), but the Angels maintain season ticket sales in the first season of the five-year deal paid the entire price tag. Jackson’s 563 home runs made him a lock for the Hall of Fame. 2. BABE RUTH: One year, $80,000—New York Yankees
Babe Ruth is often called the greatest player ever, and with good reason. Before he single-handedly rescued the National Pastime from the brink of irrelevancy after the 1919 Black Sox scandal, the Babe was one of the top pitchers in the game. He helped lead the Boston Red Sox to the World Series title in 1918, their last championship of the 20th century. It was after being sold to the Yankees that he became an icon, hitting more home runs (59) in 1921 than every other team in the league.
By 1930, Ruth was being paid $80,000, a sum $5,000 more than President Herbert Hoover. Asked how he could justify earning more than the nation’s chief executive (remember, this was after the October stock market crash), the Bambino supposedly said, “I know, but I had a better year than Hoover.” Whether he actually said that is the subject of debate. Either way it’s undeniably true. And it’s also true that Ruth helped make the Yankees one of the world’s great sports franchises. His 1930 salary (about $1 million in today’s dollars) was a bargain. 1. JACKIE ROBINSON: One year, $5,000—Brooklyn Dodgers
Jackie Robinson’s exploits on the field alone might have made him a bargain player his rookie season. But, of course, his significance to the Brooklyn Dodgers, the game and the country make his salary seem almost quaint. Robinson, who was Rookie of the Year, broke the long-established “color line” on April 15, 1947. The game and the country have never been the same since.
By 1950, Robinson was rewarded with the highest annual salary in the team’s history, $35,000. Compare that to Ruth’s Depression era payday of $80,000 and there’s no doubt that Walter O’Malley, Branch Rickey and the Dodgers made a shrewd deal. Their names will forever be linked to a bold decision that shaped the country in the second half of the “American Century.”
(All photos by The Associated Press)
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