(Photo: Jeff Conner/Icon SMI)
By Nick Durand, Jack Kruger, Nolan Bruce, William Gregory, Daniel Pardi, Jacob Zacharia, Daniel Mueller
M-SABR is back, baby. In the last article posted before the 2022 Season Previews, the M-SABR writing team takes a stab at what players’ contracts they think will age the worst. Is it injury related decline? Was this player’s defining season a fluke? Are they too ancient? Is it just a hunch? Check it out to find out.
TOR – SP – José Berríos – 7yr/131M – 2021 Extension – 2029 UFA
José Berríos is coming off one of the better years of his young career. The 27-year-old, 2-time All-Star began his 2021 season in Minnesota before being shipped off to Toronto at the trade deadline. Berríos would throw a total of 192.0 innings and would finish with a 3.52 ERA, which resulted in a 9th place finish in American League Cy Young voting and a new 7-year $131 million contract extension. Additionally, Berríos turned in his lowest career walk rate (5.8%) and highest career strikeout rate (26.1%). Berríos has been considered one of the better young starting pitchers in baseball for the last few years, as he was an anchor in the Twins rotation. He has had a solid career thus far, boasting a 4.04 career ERA, 3.95 FIP, and 1.22 WHIP.
Berríos has the look of a solid starting pitcher that can hold down the second or third spot in a rotation, but some of his underlying numbers suggest that he may have had some good luck along the way. For example, in each of the last five seasons, Berríos has had a lower ERA than expected ERA, and in each of the last three seasons, his ERA has been lower than his expected ERA by an average of 0.45. Additionally, in three of the last five seasons he has had a FIP that was higher than his ERA. This past season, Berríos also registered a career high in barrel percentage of 9.1, which was also in the 28th percentile in MLB. He also finished the year in the 46th percentile for expected batting average (.242) and 44th percentile for expected slugging percentage (0.408). Both metrics were higher than his career marks in their respective categories. Additionally, Berríos accumulated these numbers while pitching half of the season in a division that featured three teams that were in the bottom half of the league on a runs per game basis in Cleveland, Kansas City, and Detroit.
Overall, Berríos is a good pitcher who was deserving of a new contract at the time of his deal. He is a solid middle of the rotation starter that can perform like an ace on his best days. So what’s the problem with a contract that will pay him an average of $18.5 million dollars a year? The structure. The contract pays $10 million in 2022, then steadily climbs to $18 million in 2026 before a player option that pays $48 million over the last two seasons. The back-loaded nature of the contract interferes with the Blue Jays’ future need to pay young talents Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernandez, and Alek Manoah. Berríos’ contract and the young talent in Toronto can present a difficult future financially. Berríos has been a pitcher that has been good in his career, but many have waited for him to take the next step to being a great pitcher. While this isn’t impossible for him, the Blue Jays are clearly banking on it.
WAS – SP – Stephen Strasburg – 7yr/285M – 2019 Extension – 2027 UFA
Stephen Strasburg is a very good pitcher, or, at the very least, he was. Leaving San Diego State University in 2009, Strasburg was notably one of the most highly touted MLB Draft prospects ever, leading headlines like ‘Is Strasburg the Best Prospect Ever?’ stemming from his electric stuff and elite level movement. Thirteen years later, Strasburg has delivered enough to be offered a contract worth 285 million dollars, which would seem to indicate that he has delivered on his world class prospect hype. However, things today are much bleaker than they look on paper.
When on the mound, Strasburg has been electric, and consistently one of the better pitchers in the MLB. After making his debut only one year after he was drafted, Strasburg was dominant in his first twelve starts. But then, the concerns begin. Strasburg tore a ligament in his pitching elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery and causing him to be out for the rest of 2010 and most of 2011. After recovery, Strasburg returned to the mound in good fashion, posting a sub 3.50 ERA in four straight seasons. However, in 2016, after another successful year in which he made his second All-Star Game, Strasburg suffered a partially torn pronator tendon, once again in his throwing arm, ending his season. Then, again, in 2017, a spectacular year where he finished in the top three of Cy Young voting, he had a nerve issue in his throwing arm elbow. In 2018, more of the same: right shoulder inflammation and a cervical nerve impingement. While Strasburg had not suffered a major injury since 2010, the smaller injuries were highly concerning, and perhaps an indicator of what was to come.
Nevertheless, the Nationals wanted to lock up their #2 for life. After posting his best season in years, and coming off of a World Series victory, the Nationals were confident in their star pitcher. Despite having Max Scherzer, who continues to dominate regardless of age, the Nats shelled out a fully guaranteed 285 million dollars to a pitcher that had piled up injuries and finished only one season with an ERA under 3.00. Yes, Strasburg is, or at least was, a good player, probably a top ten pitcher in the majors when healthy. However, paying him 35 million dollars was a mistake then, and looks like even more of a mistake now.
In 2020, Stephen Strasburg made two starts before undergoing carpal tunnel surgery in his hand, which ended his season. In his comeback campaign in 2021, Strasburg made a grand total of five starts with a 4.57 ERA, showing a lack of control and a loss of velocity, all before going on the IL with shoulder inflammation and not returning. Strasburg was once again dealing with neck issues after a neck strain that left nerve irritation. After thoracic outlet syndrome surgery late last season, Strasburg’s availability is in question for Opening Day, and worse, it is unclear, even unlikely, that he will return to his 2019 form.
In short, Stephen Strasburg’s contract is probably the worst contract in the entirety of Major League Baseball. The Nationals are paying hundreds of millions of dollars for a pitcher that may never be good again. When he was at his best, Strasburg was a very good MLB pitcher. Now, he is the remnant of a Nationals 2019 World Series run on a team that has not found success since, haunting the Nats like an evil ghast, sucking their money out, draining the team of any of their remaining life force, and forcing them into a rebuild even with one of the best players in the MLB.
ARI – SP – Madison Bumgarner – 5yr/85M – 2019 Signing – 2025 UFA
Madison Bumgarner will always be remembered for putting together arguably the best postseason pitching run in MLB history and carrying the 2014 Giants to a dynasty-cementing World Series victory. Whether or not the Diamondbacks want to acknowledge it, we’ve come a long way since 2014.
In 2019, his final season with the Giants, Bumgarner put up an above average ERA of 3.90, and an above average WHIP of 1.13. While these numbers are not terrible, even if he was able to fight off the effects of aging and continue to put them up, they are probably not worth $17 million per year. The upside that the D-backs must’ve been betting on from 2017 and 2018 was not convincing either. On the surface, he put up solid ERAs of 3.32 in 2017 and 3.26 in 2018. However, he also posted career high FIPs in each of those two seasons, up at 3.95 and 3.99, which shows that he was substantially overperforming. This is also supported by xERAs of 3.98, 4.42, and 4.60 in 2017, ‘18, and ‘19 respectively.
So his trends were poor, his ERA and expected stats had begun to substantially decline, and he was entering his age 30 season, and the D-backs still decided to give him $17 million per year for 5 years. So far, here’s how that has worked out: In the short 2020 season, Mad Bum posted the worst season of his career to that point, with a 6.48 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, and 7.77 xERA in 9 starts. This is well below the average ERA of 4.44.
In an effort that may save this from being the worst contract in D-backs history, Bumgarner showed evidence of a change in approach which resulted in improvement for 2021. His xERA was down at 4.35, his lowest since 2017, and his WHIP followed the same trend at 1.18. While this is a good sign for the D-backs, his ERA was 4.67, which was still 9% below average, and no below average player should be paid $17 million per year. As of now, this contract still looks like a massive waste of $85 million that could’ve been used to improve a team that is stuck at the bottom of a stacked division.
MIL – OF – Christian Yelich – 7yr/188M – 2020 Extension – 2030 UFA
In Christian Yelich’s last 722 plate appearances stretching back to 2020, he has only 21 home runs, batted for a .234 average, and accrued a 103 OPS+. Contrast that to his previous two seasons where he hit for a 1.050 OPS over 1,231 plate appearances while winning an MVP and two Silver Sluggers. Now, the Yelich of the past two years is not a bad player. He was still a 75th percentile corner outfield defender in 2021 according to Statcast OOA, and a 103 OPS+ is still above league average. However, when you’re paying a player $26 million each of the next seven seasons, it’s not a good sign for his bat to be in decline the way that Yelich’s has been.
In 2020, Yelich sacrificed his batting average by swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone to maintain his power. He hit 12 home runs in 58 games and managed a .430 slugging percentage, but this was a far cry from being around .600 in 2018 and 2019. Yelich returned to a more balanced approach in 2021, hitting for a .248 average instead of .203, but his OPS fell by thirty points and his OPS+ was a 99, by far the lowest of his career. His OPS has always been buoyed by his elite walk rate. He still got on base about 36% of the time in the past two seasons, which is consistent with his career, even though it’s much lower than 2018 and 2019.
Following an extended period of injury in 2021, Yelich’s bat speed and subsequent power from that swing has disappeared, and he has become a shell of what he was. His 22% whiff percentage in 2019 forecasted a rise in strikeout metrics. He was in the bottom tenth of the league in Whiff% and K% in 2020. In 2021 he regained some respectability but still was fairly below league average. Yelich nearly led the league in average exit velocity and hard hit percentage in 2020, but his elite barrel rate fell from the 97th percentile to the 80th. This would not have been a problem in 2021 if he continued to hit the ball hard, but his average exit velocity fell to a career-low 80th percentile at 91 MPH. Yelich’s three true outcome approach worked when he could hit for effective power, but nowadays it looks that he will have to lean more into his plate discipline and become less of a power-focused hitter.
A team like the Brewers can ill-afford losing their superstar just before the age of 30 and just before his megadeal kicks in. Off of a Cy Young-winning season from Corbin Burnes, it would be a shame for the great peripheral contributors the Brewers have to be hamstrung by an average player being paid like he’s still the MVP. The Brewers will soon have the big Lorenzo Cain contract expire, but many great players like Burnes, namely Brandon Woodruff and Willy Adames, are entering the later stages of arbitration. The Yelich deal will surely have them lose some of their talent, and his production has not been enough to offset those future losses. This core has given Milwaukee its best chance since the early 1980s to win the first World Series title in franchise history, but Christian Yelich will have to return to being at least an above average hitter for the team to be able to navigate his massive extension.
KC – C – Salvador Perez – 4yr/82M – 2021 Extension – 2027 UFA
Salvador Perez has been wearing royal blue for 15 years. He has been the face of the Kansas City Royals for nearly a decade. He was the heart and soul of the pennant-winning Royals teams. He will have his number retired in Kauffman Stadium. Perez has already put together a historic career highlighted by his seven all-star game appearances, a 2015 World Series MVP, four Silver Slugger awards, and his five Gold Glove awards. He is generally seen as one of the greatest catchers in the game currently, so his recent four year $82 million contract extension seems like a bargain. However, while the fame and the awards are glamorous, the numbers can tell a different story.
Perez hits for historic power at the catcher position, he has unprecedented longevity, and caught an outstanding 36% of runners.These statistics have value, but there are better, more analytical ways to evaluate Perez’s worth. For example, his career wRC+ is only 103, which means he has only hit 3% above league average. To be fair, this would be impressive for an elite defensive catcher, but is he really elite defensively?
First off, Perez’s catcher framing runs was the lowest of any eligible catcher via Statcast at -18 Framing Runs Allowed, along with a career FRM of -93.8 via Fangraphs. Until MLB implements an automated strike zone, Salvador Perez will be a major liability for Royals pitchers. His DRS over the past two seasons is -2 and there is no reason why there won’t be further decline, as he turns 32 in May. Salvador Perez is a very controversial player as he is highly regarded by most of the baseball world, except for sabermetricians. While his representation and leadership is important for Kansas City, the price of this contract is too ludicrous, especially compared to what the advanced numbers say about his true value on the field.
In terms of Perez’s future, the Royals’ number two overall prospect and MLB.com’s 51st overall prospect MJ Melendez, who hit 41 home runs as a primary catcher last season, is close to making his MLB debut. A great transition would be to put the above average defender Melendez behind the dish and to make Perez a designated hitter. However, this would mean that the small-market Royals just paid for only an above average hitter who will eventually play a position that only demands excellent offense. In the meantime, though, KC will be spending $82 million for an above average hitter, but a bottom of the pack, below average catcher.
NYM – SS – Francisco Lindor – 10yr/341M – 2021 Extension – 2032 UFA
Tell someone five years ago that Francisco Lindor would go on to sign a 10 year, nine-figure extension that would make him one of the games highest paid players and they probably wouldn’t bat an eye. The Cleveland All Star had a ridiculously productive span with the Indians, hitting .288 with an .840 OPS in his first five years. However, it’s now 2022 and Lindor’s $32 million a year deal is starting to look like an overpay.
The Mets acquired the shortstop during the offseason before 2021 in a trade with Cleveland and were quick to extend him just two months later. Coming off the shortened 2020 season, Lindor struggled. While not having a horrible year, Lindor definitely regressed. He posted career lows in every major hitting stat, which included a .258 batting average and a 1.3 fWAR. However, the potential was still there and the Mets were not going to ignore what seemed like a fluke year to stop them from signing a top guy at a position of need. In 2021 however, Lindor failed in returning to superstar form, recording yet another year of career lows. He slashed .230/.322/.412 with a 101 OPS+
Lindor is by no means a bad player. The 28 year old ranks highly when looking at his percentile numbers, being in the top 70 percent or higher for exit velocity, walk rate, and strikeout rate as well as being top 100 percent in outs above average. Combine this with the fact that Lindor absolutely crushes the fastball, slugging a .486 on four seamers, and on paper his extension doesn’t look too bad. Should Lindor continue to replicate these types of seasons though, the Mets find themselves in a tough situation, paying a middle of the pack shortstop the second highest for the position until 2031.
Arguably the worst part about the Lindor extension is when the Mets offered it. The deal comes just a year before one of the most stacked off seasons for shortstops in recent times. Had they waited a year, players like Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and Trevor Story all would have been free agents available to New York. All of whom had better years than Lindor last season, yet only Correa would go on to sign a deal worth more per year than Lindor.
Lindor does have the ability to bounce back, though. With the additions the Mets made this offseason as well as Jacob deGrom coming back from injury, the team is set up well for 2022, and it’s possible that all Lindor needs is a successful team to get him back to normal. He is currently projected a .258 average and .800 OPS with an fWAR of 4.9. The projection looks like one of his Cleveland years. A season like that would begin to ease the stress for the Mets, and prove that the deal inked just a year ago was worth it.
SD – 1B – Eric Hosmer – 8yr/144M – 2018 FA Signing – 2026 UFA
Long gone are the days when Eric Hosmer was a premier first baseman and the face of a powerhouse Royals’ team. After seven solid years in Kansas City, with a five year peak where he slashed .292/.351/.449, totaled a 14.4 bWAR, winning four Gold Gloves and a World Series title, Hosmer decided to leave the organization with whom he’d spent his entire career thus far and take his talents to San Diego. The contract that brought him there provided him with an average of $18 million per year through the 2025 season with an opt-out after 2022 and a full no trade clause from 2018 to 2020.
Hosmer’s first season with the Padres resulted in a slashline of .253/.322/.398, which represented a significant drop off from his production in Kansas City. In 2019, Hosmer’s second year in San Diego, the first baseman had arguably the worst season of his career, posting a 94 OPS+, his lowest mark since his sophomore campaign in 2012. Many around the league were starting to wonder how much longer Hosmer would last in the league, as he was regressing very quickly. However, in a limited sample size during the shortened 2020 season, Hosmer bounced back with an OPS of .851, his highest since 2017. However, he could not sustain those numbers in 2021, with a season similar to his first in San Diego. Frustrated fans were calling for him to be benched or even traded as he continued to fail to live up to the expectations of his contract.
At the time of writing, Eric Hosmer is still a member of the San Diego Padres. However, the team recently acquired Luke Voit from the Yankees and also have players like Jake Cronenworth and Wil Myers on the roster, who both have experience at his position. Thus, it is only a matter of time before the Padres decide to ship Hosmer off. Most, if not all teams would be unwilling to take a bad, overpaid first baseman on the wrong side of 30. San Diego will likely have to throw an enticing prospect into any trade they may offer another club. Look for this to happen sooner, rather than later, as the Padres don’t seem to have a path to playing time for him, and would like to use his roster spot on someone more valuable. If and when Hosmer leaves San Diego, barring a miracle breakout, he will likely serve as a veteran mentor with championship experience for young players on a rebuilding team.