Baseball's mega deals rarely pay off

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Tracy Ringolsby

Tracy Ringolsby is a Hall of Fame baseball writer. He is in his 37th year covering Major League Baseball, is a co-founder of Baseball America, and is in his fourth year as pregame and postgame analyst for Colorado Rockies games on Root Sports.


Right now, there is celebration in Anaheim.

The Los Angeles Angels, after missing the playoffs the past two years, have had a major overhaul this offseason. A front-office shuffle brought in Jerry Dipoto as general manager, and a winter spending spree included the signing of 31-year-old Albert Pujols to a 10-year free-agent contract.

Check back in a couple of years.


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Will they be pouring champagne over Pujols’ head at Angel Stadium four or five years down the road?

History doesn’t bode well for the Angels, who have a lengthy list of free-agent nightmares all their own.

Does the name Mo Vaughn ring a bell? After six consecutive seasons of MVP consideration in Boston, he signed a six-year, $80 million deal with the Angels before the 1999 season. After three injury-derailed seasons, Vaughn was dumped on the New York Mets, setting off a verbal sparring with his former teammates, who questioned his clubhouse influence.

This is a franchise that was the most active in baseball back in the first year of free agency, signing Don Baylor, Bobby Grich and Joe Rudi. That created championship expectation, but they stumbled to a fifth-place finish in 1977. By June of 1978, the Angels made their second managerial change in less than two seasons, firing Dave Garcia, who had replaced Norm Sherry in the midst of the 1977 season.

And don’t forget the aftermath of the first division title in franchise history in 1979, when then-general manager Buzzie Bavasi scoffed at the idea of paying Nolan Ryan $1 million a year, proclaiming he could sign two 8-6 pitchers and be a better team. He wound up signing Bruce Kison, who was 29-22 in five years with the Angels. Ryan? He pitched 14 more big-league seasons, adding three no-hitters and 157 victories to his Hall of Fame resume.

The Angels, however, are not on an island.

The world of mega contracts is filled with missteps, particularly with a player on the backside of 30.

In the past 11 years, teams have signed players to at least 27 contracts with guarantees of six or more years.

Twenty-four of the deals have gone to position players, including two to Alex Rodriguez. He signed a 10-year, $252 million deal with Texas following the 2000 season, which was such a boondoggle that the Rangers ate a large chunk of the deal just to get the New York Yankees to take him. He then exercised an opt-out clause in the deal following the 2007 season, and the Yankees gave him a new 10-year deal, worth $275 million.


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And they have regretted it ever since.

Surprised? Don’t be. Although Rodriguez was 25 when he signed the initial deal in Texas, he played the 2008 season, the first of his new deal, at the age of 32, and the birth certificate should have been a red flag.

Consider that 10 of the 27 long-term deals have been given to players who were at least 30 in the first year of the contracts.

It’s too early to reach a conclusion on Pujols, who has yet to play a game for the Angels, and his former teammate Matt Holliday, who has had one solid season and one injury-marred season since he re-signed with the Cardinals as a free agent on a seven-year deal.

Of the eight other deals given to the 30-plus set, none of them have met expectations.


Rodriguez, 10-year, $275 million deal with the New York Yankees before 2008: He has played in fewer than 140 games in each of the first four years of the deal, only 99 games last season, and there are growing concerns about a position for Rodriguez in the next six years.

Todd Helton, nine-year, $141.5 million deal with Colorado that took effect in 2003: After hitting 25 or more home runs in each of his first seven full big-league seasons, Helton has hit 20 home runs only once in the seven years since. He has been limited to fewer than 125 games in three of the past four.

Alfonso Soriano, eight-year, $136 million deal with the Chicago Cubs before 2007: In the past three years, Soriano has hit .248 with only 70 home runs, 222 RBI and 16 stolen bases.

Jayson Werth, seven-year, $126 million deal with Washington before 2011: He responded by hitting .232 last season. But, then, what did the Nationals expect? Werth had never been more than a complementary part in his career and never has enjoyed a 100 RBI season.


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Jason Giambi, seven-year, $120 million deal with Yankees before 2002: He spent the full seven years in the Bronx and was productive, but he hit .253 or lower in five of those seven seasons, including .208 in 2004. His .260 average in pinstripes was 51 points lower than what he hit in his six full seasons in Oakland before he moved to the Yankees.

Jim Thome, seven-year, $95 million deal with Philadelphia before 2003: As strong a personality as Thome is in the clubhouse, the Phillies dealt him to the Chicago White Sox after three years. Time had taken a toll on Thome, who no longer could handle the grind of playing in the field.

Carlos Lee, six-year, $100 million deal with Houston before 2007: A DH in the National League, Lee has been a defensive nightmare, even in the tiny left field at Minute Maid Park, and has epitomized the demise of the Astros in his self-centered world.

Miguel Tejada, six-year, $72 million deal with Baltimore before 2004: His defense was so shaky that the Orioles were willing to eat enough of the contract after four years that they were able to unload him on the budget-conscious Astros.

Call it the Wayne Garland factor. Teams do seem to have learned to avoid getting tied up in lengthy deals with pitchers. Only three of the 27 most recent deals of six or more years have gone to pitchers, and they have each carried a warning sign.

CC Sabathia provided more than the Yankees could have expected in the first three years of the seven-year, $161 deal he signed after the 2008 season, going 59-23 with a 3.18 ERA. There is a catch, however, Sabathia’s deal included an opt-out clause, which he exercised, and was able to turn into a five-year revision that increased the value of his eight-year commitment to the Yankees to a $181 million payday.


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At least Sabathia produced for his pay.

Mike Hampton signed an eight-year, $121 million deal with the Rockies after the 2000 season, which at the time was the biggest contract ever given a pitcher. The left-hander was 42-39 in the final seven years of that deal. He pouted his way out of Colorado after two years, having gone 21-28 and losing 26 of his final 38 decisions. Besides eating a bulk of the contract, the Rockies also had to part with center fielder Juan Pierre to get rid of Hampton.

Barry Zito is heading into the final year of his seven-year, $126 million deal with San Francisco. He is 43-61 with a 4.55 ERA in his six years with the Giants after going 102-63 with a 3.55 ERA 6 1/2 seasons with Oakland.

Garland? He was a product of that original free-agent crop following the 1976 season. Coming off a 20-7 season in Baltimore, he was lured to Cleveland by a 10-year deal worth $2.3 million, a significant investment at that time. Garland battled injuries, was a composite 28-48 for the Indians and was done midway through the deal.

The Angels, however, decided to challenge the odds.

Pujols is confident he can be the exception.

Time will tell.

Tagged: Angels, Yankees, Cubs, Astros, Nationals, Phillies, Giants, Rockies, Jim Thome, CC Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols

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