Dead money: Which players have the most negative trade value?

It’s that time of year again.

FanGraphs has an annual tradition of using the All-Star break to rank the game’s most valuable players by their overall trade value, factoring in not only their on-field performance but their age and contract status as well. After all, a good player making $1 million per year is likely more valuable to a franchise than a great player making $25 million per year, as the $24 million cost savings can be spent to buy the good player better teammates and result in a better product overall.

Not surprisingly, the top spot last year went to the Angels’ Mike Trout, as he was the best player in baseball and made the league minimum; his combination of high performance and low cost made him one of the most valuable properties in baseball history. Even after signing a new contract that guarantees him $140 million over the next six years, one can bet that Trout will still rank quite highly in the this year’s top 10, which will be released on Friday by FanGraphs.

Of course, for every Trout, there’s 10 big contracts that haven’t worked out so well, with teams paying millions for the kind of production they’d hope to get for a million or two. The history of long-term mega contracts for free agency is filled with high-priced busts, and when a team makes a mistake on a big-money guy, the club is often stuck with that player until the contract runs out. These players not only don’t have any trade value, they have negative trade value, and require a financial subsidy to another team just to move the player off their roster.

Paying a player to play for someone else is the most inefficient use of resources in baseball, but it’s also the reality that some teams face when they just want to move on from a bad decision. So which players would require the largest subsidies to another team in order to be willing to assume the rest of their contracts? Or, put another way, which players have the most negative trade value in Major League Baseball right now?

The easiest way to estimate how much money a team would have to include in a trade to move a player currently on contract is to ask how much that player would sign for if he was made a free agent after the season ends. The difference between his estimated free-agent price and his remaining contract value is a decent approximation of how much cash a team would have to kick in to trade their overpriced former stars.

To come up with the five players with the most negative trade value, FG created estimated free-agent prices and included the difference in "dead money" that their current contract includes.  

5. Prince Fielder, first base, Texas Rangers 

Remaining contract: Six years, $144 million (Detroit agreed to pay $30M)

Fielder is a great example of how players with negative trade value can still get moved as the Tigers traded Fielder to the Rangers last offseason, getting back Ian Kinsler in exchange in the single best transaction any team made all winter. In order to facilitate the trade, the Tigers had to agree to pay $30 million of Fielder’s contract from 2016 to 2020, so the Rangers have already received a subsidy from Detroit which would then transfer over to any other team acquiring Fielder.  

However, even with the Tigers on the hook for $30 million of the $144 million that Fielder is due from 2015 through 2020, that leaves the Rangers responsible for an additional $116 million over the final six years of his contract. Coming off a year that included a lousy performance and season-ending neck surgery, there’s no way Fielder would get $116 million as a free agent this winter.

Similar recent free agents who are aging power hitters with minimal defensive value include the Mets’ Curtis Granderson (four years, $60 million), the Yankees’ Carlos Beltran (three years, $45 million), Boston’s Mike Napoli (two years, $32 million), and Cleveland’s Nick Swisher (four years, $56 million) — each signing close to $15 million per season, but on much shorter deals.

Since a team wouldn’t pay as high of an annual salary for a six-year commitment, let’s knock Fielder down to $12 million per year, which would equal out to $72 million over six years. That seems like a reasonable guess for what a team would bet on Fielder returning to prior form, given the current dearth of power in the majors. If the Rangers wanted to get Fielder’s price down to $72 million, they’d have to subsidize an additional $44 million on top of what Detroit has already agreed to pay.  

4. Joe Mauer, first base, Minnesota Twins

The fall of Mauer’s greatness has been swift and harsh. A year ago, FG rated Mauer as one of the game’s top catchers, crediting him with 5.1 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), but a late-season concussion has dramatically changed Mauer’s future outlook. A foul ball that caught him square on Aug. 19 last year ended his 2013 campaign and his time behind the plate, with Mauer moving to first base in order to protect his health.

However, first baseman who specialize in singles and walks are not nearly as valuable as catchers who do the same, and both the move and the concussion have coincided with a precipitous drop in Mauer’s offensive performance. He is hitting just .271/.342/.353 with two homers and 28 RBI in 76 games this season, and there are legitimate concerns just beyond the low power for a first baseman. He’s now striking out at a nearly league average rate (64 K’s in 303 at-bats), something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago. A first baseman with limited power can’t afford to strike out very often, and Mauer doesn’t make up for the lack of offense with stellar first base defense either.

Mauer was an exceptional catcher, but he looks something like an average first baseman at best, even if assuming his offensive downturn is not permanent. Given the fact that he’s 31 and has a decade of catcher wear-and-tear on his knees, it very well may be, and Mauer might not even be an average player going forward. Unfortunately for the Twins, they still owe him $92 million over the next four years, when similar offensive first baseman like Tampa Bay’s James Loney and Colorado’s Justin Morneau — both who are better defensively — are finding a market price of six or seven million per season.

Even a team that is optimistic about Mauer’s return to previous offensive levels probably wouldn’t bet more than $32 million over the next four seasons, leaving the Twins with a $60-million deficit between his market value and his remaining contract. 

3. Alex Rodriguez, third base, New York Yankees

If A-Rod was a free agent this winter, his career would probably be over. He turns 39 at the end of the month, is going to be coming off a year-long suspension and he has alienated just about everyone associated with the game of baseball over his career. Maybe he could still help a team as a part-time infielder, part-time designated hitter, but he comes with so much baggage that the downsides of having him around probably don’t outweigh the upside of having a moderately productive role player at the end of his career.

Because of the milestone incentives in his contract, he could quickly cost more than he was worth, even if the Yankees paid the entire remaining balance of his base salaries. With 654 career homers, he’s only six away from a $6 million bonus for tying Willie Mays on the all-time list, and it’s unlikely that a 39 year old Rodriguez would be worth $6 million on the field, even discounting the off-field baggage.

So, to get a team to take Rodriguez, the Yankees might actually have to pay even more than he’s due in salary. Combining the $61 million he’s due over the next three years with the $6 million home run bonus, the Yankees might have to pay $67 million to convince another team to take his contract.

2. Justin Verlander, starting pitcher, Detroit Tigers

How does a player have less trade value than A-Rod? How about be a 31-year-old right-hander with continually declining velocity and strikeout rates, then post a 4.88 ERA in the first half of the final season before a $140 million contract extension kicks in. That’s where Verlander is right now. Like Mauer, Verlander was a highly valuable player a year ago, but age seems to be rapidly eating away at the skills that made him great not so long ago.

During his peak years, one of Verlander’s defining characteristics was his ability to limit hits on balls in play; he allowed just a .265 BABIP from 2010 to 2012, the sixth-lowest mark of any qualified starting pitcher during that stretch. As his velocity has waned, he’s become more hittable, and since the start of the 2013 season, he’s posted a .317 BABIP, the fifth-highest mark in MLB over the last year and a half.

Take away the hit prevention and Verlander profiles simply as a good pitcher rather than a great one, and that’s assuming he can make the adjustments necessary to lean more on his off-speed stuff and get his strikeouts back in the process. Given his age and workload, combined with his miserable 2014 season, Verlander would be a free agent with a lot of red flags.

Recent free-agent signings like Ricky Nolasco (Twins) and Matt Garza (Brewers) show that there is a $50 million floor for any healthy pitcher with a reasonably decent track record. Verlander would easily best that, but would he be as appealing as Anibal Sanchez back when he landed $80 million from the Tigers? Or C.J. Wilson when he scored $78 million from the Angels?

No, he won’t. Verlander would have to settle for something like $70 million over five years, leaving a $70 million price gap between his market value and his remaining contract.

1. Albert Pujols, first base, Los Angeles Angels

Pujols has actually had something of a rebound season. Compared to last year, his batting average is up 21 points (.279 vs. .258), and his slugging percentage is up 54 points (.491 vs. .437).  His strikeout rate is back down to the levels he was at in his days in St. Louis, and he’s hitting for more power than he did last year as well.

But an improvement from a disaster is still not a success, and Pujols grades out as just an above-average player these days.  At age-34, his days of stardom are likely behind him, with the Angels hoping he can just hold onto this level of production for as long as possible. For an aging non-star first baseman, the Angels are committed to another $189 million from 2015 through 2021, a brutal $27 million per-year average for a player who is probably worth about half that.

The comparable free agents are similar to the ones mentioned in Fielder’s case, only Pujols’ deal is even longer and covers later years, given the difference in age. On a shorter-term deal, perhaps Pujols would still be worth the $15 or $16 million per season that Beltran and Napoli were able to command, but not on a seven-year term. Teams would demand a discount in annual salary to make up for the extra length of the contract. At $13 million per year over those seven years, Pujols’ market value would come out to about $91 million, or $98 million less than what the Angels owe him before the contract mercifully ends.

This list — which doesn’t even include previous busts Ryan Howard (Phillies) or Mark Teixeira (Yankees) because their deals are heading towards expiration — reminds teams to beware of aging power sluggers, who often aren’t quite as slugger-ly in their 30s as they were in their 20s.