Last week, we ran through our annual Trade Value series, chronicling the 50 most valuable assets in baseball — at least according to me. To no one’s surprise, Mike Trout remained at the top of the rankings. The rest of the list was dominated by the young stars who have flooded into baseball during the past few years.
But just as there are some players who are valuable both on the field and because of their discounted contracts, there is a flip side to the Trade Value coin: guys who are taking up significant portions of their team’s financial resources without providing enough value to justify their expense. As you’d expect, these types of players are mostly on the downsides of their careers, having been successful enough early on to earn big paydays, only to decline quicker than their current organizations hoped or expected.
Today, we’re going to look at the five players who I estimate to have the least trade value in baseball. Put another way, these are the players who would cost their team the most cash (or equivalently valuable talent) to remove from their rosters. We’ve actually seen a decent number of negative-value asset trades this year — the Rangers taking Josh Hamilton back, the Braves using Craig Kimbrel to dump Melvin Upton on the Padres, and the Diamondbacks dangling prospect Touki Toussaint to get out of the remainder of Bronson Arroyo’s contract, for instance — as more teams with financial flexibility have begun to use that resource to acquire talent that wouldn’t otherwise be available in trade.
Taking on Upton or Arroyo is small potatoes compared to what it cost to move the five guys listed below. These guys are all much bigger liabilities than either of those, and the amount of negative equity is so large that it’s difficult to imagine what deals for these players might actually look like now.
I will note that, when considering the amount of dead money a contract carries, I only considered the amount due by his current organization beginning with the 2016 season (calculating remaining 2015 salary is annoying), excluding amounts already being covered from prior trades. For instance, Josh Hamilton’s contract isn’t going to appear here because the Angels are already on the hook for almost all of the remainder of the deal. A team trying to trade for Hamilton would only be assuming the small portion Texas agreed to take to complete that deal. The same goes for Matt Kemp, whose contract is being somewhat subsidized by the Dodgers. He would have been a stronger candidate for this list if not for the fact that Los Angeles has already paid down some of what it is left on that deal.
And for the estimates of how much of the remaining contracts opposing teams would take, those figures come solely out of my imagination. They aren’t based on any algorithm or formula. I’m spitballing, mostly, and giving a figure in the range of what I’d expect if it were announced that a team had made a deal for one of the five players below. Since these guys are all so far underwater, it’s extremely unlikely any of them gets traded, so this is more a mental exercise than any kind of prediction of upcoming deals.
With those caveats out of the way, let’s get to the list. This is my take on the five players who would require the largest subsidies in order to get another team to take them off their current organization’s hands, plus a few guys who were in consideration but have short enough or cheap enough deals to not quite make the bottom five.
Homer Bailey, Joe Mauer, David Wright, Matt Kemp, CC Sabathia
#5: Albert Pujols, 1B, Anaheim
Controlled Through: 2021
Guaranteed Dollars: $160 million
2016 ZIPS WAR: +2.8
Five year ZIPS WAR: +7.3
Estimated Market Value: $90 million
Dead Money: $70 million
At 35 years old, Pujols has rediscovered his power stroke, posting a .271 ISO that is exactly equal to his career average. With 26 home runs already this season, he’s only two more dingers from a season-high since joining the Angels, and he’s got a pretty decent chance at hitting 40 on the season. Clearly, if the Angels wanted to move him, there would be teams interested in the short-term production, assuming the Angels paid down his salary enough to make it interesting.
But even with Pujols hitting for power again, we’re still talking about a first baseman headed into his late-30s with a .320 OBP. This is as one dimensional as value gets, and teams aren’t going to just ignore the fact that he’s another power decline away from being a pretty average player. Victor Martinez and Nelson Cruz look like instructive comparisons in the most recent free agent market, and they pulled in between $17 million and $15 million per year for four years repsectively. You could point out that Pujols has more defensive value than either — and a very good health track record — so maybe he tops both, and pushes up towards $20 million per year over that same term.
But the problem is that he’s under control for six more years, not just four, and it’s hard to see many teams wanting to pay the freight for all six years. Even in the best case scenario, I can’t see anyone taking more than $90 million, which would leave the Angels with $70 million remaining. Given their status as contenders and their lack of a supporting cast around the game’s best player, there’s no reason for the Angels to make a move like this, so Pujols will very likely be around unless the Angels enter some kind of rebuilding process. His resurgence has definitely increased his value, but he’s worth more to the Angels as a player than a trade chip.
#4: Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Texas
Controlled Through: 2020
Guaranteed Dollars: $102 million
2016 ZIPS WAR: +1.7
Five year ZIPS WAR: +4.7
Estimated Market Value: $25 million
Dead Money: $77 million
Few free agent contracts have gone wrong as quickly as Choo’s deal with Texas. Coming off a year where he posted a 151 wRC+ and +5.5 WAR, Choo has now posted the two worst seasons of his career, putting up a 97 wRC+ since joining the Rangers. For a guy with no defensive value, league average offense makes him a replacement level player; Choo is only worth playing if he hits, which he now hasn’t done for a couple of years.
This contract was always going to end poorly, given that the Rangers were buying Choo’s 31-37 seasons, but they were hoping to get enough value in the first few years to justify the long-term cost. Now, though, Choo is an underpowered 33 year old who doesn’t make enough contact to offset his flaws, and his problems with left-handers make him a part-time player at best. Realistically, he’s not much better than a guy like David DeJesus or David Murphy at this point, and the going rate for these kinds of players has been $5-$6 million per year on a two year deal.
Maybe we bump that up to $7 or $8 million due to inflation and Choo’s superior past performance record, but teams aren’t signing up to pay much for more than a few years, given his age. I’d estimate that you could maybe get someone to take $25 million over three years, but that would still leave the Rangers responsible for $77 million over the remainder of the contract. And amazingly enough, Choo isn’t even their least tradable asset.
#3: Justin Verlander, SP, Detroit
Controlled Through: 2019
Guaranteed Dollars: $112 million
2016 ZIPS WAR: +2.1
Five year ZIPS WAR: +7.3
Estimated Market Value: $30 million
Dead Money: $82 million
A few years ago, Justin Verlander was the best pitcher in baseball, but the decline from his peak has been swift and sudden. These days, Verlander looks like a back-end starter at best, and it probably won’t be too long before the Tigers start having serious considerations about trying to revive his career as a reliever. With his diminished stuff and inability to get strikeouts via the high fastball, Verlander doesn’t profile as anything more than a role player for the remainder of his contract.
But unfortunately for the Tigers, he’ll be getting paid like he’s still one of the game’s premier players. At $28 million per year for the next four years, a team would realistically expect something like +15 WAR from a free agent signing for a comparable amount; the Tigers will be lucky to get more half of that from Verlander. For the Tigers to get someone else to take the rest of this contract, I’d estimate that they’d have to pay him down to $7 or $8 million per year given the four years left on his contract.
Deals like the Justin Masterson contract show that teams will still take flyers on broken former aces, and the potential for Verlander to move to the bullpen would create a little bit of a market for him, but the Tigers would likely have to pick 75% of the salary in order to get another team to bite.
#2: Elvis Andrus, SS, Texas
Controlled Through: 2023
Guaranteed Dollars: $118 million
2016 ZIPS WAR: +1.6
Five year ZIPS WAR: +5.8
Estimated Market Value: $30 million
Dead Money: $88 million
When Andrus signed this extension back in 2013, he was coming off a 97 wRC+ as a 23 year old, and had just put up his second straight four win season; he looked like one of the best shortstops in baseball, and a pretty easy guy to bet on given his age. And then, almost overnight, Andrus fell apart. He’s put up just a 77 wRC+ since the deal was signed, and he’s gone from an elite defender to a below average fielder in a couple years time. Andrus now looks like someone who might better fit as a utility player on a good team, or a stop-gap starter on a team not really trying to win in the short-term.
Except he’s still due another $103 million in guaranteed money over the next seven years, and even worse, if he’s traded, the team option for 2023 becomes a player option, essentially guaranteeing him another $15 million. So any team attempting to acquire Andrus would be on the hook for $118 million in future commitments. He’s still young enough that you could squint and see a change-of-scenery candidate here, but how much would teams really pay for a no-hit infielder with diminishing defensive skills?
I’d put his floor around $5 million per year — that’s what Stephen Drew got from the Yankees last winter — but the length of the commitment would be a problem, and I can’t see anyone signing up to pay for more than five of the eight years they’d be on the hook for. I could see someone taking something like $30 million over those five years, figuring that they’d get only a slightly overpaid bench piece if he keeps struggling and a potential bargain if he bounces back at all, but that still leaves $88 million for the Rangers to absorb in order to trade him. Given that they could just pay him $103 to keep him for themselves — since the 2023 option almost certainly won’t be picked up if they don’t trade him — there’s no real incentive for Texas to make a deal like this. So both sides are probably stuck with each other, whether they like it or not.
#1: Robinson Cano, 2B, Seattle
Controlled Through: 2023
Guaranteed Dollars: $192 million
2016 ZIPS WAR: +3.6
Five year ZIPS WAR: +13.2
Estimated Market Value: $100 million
Dead Money: $92 million
During his long run as baseball’s premier second baseman, Cano thrived due to his rare ability to hit for power while posting elite contact rates. During his first season in Seattle, the power predictably fell off, but he kept his strikeouts to a minimum and created a lot of value by spraying line drives around the field. This year, though, Cano’s power has remained absent but now his contact rate has also regressed, leading to his highest strikeout rate of his career. While you don’t want to overreact to a bad half season, this looks like a 32 year old whose skills are beginning to atrophy.
Cano will likely rebound some and should still be expected to be an above average player in the short-term, but with nearly $200 million left on the $240 million deal he signed with the Mariners, this a huge commitment to a guy who probably isn’t a star anymore. Like with Pujols, I could see a team convincing themselves there’s still a $20 million per year player here based on expected short-term production — especially with the Yankees still having a glaring hole at second base — but the age and length would mean that they aren’t going anywhere near all eight remaining seasons. I think a best case scenario for the Mariners would be that someone takes $100 million, looking at him as a slightly better alternative to the Pablo Sandoval tier of free agents.
But even that might be optimistic, especially if the Yankees decided to pass on a reunion. Sandoval was heading into his age-28 season when he got $95 million, and has the same basic offensive skillset, even if he’s not as good at getting value from it as Cano has been. Given that 2016 will be Cano’s age-33 season, it’s probably unrealistic to expect too much of his power to come back, so perhaps the market tops out in the $85-$90 million range. At that point, the Mariners would still be on the hook for over $100 million, making this deal pretty clearly the contract with the most negative equity in baseball.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.