After a couple of years of relatively cautious spending, Major League teams are opening their wallets again this winter. If you count the Troy Tulowitzki contract extension, we’ve seen three deals struck that guarantee over $100 million in future commitments, and Cliff Lee hasn’t even signed yet. The last time we saw this kind of aggressive spending in the market was 2006, when four teams spent in excess of $100 million to acquire new talent. Unfortunately for those with money this winter, that winter also serves as a reminder for why throwing your cash around can be a bad idea.
The four players who cost their teams $100+ million that winter? Alfonso Soriano (8 years, $136 million), Barry Zito (7 years, $126 million), Carlos Lee (6 years, $100 million), and Daisuke Matsuzaka (6 years, $52 million, plus a $51 million posting fee). None of those players have come close to providing a return on their investment, and are all essentially untradeable at this point.
It wasn’t just the big four, either. That was the winter where Gary Matthews Jr, Juan Pierre, Gil Meche, Jeff Suppan, Julio Lugo, Vicente Padilla, Miguel Batista, Adam Eaton, and Kei Igawa represented a large chunk of the middle class talents, all landing deals for 3+ years at pretty significant money. Even some of the older guys who had to settle for short term deals ended up as expensive busts, as Nomar Garciaparra, Frank Thomas, and Ray Durham all ended their careers on a down note.
The final tally from that winter is remarkably ugly. The numbers tell the story.
Players who signed deals of 4+ years: 14;
Total money committed to those players: $941 million;
WAR produced by those players to date: 96.9;
Dollar Per WAR produced to date: $7.3 million.
So far the cost per win for the big 14 who got long term deals that winter is over $7 million, and it’s only going to rise as teams continue to pay players like Matthews, Igawa, and Meche big money for no real value.
Of the players who signed long term deals in 2006, the only one that you could argue is a deal that the team would do again is the J.D. Drew contract with the Red Sox- he has earned the $14 million per year that Boston paid him. Interestingly, that was perhaps the contract that received the most negative reaction from the team’s local media, as Drew was labeled an injury prone malcontent from the minute he signed the deal. Given the other options Boston had that winter, they now look like geniuses for spending their money on the one productive premium free agent.
Drew, however, has not been the most productive free agent signed that year. The guy who has produced the highest WAR over the last four years from the 2006 winter free agent crop is Jayson Werth, who signed a one year deal with the Phillies for $850,000. I’d say that was a pretty decent investment.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.