The Most Underwater Contracts in Baseball, and Why

Trades

Players

As you can see on our Highest/Lowest list, we rank all players by their surplus value, both top-down and bottom-up (if you flip the area by the Median label, and reverse-sort). The latter shows what are, essentially, the most underwater contracts in baseball. 

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean these are bad contracts, because win-now teams may not mind overpaying for good players (and we’re seeing that continue a bit this offseason). It just means that these are all players who appear to be overpaid relative to their expected production. So let’s review why that is.

First, for convenience’s sake, let’s repost the list here, in order of negative-value, going 20 deep:

Name

Years of control

AFV

Salary

Surplus

Strasburg

4

0

138.4

-138.4

Rendon

4

19.7

152

-132.3

Yelich

7

43.2

162.5

-119.3

Stanton

5

31.1

140

-108.9

Bryant

6

53.9

158

-104.1

Berrios

6

49

116

-67

Corbin

2

4.7

58.3

-53.7

Castellanos

4

32.6

80

-47.4

Seager

9

240.8

287.5

-46.7

Perez

4

26.6

64

-37.4

Story

6

79.6

117

-37.4

Ozuna

3

0.7

37

-36.3

Ray

4

57.6

92

-34.4

Bumgarner

2

3.3

36.6

-33.3

Cabrera

1

0

32

-32

Baez

5

88.5

120

-31.5

Votto

2

1.7

32

-30.3

Rodriguez

4

33.1

63

-29.9

McCullers

4

37.4

66.3

-28.9

Freeland

4

29.7

57.5

-27.8

Honorable mentions: Avisail Garcia (-26), Gerrit Cole (-25.7), Max Scherzer (-23.6), Mike Moustakas (-22), Chris Sale (-20.3)

Now let’s break them down by their primary categories:

Injury cases

Examples: Strasburg, Rendon, Bryant, Rodriguez, Sale

  • *Stephen Strasburg hasn’t pitched any meaningful innings since 2019, and he’s still owed over $138M. 
  • *Anthony Rendon has managed roughly ⅓ of a season in each of the last two years, and he’s still owed $152M. 
  • *The Kris Bryant signing was considered a major overpay by Colorado when it was announced, and the fact that Bryant then only appeared in 42 games this past season, producing only 0.6 fWAR, has only made things worse. 
  • *Eduardo Rodriguez was supposed to anchor the Tigers’ rotation as they tried to make it to the next level, but the signing backfired, as he dealt with both personal and health issues and produced only 0.6 fWAR. He might still turn things around, but he’s owed $63M and that seems a bit rich now. 
  • *Chris Sale has been in this category for several years, and while some of his injuries have been fluky, others have not, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that he’s done basically nothing since 2019.

Declining with age

Examples: Cabrera, Bumgarner, Votto, Moustakas

All of these are cases where the players are in the latter years of their contract, where negative value tends to go to die. The positive surplus was used up on the front end of the deal, and now it’s the dregs.

  • *Miguel Cabrera, bless him, will be 40 next year, and he’s still making $32M. He has no field value, and there’s no longer any reason for the Tigers to play him. At this point, just let him retire with some dignity (which does seem to be the plan, as he’s announced that 2023 will be his final year – they can just have him make a token appearance in each game on his farewell tour).
  • *Madison Bumgarner’s peak season (at least in fWAR terms) was 2015. He’s thrown well over 2,000 innings and has had a great career, including fantastic postseason performances. But he’s almost done. Just too many miles on that arm. He’s still owed $36.6M.
  • *Salvador Perez, like many catchers before him, is showing signs of a worn-out body. It happens. At this point he looks like a power-only DH. He’s owed $64M.
  • *Joey Votto, after his return to respectability in 2021, has turned back into a pumpkin. As he heads into his age-39 season, he too looks done, continuing his long late-30s decline phase. He’s still owed $32M.
  • *His teammate Mike Moustakas is now so done that even Steamer projects him for negative WAR. He’s owed $22M in completely dead money.

The overpaid DH: Stanton

Why is Giancarlo Stanton on this list, Yankees fans might wonder? Because he too has been dealing with chronic injury issues, and at this point he’s an aging DH-only with declining numbers, and is still owed $140M (even after subtracting out the Marlins’ contribution). He can still hit bombs, but they’re becoming less frequent than his stints on the IL. 

He hasn’t had a 4+ WAR season since 2018, but he’s still being paid into the foreseeable future as if he was still that player. Yankees fans may not mind, though, since it’s not their money. But if he were ever to be shopped as a trade candidate, the contract would be the biggest factor to other GMs.

The ones who just lost it

Examples: Yelich, Berrios, Corbin, Garcia

It’s not totally clear what happened to these players, but they’ve all declined, and some rather dramatically. Luckily for them, they signed their contracts when they were in peak form, so they’re set financially. But their respective teams might have some regrets.

  • *Christian Yelich has possibly been playing hurt. But it’s also possible he just peaked a little early, and is now in a slow decline. Both can be true.
  • *Patrick Corbin’s K-BB% has declined from the mid-20s to the low 11s, mostly because he’s not generating strikeouts as he was in his heyday. 
  • *Jose Berrios’ HR/9 rate climbed dramatically in 2022, from the low 1s to 1.52 – hitters were just clobbering him. 
  • *Avisail Garcia struck out a lot more while walking a lot less. He seems to have just completely lost his feel for the strike zone.

Very Good, Just Overpaid

Examples: Seager, Cole, Ray

This category is perhaps the most hotly debated, because it contradicts our instincts. Who wouldn’t want Corey Seager, Gerrit Cole, or Robbie Ray on their team?

To be sure, all three are still excellent players. If you just look at their current stats, you’d be reassured. 

The problem is when you look ahead: how good will they be in the future? And how much will they be paid then? You have to look at the length of the contract, and envision their production at, say, age 37, then compare that to what they’ll get paid through those years. It’s hard to do unless you have the numbers in front of you, so let’s plug those in for, say, Corey Seager:

Year

Age

AFV ($Ms)

Salary

Surplus

2023

29

37.6

35

2.6

2024

30

38.5

34.5

4

2025

31

38.1

32

6.1

2026

32

34.1

31

3.1

2027

33

29.4

31

-1.6

2028

34

24

31

-7

2029

35

18.3

31

-12.7

2030

36

12.4

31

-18.6

2031

37

6.4

31

-24.6

Total

240.8

287.5

-46.7

So as you can see, Seager is actually underpaid for the first couple of years of the contract. But as he gets older and starts to decline a bit, his production figures to go gradually south (which may be accompanied by a move off of SS, to either 3B or 2B). His contract starts to go negative at age 33. As he gets into his late 30s, the wheels really start to fall off (maybe he’s a DH only at that point) and the contract becomes more and more of an albatross.

The same figures to be true, more or less, for Gerrit Cole. And Robbie Ray seems to have leveled off to his new normal, which is a good-not-great starter, yet he’s being paid for his Cy Young-level year.

That said, some elite athletes are defying aging curves more these days (e.g., Verlander), so it’s possible some of these AFV estimates could be low. No one can predict the future – we can only use the data from history as a guideline. And to be sure, in most cases the teams don’t mind that these players are overpaid – they knew that when they outbid other teams for their services. And that is still happening this offseason.

Still, you might ask, wouldn’t you have to pay more in trade for a good player like Seager, Cole, or Ray?

Yes, but we’ve already baked that in (the “A” in “AFV” stands for “Adjusted,” which means we’ve accounted for their market value and/or availability). 

But when good teams want to win, wouldn’t they care more about acquiring a good player than about the money? 

Sometimes, yes. There will be overpays. But again, we’ve factored that into the equation already. And since GMs operate on budgets handed down to them by their owners, they can never ignore the money. They know they have to pay that player’s salary if they acquire them.

And if the player is overpaid for any reason, we’ll show that as a negative value, which means a team trading away that player would either have to include cash or a positive-value player or two to make up the difference.

Has that ever happened before? 

Yep. Remember when the Rockies traded Nolan Arenado and kicked in $50M to boot, to get a few lower-tier prospects back? That’s a prime example. (We had Arenado’s value at the time as -$44M, so the trade was accepted by our model.) Good (maybe great) player, but overpaid.

Still, it’s more common to see trades involving players in decline. All of these were real trades accepted by our model:

  • *Carlos Santana (-$4.9M in trade value at the time) was traded by the Royals to the Mariners in June 2022, along with $4.3M in cash to cover most of the value gap, for two minor prospects.
  • *Dexter Fowler (-$0.3M after the Cardinals ate his entire salary except for the league-minimum) was traded to the Angels in February 2021 for a PTBNL.
  • *Rougned Odor (-$27.7M in trade value at the time) was traded to the Yankees by the Rangers, who agreed to pay his entire remaining salary minus the league minimum ($28.3M) in exchange for two minor prospects.
  • *Eric Hosmer (-$35.2M in trade value at the time) was traded by the Padres to the Red Sox in July 2022, along with $44M in cash (essentially meaning the Padres agreed to pay his full salary for the 3+ remaining years of his contract, minus the league-minimum) AND two minor prospects for one prospect (Jay Groome, at $3.5M) in return.

There are many more examples of this, and there will be more to come. The point is, the money always matters. And that’s why some players – even good ones – can have negative value.

About the Author

John Bitzer

John Bitzer

Founder and editor of baseballtradevalues.com
16 Comments
  1. Michael Weston

    Is Robbie Ray really being paid at a CY Young level tho?
    He’s at 23 million a year when Eflin and Boyd just signed for over 10 mill a year. Syndergaard got 20 last year, Gausman was signed at 22 mill right after.

    I think 20 mill range definitely puts you in the conversation to being in the running for CYA and an Ace for your team but when Rodon is rumored at 30+ and Verlander is rumored at 40+, I feel the Ray contract isn’t that much of an overpay.

    • Doug K

      Robbie Ray’s five-year, $115 million contract came in $15 million shy of the five-year, $130 million contract predicted at MLB Trade Rumors.

      It’s an overpay but Ray’s not being paid at a Cy Young level.

    • JOSHUA TROWSDALE

      Agreed. With the salaries skyrocketing over the last couple of years, his salary looks about right. Maybe an overpay at the time or maybe some great insight on where good SP wages were going…

  2. Bertin Lefkovic

    Trying to construct bad contract for bad contract deals or making the impossible acquisition of an elite player possible by attaching an underwater contract to the deal are probably my favorite things to do on this site.

    My favorites for my Yankees are sending Donaldson and Hicks to the Nationals for Corbin, Montas, Stanton, and prospects to the Angels for Ohtani and Rendon, and Donaldson and Hicks to the Brewers for Burnes, Williams, and Yelich. I even constructed one trade with the Angels that included both Ohtani and Trout with Rendon.

    Have you ever considered creating a forum for users of this site to negotiate trades with one another? I think that would be a lot of fun.

    • John Bitzer

      It happens informally already in the comments section of proposals quite often. But we’ll give it some thought. Thanks for the suggestion.

  3. Bennett Johnson

    This article should be mandatory reading for all baseball fans and general managers alike. Every year people clamor for their team’s owner to spend millions of his or her bucks to sign free agents, when the reality is very few of these deals pan out. As a Cubs fan, I like the idea of “intelligent spending,” but I think they were dumb to announce it. Back in the day, Larry Himes let Greg Maddox walk over a few hundred thousand dollars. An example of unintelligent non-spending. So, there is a time to pull the trigger. But throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at free agents who are usually past their prime seems stupid. The time to spend is before a player reaches free agency, by locking them up in long term contracts, if possible. However, as Tatis, Jr., Jon Singleton, and Evan White show, that is no guarantee either.

    Unfortunately, the dumbest sports agent seems to be smarter than the most intelligent G.M. For example, Boras is famous for getting front offices bidding against themselves. The amount of money that players make is obscene, imo. Not saying they shouldn’t make a lot of money. But there seems to be no correlation to the amount they earn and their contribution to society. I’m a big baseball fan, but if someone is gonna make $500 million, I would rather it be Paul McCartney than Juan Soto, if you catch my drift. However, the worst owner sets the bar for the others.

    Jon, I’m so glad you wrote this article. Who wants Javy Baez or his cousin, Jose Berrios (who signed before hitting free agency), back, a year later after they signed their huge deals? Baez is my favorite player in the world, but Detroit can keep him. Matt Boyd, too. $10 million for that?

    • Tyler McMahon

      MLB clubs keep their books closed for a reason. I’ll leave it at that.

      • Douglas Joslyn

        I don’t get what you’re saying. Paul McCarthy doesn’t do more for society than Juan Soto…They are both entertainers. Some people are entertained more by song and song by sports.

  4. Jon Jesse

    I think, as a Brewers fan, that more important than the bad money they have tied up with Yelich, is the other 2 contracts on here (Moose & Garcia) that they refused. Yelich will still provide a modicum of value.

  5. Michael Sprague

    Have you considering that the cost of WAR is maybe going up as well which shifts some of this? The cost of WAR is very clearly up this offseason as guys projected for like 1.5 WAR are getting 15-18M a year.

    • John Bitzer

      Yes, we’ve been re-calibrating our numbers across the board due to the levels of spending we’re seeing. So some of these have changed since this article was published.

  6. username 1001

    That breakdown of Seager’s expected AFV based on your model is one of the most enlightening tables I have seen that peels back the curtain of BTV’s reasoning better than what is currently available on your site.

    Do you think there could be a way to have this data displayed for each player? Like maybe in their individual player pages since the table has to be spread out over the entire length of the contract?

    Also, an average AFV per year (AFV/Years) would be a great figure to sort by for formulating and proposing trades!

    • John Bitzer

      Funny you should mention that. We’re going to work that into the next version of the site.

  7. Ryan Stall

    Where do the Trevor Bauer’s, Marcell Ozuna’s and Felipe Vazquez’s of the world fall on this list?

    • John Bitzer

      Ozuna is on the list — just click the link at the top and reverse the arrows. The other two are completely untradeable due to non-baseball reasons, so there’s no point in including them. They’ve been taken out of the system.

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