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Gail Burton/Associated Press
If Major League Baseball existed in a perfect world, there would be a 1-to-1 relationship between teams’ highest-paid and best players.
Alas, MLB exists in the same imperfect world as the rest of us.
With the 2018 season just about at the quarter pole, we’re going to look at which stars are providing the most disappointing returns on big salaries. This involves players who are making at least $5 million and/or accounting for at least 5 percent of their teams’ payrolls, according to Spotrac.
From there, it’s about finding the largest differences between players’ payroll percentages and their percentages of their teams’ total wins above replacement (via Baseball Reference, as of August 14). Go here for full results.
We’re ignoring dead money (Yasmany Tomas and Hanley Ramirez) and players who’ve been inactive the entire season (David Wright, Jacoby Ellsbury and Troy Tulowitzki). Also, not every player discussed ahead is having a bad year. Some are good (even great) players who just aren’t living up to impossible standards set by their salaries.
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Gregory Bull/Associated Press
Payroll %: 24.2
WAR %: 12.8
This says as much about the Arizona Diamondbacks payroll as it does about Zack Greinke’s pitching ability. They’re paying him more money on average ($34.4 million) than any player in MLB, yet they’re operating with only a slightly above average $140.6 million payroll.
For his part, Greinke has been quite good with a 3.00 ERA over 156 innings through his first 25 starts of 2018. He earned his fifth All-Star nod in July, and he should get some attention in the National League Cy Young Award voting.
Still, Greinke hasn’t been immeasurably better than teammate Patrick Corbin, who’s only pulling in $7.5 million. Nor, as his salary might suggest, has he been the best pitcher in baseball. A dozen hurlers have compiled more WAR than he has.
The 34-year-old has thus been sufficient, but not exemplary.
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Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
Payroll %: 5.4
WAR %: -1.0
The Atlanta Braves are only paying $7 million of Brandon McCarthy’s $11.5 million salary. The other $4.5 million is on the Los Angeles Dodgers, who sent McCarthy to Atlanta as part of the Matt Kemp trade.
McCarthy, 35, seemed like a decent upside play at the time. Although he had missed much of the previous three seasons with injuries, he’d pitched well (3.98 ERA) when he was healthy in 2017.
Unfortunately, the injury bug has bitten McCarthy once again. He hasn’t pitched since June 24 due to knee inflammation. To boot, his upside didn’t pan out when he was healthy. He put up a 4.92 ERA, no thanks to the seventh-highest home run rate (1.72 HR/9) among pitchers who made at least 15 starts.
Still, the Braves might be glad to have McCarthy in what he says will be his final season. The good stuff they’ve gotten out of their young pitchers in 2018 may not have been possible without his veteran influence.
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Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
Payroll %: 17.0
WAR %: -22.2
To be fair to Chris Davis, he’s far from the Baltimore Orioles’ only problem.
The entire team has produced only 9.9 WAR. That hints at how little talent the Orioles have in both their lineup and their pitching staff. And in the wake of the non-waiver trade deadline, these units are now missing Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, Zach Britton and Brad Brach.
Nonetheless, Davis is certainly the Orioles’ biggest problem.
His $161 million contract—the most expensive in Baltimore’s history—is already looking like an utter disaster in just its third year. The alleged slugger’s .555 OPS outpaces only Alcides Escobar for the worst among qualified hitters. He’s also tacked on just 15 home runs.
Hence the 32-year-old’s minus-2.2 WAR. That’s the worst among everyday position players.
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Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
Payroll %: 13.2
WAR %: 6.1
Whereas Price spent much of last season injured and warring with the media, he’s been relatively healthy and productive this time around. With a solid 3.75 ERA through 23 starts, he’s been the Boston Red Sox’s second-best pitcher after Chris Sale.
All the same, Price is pulling in $30 million in the third season of a seven-year, $217 million contract. The Red Sox gave Price that deal in hopes that he would live up to the American League Cy Young Award he won in 2012 and the AL ERA titles he won in ’12 and 2015. He hasn’t and still isn’t.
The letdown may not be over soon. Although Price has the option to become a free agent this winter, his best business move is to opt in to the final four years and $127 million of his deal.
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Dylan Buell/Getty Images
Payroll %: 13.3
WAR %: -0.3
The Chicago Cubs seemed to complete the ensemble when they signed Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million contract in February. Up until then, their starting rotation had a sizable hole in it.
Unfortunately for them, Darvish hasn’t been able to fill it in reality.
Darvish, 32, flopped in his first eight starts as a Cub. Mainly by way of 21 walks and seven home runs allowed, he managed just a 4.95 ERA in 40 innings.
These are also the only eight starts Darvish has made this year. He went on the disabled list with triceps tendinitis May 27, and the road back has been fraught with peril. Even now, as the end of the season rapidly approaches, there’s no clear timetable for when he’ll be back.
On the bright side, Darvish still has five years to earn his keep. On a less bright side, what’s happened this year may be a sign of things to come.
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Payroll %: 9.4
WAR %: 1.0
Miguel Gonzalez has actually been the Chicago White Sox’s biggest waste of money. He accounts for 6.7 percent of their payroll and minus-6.7 percent of their WAR.
However, Gonzalez did all that in three starts in April before a shoulder injury led to season-ending surgery. He’s also nobody’s idea of a “star.”
Avisail Garcia, on the other hand, broke out as an All-Star last season. He’s followed that up by falling into an unhealthy, unproductive rut.
Garcia has played in just 59 games due to two separate stints on the disabled list twice with hamstring strains. He showed signs of life after returning from his first DL stint, but it’s been a struggle for him on either side of that stretch. He has just a .730 OPS, way down from the .885 mark he posted in 2017.
The good news: Garcia is still 27 and under Chicago’s control through 2019. He should bounce back.
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Payroll %: 21.3
WAR %: -6.1
Much of the Cincinnati Reds’ $98.8 million payroll is tied up in Joey Votto and Homer Bailey. In terms of performance, one of these things is very much unlike the other.
Votto hasn’t been at his best in 2018, but he’s maintaining as one of MLB’s toughest outs via a National League-best .422 on-base percentage. There should be more where that came from in the final five years of his 10-year, $225 million contract.
Bailey, meanwhile, is a wreck in year five of his six-year, $105 million deal. He’s been limited to 16 starts by right knee inflammation, and he’s given up 18 homers en route to a 6.33 ERA in 85.1 innings. He’s been better since returning from knee soreness July 24, but only to the tune of a 5.40 ERA.
So it goes for the once-electric 32-year-old. He peaked with a pair of no-hitters and a 3.58 ERA across 2013 and 2014. In four years since, he’s made only 42 starts and put up a 6.37 ERA.
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David Maxwell/Getty Images
Payroll %: 13.3
WAR %: 1.8
The Cleveland Indians have been and still are getting some good power out of Edwin Encarnacion. He slammed 38 home runs in 2017, the first season of his three-year, $60 million deal. He’s up to 25 so far in 2018.
That’s pretty much all the Indians are getting out of their highest-paid player, however.
This season has brought a shocking decline of Encarnacion’s consistency, as his OBP has plummeted from .377 to .317. The downturn in his batting average on balls in play points to some bad luck at work, but this is also self-inflicted. His walk rate is the lowest it’s been since 2011.
Ultimately, a formerly elite hitter is now a merely good hitter. Since Encarnacion doesn’t bring anything else to the table, that’s a problem.
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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
Payroll %: 15.4
WAR %: -0.9
Ian Desmond has been productive since getting off to a disastrous start. Go back to May 18, and he’s rocking a solid .269/.353/.485 slash line with 13 homers and 10 stolen bases.
Nonetheless, he’s tracking toward his second straight year as a sunk cost.
Desmond was a total flop in the first year of his five-year, $70 million deal with the Colorado Rockies in 2017. He played in only 95 games and finished with a .701 OPS and minus-1.1 WAR.
The 32-year-old has only improved to a .735 OPS and minus-0.2 WAR thus far in 2018. Any player who gets to hit regularly at Coors Field should do better. But even Coors is powerless to do anything with ground balls, and Desmond hits more of those than any everyday player.
Throw in how Desmond doesn’t have a true home on defense, and the Rockies’ most expensive player is a veritable value drain.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Payroll %: 13.9
WAR %: -8.2
Miguel Cabrera accounts for a whopping 23.2 percent of the Detroit Tigers’ $129.8 million payroll. But while he may be on the shelf recovering from biceps surgery, he was still a quality hitter when he was healthy.
If only the same could be said of Victor Martinez.
Fresh off an excellent 2014 season that secured him a four-year, $68 million contract, things started going south for Martinez before the 2015 season even began. Surgery on his left knee rendered him unable to hit up to his usual standards.
Things have rarely gotten better for Martinez since then, and now they’re worse than ever. The 39-year-old has been healthy enough to play in 105 games, yet his .624 OPS is fifth-worst among qualified hitters.
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Bob Levey/Getty Images
Payroll %: 7.1
WAR %: 1.9
The Houston Astros have most of their $161.2 million payroll tied up in Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Yuli Gurriel, George Springer, Brian McCann and Jose Altuve. It looks good on the team that none of them has been truly bad this year.
McCann, however, has been the least good.
However, McCann’s work behind the plate is his saving grace. He always does good work with his pitchers, and he’s nabbed 33 percent of attempted base stealers this season.
Relative to most guys on this list, he can only be knocked down so many pegs.
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Jim Mone/Associated Press
Payroll %: 7.0
WAR %: -21.4
Teams don’t get much worse than the Kansas City Royals. Their record is only half a game better than Baltimore’s for the worst in MLB, and they rank ahead of only the Miami Marlins in total WAR.
In a sense, Jason Hammel has done his part.
The 35-year-old righty joined the Royals last year via a two-year, $16 million contract. He was a good source of innings in 2017, but not much else. He finished the year with a 5.29 ERA.
Hammel has nonetheless found ways to get even worse to the tune of a 6.10 ERA in 2018. Although his home runs are down, so are his strikeouts. His rate of hard contact, meanwhile, is through the proverbial roof.
The Royals have already demoted Hammel to their bullpen. All they have to do now is wait for his contract to mercifully come to an end.
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John McCoy/Getty Images
Payroll %: 17.3
WAR %: 1.7
Albert Pujols‘ 2018 is going better than his 2017. His OPS is up 34 points, and he’s on pace for more home runs.
This sounds good until you realize his OPS is .706 and he’s on pace for just 24 home runs.
Alas, Pujols’ once-mighty bat appears to be well and truly dead. He doesn’t draw walks at nearly the rate he did in his prime. His power output has also fallen well below its peak. And while he still puts plenty of balls in play, defensive shifts have ruined his ability to hit for average.
To the 38-year-old’s credit, he’s answered the Los Angeles Angels’ call to be more of a factor at first base this year. But it’s not enough to save his WAR, which sits at 0.5.
There are still three years left on Pujols’ 10-year, $240 million contract. Whether the Angels will let him play those out has become a good question.
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Dylan Buell/Getty Images
Payroll %: 18.2
WAR %: 9.9
Clayton Kershaw isn’t the only expensive player on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ $194.2 million payroll. But his payroll percentage is nearly twice that of Matt Kemp, who’s second at 9.3 percent.
This would be neither here nor there if the 30-year-old lefty was still worthy of sincere comparisons to fellow Dodger great Sandy Koufax. But Kershaw isn’t that guy anymore.
Because of a bout with biceps tendinitis, the three-time Cy Young Award winner is going to fall short of 30 starts for the fourth time in five years. And while his 2.47 ERA is just dandy by normal people standards, it’s nothing like the 1.88 ERA he had in his magical 2013-16 run. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate is closer to average than it’s ever been.
Is Kershaw still better than, say, 99 percent of pitchers in MLB? Yes.
But is he living up to his MLB-high $35.6 million salary? Not quite.
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
Payroll %: 10.9
WAR %: -13.1
Even at the time, the five-year, $80 million contract the Miami Marlins gave Wei-Yin Chen in January 2016 seemed like a bit much. He had spent the previous four years as a good-not-great pitcher.
Lo and behold, he’s become a bad-not-good pitcher.
Chen, 33, ran into trouble right away with a 4.96 ERA in just 22 starts in 2016. He was promptly limited to nine appearances by elbow trouble in 2017. That same elbow has held him to only 19 starts in 2018.
To boot, these starts haven’t been good. Chen has struggled with a 5.32 ERA, with one problem being a career-worst 1.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s also served up 16 home runs in 94.2 innings.
It gets worse. Although Chen’s deal only has two years left on it, these two years will pay him the bulk ($42 million) of his total guarantee.
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Morry Gash/Associated Press
Payroll %: 19.0
WAR %: 2.5
Ryan Braun signed a five-year, $105 million contract extension with the Milwaukee Brewers in April 2011. He went on to win the National League MVP that year, but the ensuing three seasons brought performance-enhancing-drug controversies and injuries that chipped away at his playing ability.
Then in 2016, his extension finally kicked in.
The 34-year-old has steered clear of additional PED drama, but the injury bug and Father Time are steering him toward his worst season yet in 2018. He landed on the DL with back tightness in May, and he’s managed a career-low .765 OPS and 0.7 WAR when healthy. Although he’s still a solid power hitter, the BABIP gods have abandoned him.
There is but one silver lining for the Brewers: The final two years of Braun’s deal will only pay him $36 million.
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Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
Payroll %: 19.9
WAR %: 3.9
Speaking of contract extensions that seemed like a good idea at the time, Joe Mauer signed an eight-year, $184 million deal with the Minnesota Twins in 2010, when he was fresh off winning the American League MVP.
Alas, he hasn’t lived up that 2009 season. The 28 home runs he hit quickly proved to be an aberration. By 2014, the toll that years of catching had taken on his body finally forced him to first base.
Now in the final year of his deal, the 35-year-old is pretty much devoid of value. He still resembles an excellent pure hitter, but his .269 average and .349 OBP are well below his usual standards. His power, meanwhile, has gone from disappointing to nonexistent. He’s hit just three homers all season.
All the same, it’s doubtful the Twins would take Mauer’s contract back if they could. If nothing else, it kept a hometown hero and one of the greatest players in their history around for the long haul.
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Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
Payroll %: 19.4
WAR %: 4.7
The New York Mets couldn’t let Yoenis Cespedes go after his red-hot bat carried them to the postseason in 2015. Nor could they let him go after 2016, when he carried their lineup once again.
Nevertheless, the four-year, $110 million contract with which the Mets retained Cespedes came loaded with risk. His track record was riddled with injuries, and he would be 31 in 2017.
Sure enough, the injury bug has gone from nagging Cespedes to all-out haunting him. Hamstring injuries limited him to 81 games in 2017, and trouble with his heels ended his 2018 season after only 38 games. Both heels have since undergone surgery, which promises to knock the 32-year-old out for a portion of 2019.
To Cespedes’ credit, he’s remained an offensive force when he’s been healthy. But his outfield defense has crumbled. Between his age and his track record, that’s one thing that could be permanent.
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Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
Payroll %: 12.4
WAR %: 3.8
Although the New York Yankees have three $20 million-plus salaries on their 2018 payroll, only two belong to active players: Giancarlo Stanton and Masahiro Tanaka.
The former is living up to his billing as an elite slugger. The latter, however, is falling short of his billing as an ace.
Albeit with a few elbow scares mixed in, Tanaka looked the part of a $155 million pitcher in his first three seasons in New York. He pitched to a 3.12 ERA with a 5.3 K/BB ratio over 75 starts, culminating in a run at the AL Cy Young Award in 2016.
At this point, the Yankees can only hope Tanaka finds the same mojo he found last October all over again.
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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Payroll %: 8.3
WAR %: -0.6
A high-paid star on the Oakland Athletics? Pish posh. Their most expensive player is Khris Davis, whose $10.5 million salary doesn’t even equal what the San Diego Padres are paying James Shields to play for the White Sox.
Still, somebody on the A’s has to go here. And Jonathan Lucroy is the unlucky “winner.”
During his time with the Brewers from 2010 to 2016, Lucroy was your least favorite hipster’s favorite baseball player. He could hit, sure, but even better was his catching. Lucroy was better than anyone at framing strikes in those days.
In the year 2018, however, the 32-year-old isn’t even in the black in framing value, according to Baseball Prospectus. He’s also not the hitter he once was, as he’s mustered only a .614 OPS and two homers.
Ultimately, Lucroy hasn’t been much more than a warm body for the A’s. It’s a good thing that’s really all they need behind the plate.
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Norm Hall/Getty Images
Payroll %: 29.2
WAR %: 10.2
Shame on Jake Arrieta for not being the best pitcher in baseball.
The 32-year-old was that guy once, specifically in 2015, when he authored one of the most dominant seasons in history. He regressed to being merely good in 2016 and 2017, and so it goes in 2018. With his fastball velocity still far below its peak, he’s managed “only” a 3.33 ERA in 23 starts.
However, the real issue here has to do with Arrieta’s three-year, $75 million contract and its place in the Philadelphia Phillies payroll.
Arrieta’s deal is frontloaded with a $30 million salary in 2018. Since the Phillies are mostly built around homegrown talent, his salary carries the largest payroll percentage of any player in MLB.
If there’s an onus here, it’s on the Phillies to do Arrieta a solid by spending more money on future payrolls.
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Justin Berl/Getty Images
Payroll %: 11.2
WAR %: 0.5
The Pittsburgh Pirates extended Josh Harrison for four years and $27.3 million at an appropriate time. This was in April 2015, shortly after the super-utility man had just embarked on an All-Star 2014 season in which he did a little bit of everything.
It’s become clear since that ’14 season that Harrison, 31, has two modes: He either plays like an All-Star, or he disappears into the background amid injuries and ineffectiveness.
After 2018, the Pirates have the affordable options on Harrison for 2019 ($10.5 million) and 2020 ($11.5 million). At those rates, it’ll be worth their while to see if Harrison can recapture his All-Star form.
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Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press
Payroll %: 21.1
WAR %: 4.4
When the Padres signed Eric Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million contract—easily the largest in franchise history—in February, they were quick to play up his winning background.
“We believe his leadership and passion for the game will be invaluable as we work towards our goal of a World Series championship,” said general manager A.J. Preller, per AJ Cassavell of MLB.com.
This may yet pan out. But in the meantime, the Padres have an unproductive asset on their hands. Through 118 games, Hosmer is struggling at the plate with a .709 OPS. At play there are increases in both his strikeout and ground-ball rates.
Since Hosmer is still just 28 years old, the Padres must not panic yet. But given that this isn’t Hosmer’s first rodeo (see 2012 and 2014) as a poor hitter, concern should be setting in.
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Jason O. Watson/Getty Images
Payroll %: 9.6
WAR %: -3.3
The first two seasons of Jeff Samardzija’s five-year, $90 million deal with the San Francisco Giants were largely successful. He racked up 411 total innings, as well as a non-terrible 4.12 ERA.
But in 2018, the 33-year-old has broken down every which way.
His worst problem has been shoulder inflammation that’s put him on the DL three times already. In light of that, it’s no surprise that his average fastball is two miles per hour slower than it was in 2017. Likewise, the decline in his strikeout rate also makes sense.
These things add up to a lot of missed time along with a 6.25 ERA in the 10 starts Samardzija has made. Given his age and the amount of mileage on his arm, it’s all a bad omen for what may await in the final two years of his deal.
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Abbie Parr/Getty Images
Payroll %: 16.8
WAR %: -5.1
Felix Hernandez deserves better than what has befallen him in 2018.
Through his first 13 seasons, he tended to be a shining light on otherwise dim Seattle Mariners teams. He compiled a 3.20 ERA, made six All-Star teams, won two AL ERA titles, pitched a perfect game in 2012 and captured the AL Cy Young Award in 2010. But for all that, the Mariners averaged just 76 wins per season.
Now the Mariners are finally good, and King Felix’s crown no longer fits. He mustered just a 5.73 ERA through 23 starts before he was finally demoted to the bullpen. Even with another year and $27.9 left on his contract, he may not escape that role.
The Mariners may make their first postseason since 2001 despite Hernandez’s fall. Even still, one can’t help but wonder what they could have done if they’d built a contender in Hernandez’s prime.
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Dylan Buell/Getty Images
Payroll %: 10.1
WAR %: -5.4
Now that Dexter Fowler’s left foot is broken, his 2018 season might be over after 90 games.
This may have happened naturally. After all, Fowler is a 32-year-old outfielder with a lot of miles on his legs and more than a few injuries in his history.
However, the St. Louis Cardinals may also bear responsibility for Fowler’s misery. Between President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak seemingly questioning the veteran’s effort and an apparent feud (according to Mark Saxon of The Athletic) with former manager Mike Matheny, one doesn’t get the impression that Fowler has played in the most supportive work environment this year.
In any event, all sides must trust that things can only get better in the final three years of Fowler’s five-year, $82.5 million deal.
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Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Payroll %: 8.0
WAR %: 1.8
Like the A’s, the Tampa Bay Rays are an inconvenient fit for this exercise. Their $71.1 million payroll is the lowest in MLB, and nobody on it is even sniffing a $10 million salary.
Kevin Kiermaier comes the closest at $5.7 million. And unfortunately for the Rays, that money is being spent on the most disastrous season of the 28-year-old’s career.
For starters, thumb surgery has limited Kiermaier to just 56 games. In these, his bat has gone ice-cold to the tune of a .180/.250/.297 slash line and a .547 OPS. He had come into the year with a solid .750 OPS for his career.
On the plus side, Kiermaier is still one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. And barring any lingering effects from his thumb surgery, his six-year, $53.5 million contract leaves plenty of time for his bat to bounce back.
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Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
Payroll %: 6.5
WAR %: -6.5
In December 2011, the Rays handed Matt Moore a five-year, $14 million contract that, through options, could become an eight-year deal worth north of $40 million.
And why not? Moore had gone into 2011 as one of MLB’s elite prospects, and he ended the year with a strong entry to the majors that culminated in seven shutout innings in Game 1 of the American League Division Series. In all, exciting stuff for a 22-year-old.
Since then, however, Moore has been on a rocky road that’s covered Tommy John surgery, two trades and at least as many downs as ups. It’s been all downs for the Texas Rangers this season. After posting an 8.02 ERA through 12 starts, he’s managed just a 5.67 ERA in 13 appearances as a reliever.
Moore is still only 29 years old. But after all he’s been through, it’s doubtful the Rangers will deem him worthy of his $10 million option for 2019.
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Hunter Martin/Getty Images
Payroll %: 14.7
WAR %: 3.4
According to WAR, Josh Donaldson was the best player in baseball after Mike Trout between 2013 and 2017.
In 2018, however, Donaldson has all but disappeared.
This is true from a production perspective. After averaging a .901 OPS and 33 homers per year over the five previous seasons, the 32-year-old bears just a .757 OPS and five homers in only 36 games this season.
To an extent, this is also true from a literal perspective. A calf strain has kept the 2015 AL MVP off the field since May 29, and updates on his condition have been few and far between. He posted evidence of himself running to Instagram on August 15, yet it’s still unclear when or even if he’ll return to the Toronto Blue Jays.
For now, the $23 million the Blue Jays are spending on Donaldson is going down the drain. But if it results in re-signing him for cheap as a free agent, they may ultimately break even.
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Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
Payroll %: 9.4
WAR %: -2.1
Daniel Murphy has been looking a lot like Daniel Murphy since July 8. Over 31 games, the veteran has mashed with a .390/.435/.600 slash line and five home runs.
But even at this rate, Murphy may not be able to salvage his $17.5 million salary.
The microfracture surgery that Murphy, 33, underwent on his right knee in October 2017 looms large. It delayed his 2018 debut until June 12, and it was presumably behind his initial struggle to find his stroke.
Meanwhile, that surgery has been no help to a defensive reputation that wasn’t good to begin with. Despite his limited exposure, Murphy’s minus-eight defensive runs saved rank third-worst among second basemen.
All the same, the Washington Nationals have gotten way more out of Murphy’s three-year, $37.5 million deal than they bargained for. And provided he stays hot, he should get another good free-agent deal this winter.