Baseball’s most overpaid players

Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees in the dugout.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The halfway point beckons for the 2010 Major League Baseball season. As good a time as any to check on which players are stealing the most money from their respective clubs … well, OK, stealing is an exaggeration, but every season brings more than its share of players raking in eight figures in return that could be duplicated by minimum salaried rookies.

The biggest reason for bad contracts: The pressure to win compels general managers who want to hold onto their jobs to extend that extra year or two (or three) to a productive player who’s up for a contract, even if common sense says the player’s best years will end before the deal does (a la Todd Helton(notes) of the Rockies and Aaron Rowand(notes) of the Giants). Or a GM will take a leap of faith on a player who’s had a brief run of success, hoping it wasn’t a fluke. Too often it is (as with Jeff Suppan(notes), just traded to the Cardinals from the Brewers, and Gary Matthews Jr.(notes), recently released by the Mets).

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In Pictures: Baseball’s most overpaid players

In going around the horn to track the most overpriced player at each position, we matched each player’s 2010 salary against a statistic of growing influence in baseball circles – Value Over Replacement Player (VORP). Put out by “Baseball Prospectus,” VORP compiles a score for each player based on his run production (or run prevention by pitchers) over and above what a team could expect from a low-cost, minimal salaried player at his position.

Low-cost “replacement” players are found to perform at about 80 percent of the league average, the numbers show, classifying them as slightly below-average players. So a higher-priced veteran needs to perform well above that level to justify his salary. To see who is and who isn’t, we compiled salary figures and VORP scores across the majors. We found that, on average, a player is paid just over $877,000 for each VORP point he accumulates. Example: A player who makes $5 million annually should have a VORP score of 5.7 ($5,000,000 / $877,000). If his VORP score is lower than 5.7, he’s overpaid.

So who besides Matthews, Helton, Rowand and Suppan lead the overpaid team? Detroit’s Gerald Laird(notes) ($4 million; -11.3 VORP) is the catcher, while Houston’s Carlos Lee(notes) ($19 million; -7.4 VORP) completes the outfield. Pat Burrell(notes), recently picked up by the San Francisco Giants, still qualifies as this year’s least productive designated hitter for his .221 early season average in Tampa Bay.

Filling out the infield: second baseman Julio Lugo(notes), shortstop Derek Jeter(notes) and third baseman Aramis Ramirez(notes), who barely beats out Jeter’s Yankee running mate Alex Rodriguez(notes) (it’s been a sub-par season for A-Rod, who earns a whopping $33 million). Jeter, somewhat predictably, is the one player who makes the list despite a respectable VORP score of 17.

Chalk up Jeter’s presence to his outsized contract. The $22.6 million he pulls in skews the math so much that he’d have a tough time staying off the list. Put it this way: He earns so much money (six times what the average starting shortstop in baseball takes home) he needs a 25.8 VORP to make the numbers work. Against all players in the game, his VORP ranks 61st. On pay he’s third.

So to Jeter worshippers who think he can’t possibly be paid enough, think again. Few doubt Jeter’s Hall of Fame credentials, including his leadership and other intangible qualities. But he also makes more than star shortstops Jimmy Rollins(notes), Hanley Ramirez(notes) and Troy Tulowitzki(notes) combined. When it comes to valuing a player, everyone has a limit.

The list:

First Base – Todd Helton: Slideshow
Second Base – Julio Lugo: Slideshow
Shortstop – Derek Jeter: Slideshow
Third Base – Aramis Ramirez: Slideshow
Left Field – Carlos Lee: Slideshow
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In Pictures: Baseball’s most overpaid players

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Updated Thursday, Jul 1, 2010