Industry insiders call it dead money. A player does well for a while, and then gets rewarded with a big-money contract. Only it doesn't work out long term.
Sometimes the team executive puts too much faith in a player's college career or in a small sample of a young pro. In other cases, a general manager feeling the pressure to win immediately caves to an agent and offers a long-term deal to an older player whose productive days are likely to end before the contract does.
"Everyone understand that guy's age, but many look at a certain guy and think he's the exception," says David Berri, a sports economist who teaches at Southern Utah University. "They rationalize by saying the guy's in great shape, that he does all the right things."
We dug through playing records and salaries around the NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball to see which players were getting paid the biggest bucks while contributing little during the past year. Salaries and stats were measured for the most recent seasons: the 2009-10 football, basketball and hockey seasons, plus the first 60 (or so) games of the 2010 baseball season.
Among the most notable: NFL quarterbacks Derek Anderson and Kerry Collins, who counted heavily against their teams' salary caps last year despite not starting consistently, and baseball's Gary Matthews Jr., an $11 million outfielder just released by the New York Mets after playing little.
The one big question in measuring production and playing time is how much weight to give injuries. To have a high-salaried player go down with a sudden bum knee or arm is always a risk, and usually not the player's fault. So we cut a break for any normally productive player who suffered a sudden injury this season.
Example: We didn't include New Orleans Hornets star Chris Paul, who missed more than half the 2009-10 while collecting $13.5 million season after tearing his knee. Same goes for Blake Griffin, last year's top NBA pick who sat out his rookie season with a broken kneecap, and Minnesota Twins relief pitcher Joe Nathan, healthy and productive for seven straight years before going out with a shoulder injury this season. True, the Twins' $11.5 million investment in Nathan for 2010 went poof along with his shoulder, but risks are risks.
Those proving to be perpetually injury prone, though, are fair game. There just comes a point where a player earning big bucks has to show he can stay on the field (or court). Hence the brittle Portland Trail Blazers' center Greg Oden isn't spared, nor is underachiever Eddy Curry of the Knicks, whose lack of interest in conditioning has contributed to his injury problems the past two years.
The bulk of the list, though, consists of players who scored lucrative deals thanks to past successes, only to fade to part-time duty since. Inking a productive veteran to a long-term contract that figures to take him past his prime is a risk many clubs have taken under pressure to win (though some showed signs of reining in the practice during the 2009 recession – the Yankees bidding adieu to 36-year-old Johnny Damon, for instance).
One obvious choice: Boston Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, who squeezed three years and $37.5 million out the club after he helped it win the 2007 World Series. Now 36, Lowell is still collecting on the deal as he plays sparingly. There's also pitcher Jeff Suppan, who three years ago parlayed a solid run with the Cardinals under pitching coach Dave Duncan into a four-year, $42 million free agent deal with Milwaukee. Suppan's production has fallen steadily ever since, until the Brewers finally released him this week after he'd tossed just 31 innings this year, getting blasted for 50 hits and 27 earned runs.
Then there's perhaps the most unpredictable position in all of sports – the hockey goalie. Berri's recent book "Stumbling on Wins," highlighted the goalie as a generally overpaid position, citing how much their stats tend to move in tandem with the quality of their teams.
"Where a goaltender ranks in any year is always pretty random," says Berri. Hence the inclusion on our list of Jean-Sebastian Giguere, a hot goalie who led the Anaheim Ducks to the 2007 Stanley Cup, and then rewarded with a lucrative four-year contract. This past season, Giguere, making $6 million, was dealt by the Ducks to the Toronto Maple Leafs, playing 35 games all season.
Other goalies making big money and now ceding playing time to cheaper players: Dallas's Kari Lehtonen and Boston's Tim Thomas. Dead money, indeed.