Not long ago, New York Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner was publicly adamant about scaling down his club’s bloated payroll, at least enough to get below the $189 million threshold that would trigger big luxury taxes in 2014.
Alas, he couldn’t bring himself to stick to the plan. These were the Yankees, after all. Showing the fans you’re trying win each and every season is central to the business plan. So after holding the line on Robinson Cano and watching him jump to Seattle, Steinbrenner turned around and committed more than $400 million through 2020 to add four players: MLB free agents Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Jacoby Ellsbury, and Japanese pitching ace Masahiro Tanaka.
It’s early, but the results so far aren’t good. Despite a $207 million payroll this season, the Yanks are muddling along at 46-44. As for their new imports: aside from Tanaka, who, despite slumping a bit recently, has been dominating the league, the club has pretty much amassed a big pile of dead money. Ellsbury has been okay, but not nearly worth the $21 million he’s making this year. McCann and Beltran rate an even more dubious honor: both have earned spots on this year’s list of Baseball’s Most Overpaid Players.
Each year, as the All-Star break approaches, we take a look around MLB to see who’s not living up to their big contracts. The basic formula: comparing each player’s salary to his Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the now widely accepted stat that crunches both offensive and defensive (and pitching) metrics to determine the number of wins a player contributes to his club over and above a minimum-salaried replacement. Our list includes 11 players: a starting pitcher, relief pitcher and designated hitter along with the eight everyday positions on the field.
Among the players who make the cut: Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard ($25 million; -0.2 WAR), Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp ($21 million; -1.2 WAR) and Oakland reliever Jim Johnson ($10 million; -0.8 WAR).
Beltran, earning $15 million while hitting .216 with a .671 on-base-plus slugging percentage (OPS), gets the nod at DH with a WAR of -0.7. McCann, the former Atlanta Brave acquired for his lefty bat that the Yankees hoped would translate into a lot of home runs over the short right field fence at Yankee Stadium, has popped 10 homers but still sits at .231 while playing average defense. He’s turned in a 0.4 WAR while making $17 million. Completing the trio of Yankees on this year’s list: outfielder Alfonso Soriano, who was having such a brutal season (-1.5 WAR; $18 million) that the club designated him for assignment last week (yes, we’re counting Soriano, so recent was his release).
And it’s only by virtue of some luck that another Yankee, CC Sabathia, avoided the starting pitcher’s spot on our most overpaid list. We believe in cutting a certain amount of slack for injuries, especially if the player has missed the better part of the season, as Sabathia has. Out since early May with a knee injury, the big lefty, making $23 million, had compiled a 5.28 earned run average and -0.4 WAR before he went down. (To see who's the most overpaid pitcher in baseball, click on the slideshow.)
If you think you’re noticing a good number of WAR scores that aren’t merely low, but in negative territory, you are. How much dead money is floating out there this year? Of 225 MLB players making at least $5 million this season, 44 of them -- just about 20% -- are in negative territory. Sure, injuries are a factor with some, and the season is still young enough for struggling players to turn things around. But the financial terms for the clubs are still pretty staggering. Those 44 players currently underwater are making a collective $480 million this season. And they’re performing worse than minimum salaried replacements -- with a total cost of $22 million -- would be expected to. Like the disclaimer on that investment sales pitch says: past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Particularly with an over-30 ballplayer.
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