We all see the dollar figures that get thrown around in sports these days. Contracts for players that hit tens of millions of dollars, sometimes hundreds of millions. Often we roll our eyes and proclaim them all overpaid.
That’s one way to look at it. But within the big money framework there are inevitable bargains to be had. In baseball, where a player needs six years of service time to become a free agent, and three years to even qualify for salary arbitration, the bargains are generally found in talented younger players. But not always. Some players are late bloomers. Some don’t get the chance to establish themselves until a change of scenery lands them in the right situation. And some taper off after a run of success, knocking their market value down enough to allow a team to swoop in and sign them on the cheap, hoping for a return to form. Lightning in a bottle, as it’s called.
The lightning in a bottle approach is a long shot, but once in awhile it works. The Pittsburgh Pirates, on their way to the playoffs for the first time in 21 years, found lightning this year with Francisco Liriano, the most underpaid pitcher of 2013, by our reckoning. The righty had stretches of greatness with the Minnesota Twins dating back to 2006, but injuries and inconsistency had him looking washed up the past couple of years. Pittsburgh bagged him last winter for a two-year, $7 million deal that paid only $1 million in the first year, with the rest vesting for 2014.
Liriano, still just 29, has come through as the Pirates’ ace, with 16 wins, 163 strikeouts in 161 innings, and a 3.02 earned run average. It adds up to a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) score – the number of wins a player is calculated to have contributed to his team above that of a minimum salaried replacement - of 3.3 for Liriano, among the 20 best for pitchers in the National League. And he certainly doesn’t have a top 20 salary. (Note that Liriano could make up to $4.75 million this year with potential incentives, a figure that would drive him to No. 2 among underpaid pitchers behind Oakland’s Bartolo Colon. But we’ll go with Liriano’s guaranteed salary for now while giving Colon a proper shout out.).
We picked our all-underpaid team simply enough: by comparing WAR to salary in 2013, omitting players with less than five years service time (the five-year mark being the point at which an arbitration-eligible player can compare himself to free agents). So no obvious choices like Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw or Matt Harvey – the young guns' early career pay is held down by the system.
Liriano isn’t the only Pirate to make the cut. Marlon Byrd, obtained from the Mets in August after signing a one-year, $700,000 contract, is the year’s most underpaid outfielder. Byrd’s 23 homers this year are more than his past three seasons combined. He’s another lightning in a bottle find, essentially picked up off the scrap heap by the Mets after a poor 2012 season at age 34, and then flipped to Pittsburgh for prospects. Byrd has put up a 4.3 WAR this season, the best of his career.
Byrd leads an all-underpaid outfield that also includes Cleveland’s Ryan Raburn ($1 million; 2.3 WAR), a low-profile pickup who has bashed to a .924 OPS in 263 plate appearances.
The infield includes two players from the Tampa Bay Rays (effective payroll jugglers long before the Pirates): first baseman James Loney ($2 million; 2.2 WAR) and slick-fielding shortstop Yunel Escobar ($5 million; 3.3).
The Cubs’ Dioner Navarro ($1.75 million; 1.9 WAR) takes the honors at catcher, just nosing out another Pirate, Russell Martin, who signed for two years and $15 million after the Yankees didn’t show interest in bringing him back. Martin has put up a 4.4 WAR this season, largely on the strength of his defense. No wonder the Pirates are in the playoffs with a bottom five payroll.