The worst part of a general manager's job: Shelling out millions for players who don't stay on the field. Whether it's chronic injuries or just poor play, some highly paid pros just can't hold up their end of the bargain.
"It's the single most illogical part of the signing of players," says industry consultant Marc Ganis of Sports Corp. Limited, who thinks players' unions have duped owners into making pay for no-play an accepted part of doing business. It's so common, there's a name for it: Dead money. Rising revenues (recent economic woes not withstanding) and bloated paychecks exacerbate such mistakes.
To determine those who are paid the most for sitting, we searched out playing time and production vs. salaries in the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB). (Other than the goaltender position, hockey, played in shifts, doesn't lend itself as much to the starter-backup breakdown.)
We leavened the results with common sense. When a consistently productive player in his prime gets hit with a sudden, season-shortening injury (Rafael Furcal, Gilbert Arenas, Tom Brady), we cut him a break. But the past-their-prime types (Moises Alou) are fair game – the clubs that signed them knew the big injury risks they were taking by shelling out big bucks for aging players. The same goes for perpetually injured stars, like Raef LaFrentz and Carl Pavano – at some point, you'll be considered a money bust if you don't get back into action.
Aging former starters riding out big contracts dominate the list. Veteran baseball pitchers – Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Curt Schilling – are on top. The cliché that a team can never have too much pitching is one that many general managers apparently take seriously, so much so that they're willing to risk big money to entice a fading star to come back for another year. Of course, it can be argued that expensive relief pitchers like the Yankees' Mariano Rivera inherently fit the criteria – $15 million spent on a guy who spends 95 percent of the season on the bench? Yikes. But that's a debate for another day.
Baseball knows the perils of combating dead money. During the 1980s, MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth pointed out to the owners how much they were flushing down the drain on players that didn't play. The problem is that when the owners decide collectively to clamp down, they're guilty of collusion (a legacy of the Ueberroth era, resulting in legal rulings that forced owners to fork over millions to the players union).
"And if an owner decides on his own to be more cautious with these salaries, he gets hammered by local fans and media," Ganis says.
For NBA players, we compared games and minutes played to salaries, making note of those pulling in the biggest bucks for spending most of their time on the pine. Leading men on that score are Boston's Stephon Marbury (by way of New York), who got $20 million this season for 18 minutes a game for 23 games, and Portland's brittle big man, LaFrentz ($12.3 million, out all season).
NFL players were also picked by measuring game time vs. salary, though we also navigated the league's complex salary cap rules to determine a player's true income. For example, Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Dan Klecko took up more than $10 million of his team's salary cap space in 2008, while starting only three games.
Most of that can be attributed to a listed bonus Klecko could have theoretically earned by meeting certain performance standards. It's an occasional gimmick teams use to reduce player compensation numbers for the following year once the bonus clause expires, freeing up cap space. In reality, Klecko never had much of a chance to earn the bonus. So we stuck with base salary and signing bonus figures.
On that basis, Cardinals running back Edgerrin James (a former star reduced to part time duty) and 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (a 2005 draft bust still on a big contract) were among our NFL players getting the most for doing the least.
The "top" bench warmers: