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Cabrera, Pujols contracts are among the worst in MLB history

A look at MLB’s worst contracts, ever

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

As Miguel Cabrera closes in on his 500th career home run and 3,000 hits, fellow future hall of famer Albert Pujols was released in the final year of his ten year contract and picked up by the World Series Champions, hoping to squeeze out one last season of glory in his storied career. Each player has posted a net negative fWAR since the 2016 season while being paid like the superstars that they once were in years that are now in the distant past.

Cabrera receives a salary of $30 million on a Detroit roster that pays the rest of the major league roster less than $50 million for the other 25 players combined. Pujols is paid a $24 million salary by the Los Angeles Angels to play for the cross town Dodgers. They are two of the most over paid players for their level of production, or lack thereof, in the history of major league baseball.

When the Detroit Tigers signed future hall of famer Miguel Cabrera to an eight year, $248 million contract extension just prior to the 2014 season, the club certainly expected that their “face of the franchise” super star would be productive for many seasons to come. With two plus seasons currently remaining, the contract extension may go down as one of the worst contracts in major league baseball history.

Cabrera had recently won the American league’s triple crown in 2012, a feat that no player had accomplished in 45 seasons. In the five seasons just prior to the contract extension, he led the league with 31.5 fWAR, or 6.1 WAR per season. He had slugged 190 home runs, driven in 610 runs, and led the league with a wOBA of .428. No other American league hitter came close to those numbers.

The contract extension paid Cabrera from 2016 through the 2023 season, when he will be 40 years of age. There are option years for 2024 and 2025 at $ 30 million apiece, with a buyout of $8 million in 2024 that is certain to be exercised. He received salaries of $28 million in the first two years, then $30 million the next three years, plus two seasons at $32 million per annum, plus the buyout.

Cabrera’s contract ranked as the highest in MLB history for average annual value (AAV) and second highest in total salary at the time. It now ranks as the 12th highest salary total and 10th highest AAV according to Cot’s contracts. Certainly, some of those newer mega-deals could turn out to be even bigger busts, but there is no sign of that happening presently.

For the 2016 campaign, Cabrera batted .316, hit 38 home runs, and drove in 108, posting 4.8 fWAR. Then, his production fell off a cliff in 2017 when he batted just .248 with 16 home runs and 60 runs driven in. He posted a net -0.2 fWAR for the year, with a slugging percentage under .400. Subsequent seasons have been no better.

Since the start of the 2017 season, in over 1700 plate appearances, Cabrera has slashed .261/ .335/ .394 for an OPS of .729 with a wOBA of .315 and a wRC+ of 95. In other words, below major league average as a hitter. Needless to say, Cabrera needs to be much more productive if he is to be worth a fraction of his salary over the remaining years of his contract. At the 2021 all star break, he has produced -0.6 fWAR, and 82 wRC+, which is below replacement level for the season.

For comparison purposes, it is difficult, but maybe not impossible, to find a contract for close to that much money that went bad so soon after it began. Here are some of the worst deals in major league history.

MLB’s baddest deals

Player Team Total Salary Years AAV fWAR Avg/ HR $ per Win
Player Team Total Salary Years AAV fWAR Avg/ HR $ per Win
Cabrera Detroit $252 M 8 $29.25M 4.6 .277/ 6 $54.8 M
Pujols LA Angels $240 M 10 $24 M 5.5 .256/ 222 $43.6 M
Davis Baltimore $161 M 7 $23 M -2.3 .192/ 92 Inf
Cano Yankees $240 M 10 $24 M 22.7 .292/ 130 $10.5 M
A Rodriguez Yankees $275 M 10 $27.5 M 22.6 .269/ 178 $12.2 M
Fielder Tigers- Rangers $217 M 9 $24.1 M 7.5 .283/ 89 $28.9 M

Albert Pujols had been hitting as well as Cabrera for ten seasons with the St Louis Cardinals when he became a free agent and signed a ten year, $ 240 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels. The contract covered the 2012 through 2021 seasons. He posted a whopping 81.4 fWAR with St Louis, which was almost 30 WAR more than any other player in the national league, averaging over 40 home runs and 120 RBI per season. And yet, the Cardinals’ decision to drop out of the bidding to extend their superstar looks very wise in hindsight.

Not long after moving to the American league, Pujols’s production dropped off. After five years of decent production, posting a wRC+ of 119 while slugging 149 home runs in over 3,100 plate appearances, his performance also declined in 2017, when his -2.0 WAR was the worst in the major leagues.

Pujols continued to struggle for five more seasons, posting negative fWAR each season before being released by the Angels in June, 2021, the final season of his contract. During the five year span, he has been healthier than Cabrera, and displayed a bit more power, but the overall offensive production as shown by wOBA or wRC+ (.296/ 85) has been even lower than Cabrera’s numbers since 2017.

Over the life of their respective contracts, Pujols has those five seasons of feast before the five years of famine, while Cabrera had just one good year followed by five bad seasons, with two plus years still to go.

Robinson Cano signed a 10 year, $ 240 million contract with the Seattle Mariners to cover the 2014- 2023 seasons. Three years into the deal, Cano has amassed 22.7 WAR, which places him 31st in the American league over that span. While that is very productive, there are a number of second basemen including Jose Altuve, Brian Dozier, and Ian Kinsler who have been better. Even with two plus years left on the contract, and the same total dollars as Pujols and Cabrera, and his current suspension, Cano does not belong in a “worst contract” contest.

Alex Rodriguez signed two of the largest contracts in MLB history. The first was with the Texas Rangers for $ 252 million over 10 years, with an opt out that he exercised prior to the 2008 season. He then extended with the New York Yankees for $ 275 million over ten years.

It is the latter contract that didn’t work out so well for Rodriguez. Between the steroid scandal, a full year suspension, and retiring a season early, he posted 22.6 WAR over the life of the contract. At $27.5 million per season, 2.2 WAR per year is hardly a bargain, despite four very productive seasons.

Prince Fielder signed a nine year, $ 217 million contract with the Tigers prior to the 2012 season. In two seasons with Detroit, he netted 7.1 WAR, batting .295 with 55 home runs and 214 RBI, but that was it. Fielder’s brutal defense and base running diminished his value greatly, not to mention his disappearing act in the post season. He was then shipped to Texas for Ian Kinsler, salvaging some of the value of his contract for the Tigers, but leaving the Rangers high and dry as he was unable to play at all for the last four seasons of the deal.

While Detroit paid $6 million per season toward Fielder’s remaining contract, the Rangers were bailed out by an insurance policy with an unknown premium, so Fielder’s contract could hardly be classified as the worst ever for either club. The insurance company may beg to differ.

Bobby Bonilla gets the award for the worst contract in terms of sheer length. The Mets owed him $ 6 million after the 1999 season, but agreed to pay him $ 30 million over 25 years if he took no money for ten years. The deal now won’t be paid in full until 2035. This deal doesn’t make the list in terms of raw dollars but it is the longest headache on the list.

Ryan Howard signed with the Phillies for $125 million over five years, and promptly tanked. The Phillies then could not give him away. This could be the highest AAV for a player with almost no production at all over the entire deal. Howard had earlier set the record for a first year arbitration eligible player.

Chris Davis signed a seven year contract to stay with the Baltimore Orioles for $161 million, spanning the 2016- 2022 seasons. Tigers’ owner Mike Ilitch was reported to be on the verge of signing Chris Davis to a lucrative deal prior to the 2016 season, when Al Avila, in his first off season as general manager steered him toward signing Justin Upton to a six year, $133 million contract. Upton would be traded to the Angels for basically nothing, but the O’s are still stuck with Davis, whose production is negative over the life of the contract.

Like Cabrera, Davis posted a fine season in 2016, slugging 38 home runs and posting 2.9 fWAR. And like Cabrera and Pujols, that’s when the wheels came off the wagon. In terms of sheer production, or lack thereof, Davis has dwelled below the .200 mark four straight seasons, with a wOBA of .268 and wRC+ of just 63. In the final year of his contract, he is out for the 2021 season.

Davis’ -5.1 fWAR since 2017 is the worst in show, followed by Pujols at -3.3. Cabrera’s -0.4 is the 10th worst in that span. Despite the poorer production, Cabrera and Pujols have contracts worth $ 80 million more than Davis, so which is the “worst” contract will depend upon the formula applied. Cabrera does have a plus 4.4 fWAR for the contract so far, thanks to that 2016 season.

There are other bad contracts signed every season in major league baseball, but none that would make this list in terms of raw dollars paid for unproductive seasons as far as we can tell. Cabrera shows flashes of hitting ability, hitting .321 since June 1st this season. If he can stay healthy enough to qualify for the batting title and can hit .300, he has a shot at getting his 3,000th hit in September. He will need to sustain that to avoid the badge of “worst contract in MLB history”.