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October 18, 2012

Overthinking It

Baseball's Most Immovable Players

by Ben Lindbergh

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According to a report published yesterday, Yankees president Randy Levine and Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria have had a casual conversation about the possibility of a trade between the two teams involving Alex Rodriguez. While the Marlins could use a third baseman and Rodriguez has close ties to Miami, it seems unlikely that they would be willing to pay much of the money he’s owed, and although the Yankees would like to avoid the rest of A-Rod’s decline phase, they won’t want to give him away. Even if there’s little substance to this particular report, though, it could be the opening salvo in a series of A-Rod rumors that might make the rounds this winter.

A-Rod’s combination of age, salary, and disappointing performance would make him a nightmare to move, but where does his contract rank among the majors’ most difficult to deal? No contract is truly untradeable if a team decides it’s a sunk cost, but the dozen deals below would find few takers unless a team were willing to help pay the player’s way out of town. (Note: rankings mostly for fun.)

1. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees
Five years ago, Rodriguez was the reigning AL MVP; today, he can’t crack the Yankees’ ALCS lineup in an elimination game. There’s no telling how far he’ll have fallen in another five years—the projections aren’t pretty—but we know one thing for sure: he’ll be owed $20 million in the final season of his current contract. Rodriguez’s decline since 2007 has been steeper than expected, as he’s struggled to stay healthy and hit worse with each passing season, but he’s still owed $114 million, plus up to five $6 million bonuses he can earn for crawling past career home run milestones. He’d have to give his consent to be traded.

2. Ryan Howard, Phillies
The Phillies signed Howard to a five-year, $125 million extension two years before it was due to kick in, an act of largesse that was widely derided even in April of 2010, when Howard was coming off his third straight 45-homer season. Since then, the critics’ dire predictions have come to pass: Howard hasn’t had a two-win season since 2009, and in the first year of his current contract, he played only 71 games, totaling -1.0 WARP. He’s a subpar defender and a painfully bad baserunner, and he’s owed $105 million for his age-33-through-36 seasons (including a $10 million buyout for 2017). Howard won’t be a 10-and-5 player with full veto rights until 2015, though his contract allows him to specify nine teams to which he would accept a trade.

3. Vernon Wells, Angels
Wells’ is one of two contracts on the list that have already been traded, but it’s unlikely that another team would make the same mistake that since-resigned Angels GM Tony Reagins did. Only seven players had a higher salary than Wells in 2012; almost 350 had a higher WARP. He’s signed for two more years for a total of $42 million and has a full no-trade clause.

4. Alfonso Soriano, Cubs
The Cubs salvaged some value from Soriano in his age-36 season, as he played in more games and hit more home runs than he had in any season since 2007. He also posted a career-high strikeout rate and barely managed a league-average on-base percentage, and he’s owed $18 million for each of the next two seasons. The Cubs won’t give him away for as little as they would have last winter, but they will try to trade him this winter. However, he’d likely approve a trade only to a contender, and he’d prefer not to DH, which limits Chicago’s already limited options.

5. Carl Crawford, Dodgers
Carl Crawford’s contract was tradeable two months ago, but the nouveau riche Dodgers may have been the only team that would take on $102.5 million owed over five seasons to a 31-year-old outfielder who’s been worth a total of 0.6 WARP over the past two years and underwent Tommy John surgery in August. Now that they have him, he’s likely in LA to stay.

6. Jayson Werth, Nationals
In his second season in Washington, Werth’s problem wasn’t performance, but playing time: the outfielder’s bat rebounded, but a wrist fracture cost him 75 games. When healthy and productive, Werth is still an important piece, but he’s approaching an age at which few players can consistently be both. The Nats have a young team and money to spend, so Werth’s contract isn’t crippling, but he’s owed $99 million from his age-34-through-38 seasons. Between that financial commitment and his full no-trade clause, Washington would have a tough time trading Werth if they wanted to.

7. Mark Teixeira, Yankees
The Teixeira the Yankees signed to an eight-year deal before the 2009 season was a .290 career hitter. Over the past three seasons, however, he’s hit .252, as opposing teams’ increased tendency to shift against him has cost him base hits he once would have had. Batting average isn’t everything—Teixeira is a fine fielder and still hits for power—but those missing singles, plus the passage of time, have turned the great hitter the Yankees paid for into merely a very good one. Teixeira will turn 33 shortly after Opening Day, putting him in the steepest part of the aging curve, and the Yankees still owe him $92.5 million over the next four seasons.

8. Barry Zito, Giants
Zito has been the poster boy for bad baseball contracts since the Giants ignored his declining peripherals and signed him to a seven-year, $126 million deal before the 2007 season. Over the first six years of the contract, he’s contributed only 0.9 WARP. Even with only a single season remaining before San Francisco is finally free, Zito remains a real burden: the southpaw is still owed $27 million and is unlikely to be above replacement level. He’s also a native Californian who’s never played outside the Bay Area and has full trade rejection rights.

9. Johan Santana, Mets
Santana looked almost like his old self for the first few months of last season, but his 2012 campaign ended in mid-August after five disastrous starts and two DL stints. Even if he’s at full strength to start next season, he can’t be counted on to stay healthy, and he’s owed $25.5 million, plus a $5.5 million buyout for 2014. A team might pay that for prime Santana, but no club would come close to ponying up that amount for the 34-year-old model, even if he were to waive his full no-trade clause.

10. Jason Bay, Mets
Bay has been a bust for the Mets, spending 128 days on the DL and contributing only 1.2 WARP when healthy over his first three seasons at Citi Field. His price tag is somewhat smaller than those of most of the players on this list, but it’s hard to imagine why any team would be willing to pay a 34-year-old with his recent track record a significant portion of the $16 million he’s owed for next season (plus a $3 million buyout for 2014). A full no-trade clause won’t make the Mets’ attempts to move him any easier.

11. Michael Young, Rangers
Young has demanded a trade at least twice in the past few years, but the Rangers haven’t found a taker. They probably won’t this winter, either, unless they’re willing to eat almost all of the $16 million he’ll make next season. Young was one of the worst regulars in baseball last season, mustering only a .312 on-base percentage and .370 slugging percentage in offense-friendly Arlington. He’s no help in the field, and he’ll turn 35 tomorrow. Young’s leadership might matter, but it would take a lot of intangibles to outweigh a -1.5 WARP.

12. Heath Bell, Marlins
Last winter, the Marlins signed Bell to a three-year, $27 million contract despite a precipitous drop in his strikeout rate the season before. He got off to a disastrous start in Miami and finished the season with an ERA over 5.00, blowing eight saves in 27 opportunities and losing and regaining his role at the back of the bullpen multiple times. The righty finished strong in September and suffered some bad luck on balls in play, but $18 million over two years is still a high price to pay for a 35-year-old reliever without elite stats. Bell does not have a no-trade clause, and given the Marlins’ propensity to trade their highest-paid players, he might be one of the likeliest players on the list to be moved.

Dishonorable mentions
Dan Uggla, John Lackey, Joe Mauer, Bobby Bonilla

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Payroll,  Contract,  Contracts,  Salary,  Money

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