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Contract Nightmares: Teams’ Most Regretful Deals in the Past Decade

Nationals pitcher Patrick Corbin; Photo via All-Pro Reels

Signing mega, multi-million-dollar contracts has become a common occurrence for the stars of today’s sports world. In March of 2019, Mike Trout broke the record for the most expensive contract signing in professional sports history with a 12-year, $426.5 million contract. This type of money is absolutely deserved, as Trout has proven himself to be one of the best players of the modern baseball era. But even this contract has had its downsides in the last couple of seasons, highlighted by Trout’s last two seasons being the COVID 60-game year and an injury-plagued 2021. Fernando Tatis Jr. is another recent example of a contract not getting its full value. Tatis broke his wrist in the offseason after having a motorcycle accident. Coming off a fresh signing of a 14-year, $340 million contract in 2021, fans of the game and the Padres' upper management were left a little disappointed hearing that the injury wasn’t even baseball-related. The two aforementioned athletes will eventually bring their respective teams the value they were paid for. What is truly fascinating is the cases where players are signed to big extensions and can never bring that contract’s value to a team on the field. These professionals who fail to deliver after being trusted by the management of their clubs are among the most scrutinized and least respected. Inking the modern mega deal will always be risky, but the following represent some of the most extreme cases of a player being paid a large sum of money only to disappoint.

After being an integral part of the historic World Series run in 2019, Anthony Rendon of the Washington Nationals was ready to get paid the big bucks. His 2019 season was incredible, as the then 29-year-old third baseman slashed .319/.412/.598, good for a 155 wRC+ (55% better than league average). In the best season of his career, he produced an impressive 126 RBIs with 34 home runs. After a season of that caliber, teams were racing to sign the star third baseman in free agency to have a chance at a repeat of his 2019 campaign. The Los Angeles Angels won that race, signing Rendon to a 7-year, $245 million contract. At $35 million per year, this made Rendon the highest-paid infielder and the second-highest position player in MLB history (behind his teammate Mike Trout). The Angles had cemented their “big 3” (Trout, Ohtani, and Rendon), and the shortened 2020 season was their chance to carve out their spot in the expanded playoffs. Rendon’s Angels tenure got off to a great start, as he played in 52 of the 60 games in 2020. His season was headlined by impressive stats like a .418 on-base percentage and a 153 wRC+ with 31 RBIs. The Angels finished that season 4th in the AL West with a lackluster 26-34 record, but Angels fans felt confident as baseball returned to normal in 2021. This would be the true test of Rendon, as he was thrown in the mix of a full, 162-game season. A leg injury and eventually a season-ending hip surgery was what he offered. Ironically, the 2020 COVID season was healthier for Anthony than 2021. He played 58 out of the 162 games played by the Halos in 2021, putting up 6 home runs and a 0.2 fWAR. In 249 plate appearances, Rendon slashed .240/.329/.382, good for a 95 wRC+ (5% below league average). A player that makes 3 trips to the injured list and plays in only 58 games is not worth $35 million a year. But the Angels were not ready to write off Rendon as a bust just yet, as injuries are out of his control. The 2022 season has been just as hopelessly optimistic as the last, seeing Rendon spend another chunk of his time on the injured list. As of August 11th, 2022, Anthony has played just 45 games with the club, producing 5 home runs, 24 RBIs, and a 104 wRC+. His 45 games played will not be increasing, either, as he is out for the remainder of the 2022 season due to his wrist injury. Rendon will have played in 28% of Angels games in 2022 when the season wraps up. Another $35 million for 45 games is a heavy weight for the Angels management to bear. Out of the last 384 scheduled games in the last 3 seasons, Rendon has played in 155 of them - not even a full season’s worth of value for the Angels. As the 2023 season starts, Rendon’s contract will have 4 years left on it. The Angels have through 2026 to squeeze their pricey third baseman for all he has to offer to make this signing worth it. Meanwhile, Anthony Rendon has to prove that he can stay on the field if he wants to avoid being one of the biggest contract busts in recent history.

Jason Heyward has had the opposite situation compared to Rendon, not in terms of performance, but in terms of on-field time. The sad thing about Heyward is that he has been a very active member of a dying Chicago Cubs team. After an impressive one-year stretch with the Cardinals, Heyward was looking to secure a slice of dough for himself. 2015 saw him slash .293/.359/.439 with a 121 wRC+. In 154 games Heyward, not known for his power, hit 13 home runs and drove in 60 runs with 23 stolen bases. As a defense-first type guy, these numbers were good enough to land him a contract with the Cubs. Heyward agreed to an 8-year $184 million contract ($23 million a year). The Cubs were excited to bolster their outfield and hopeful that a move like this would help them make a deep postseason run. What the Cubs did not predict was the extreme and immediate regression of a young player in Heyward. His wRC+ fell almost 50 points in just one season, going from 121 to 72. Every major statistic fell substantially from 2015 to 2016, with the most notable being his slugging percentage dropping 114 points (.439 to .325). The sample size was not small either, as Heyward played in 142 games with 592 plate appearances. The plain and simple truth is that the Cubs did not make a good signing. The incredible Cubs incredible World Series win in 2016 masked an unimpressive season by the then 26-year-old, but the seasons after would fully highlight the fall of Jason. Since joining the Cubs, Heyward has been at or below league average, in terms of OPS+, in 5 of his 6 seasons. His best year with the Cubs was in 2019 when he hit 21 home runs and had 62 rbi, still only good for the league average 100 OPS+. Similar to Rendon, the 2020 shortened season was good to Heyward. In a small sample size of 50 games, he managed a 129 wRC+ with 2.2 fWAR. However, this shortened season does not make up for all of the bad performances in his past. Certainly, the Cubs are not happy to be paying him $23 million every year to be a liability in their lineup. The era of Heyward is coming to a close, however, as the Cubs recently announced that Jason would be released at the end of the 2022 season. In hindsight, the Cubs had a big warning that Heyward might not be the consistent guy that their outfield was looking for. The expected stats surrounding his batting average and slugging pointed to a player who got lucky in 2015. His xBA was .263 and his xSLG was .374, 30 and 65 points lower than the respective actual stats. With one year left on his contract, Heyward will make another $23 million to not be on the team. Arguably, this move is more desirable for the Cubs, as Jason got paid the same amount to produce a 0.1 fWAR in 2021. Paying him to not play versus paying him to play is seemingly irrelevant these days. Heyward has no more time to prove himself, firmly solidifying this as a horrible signing by the Cubs. But Cubs fans will always be grateful for his service to their team, as it did result in an amazing championship run.

Patrick Corbin is every Nationals fan's least favorite player in 2022. Just a few years before this season, Corbin was the guy filling a hole in the starting pitching staff that brought the Nationals their first ever World Series victory. In game 7 of the World Series, Patrick Corbin was the winning pitcher, with 3 innings of 2-hit ball out of the bullpen. His first season away from the Diamondbacks brought him a ring. Of course, the Nationals were eager to keep this guy around for a while, adding to their already impressive pitching rotation featuring Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasberg. Before the 2019 season, Patrick Corbin signed back with the Nats in free agency for 6 years at $140 million ($23.3 million per year). The next three years would turn out to be Corbin's worst since 2016. Over the past three seasons, he has produced ERAs of 4.66 in 2020, 5.82 in 2021, and 7.02 thus far in 2022. Those stats are not everything, but Corbin’s regression is very well highlighted by looking at them. After 2019, his ERA+ has never been above league average, with this year being his worst so far at 56 (44% below league average). As soon as Patrick turned 30, the wheels of his career seemingly all fell off. He was an All-Star in 2013, but that Patrick was a far different one than the man pitching in 2022. Corbin is a case of the league figuring out a pitcher and proceeding to mash him out of a job. His chase rate percentiles had always been a strong point. As the seasons went by, this once-strong attribute faded, leaving the league with a very good understanding of Corbin's pitches and how they moved. In 2021, his chase rate sat in the 87th percentile, a great place to be for any pitcher. For reference, Max Scherzer, perennial all-star, had a chase rate in the 67th percentile in 2021. The difference between Corbin’s 2021 year and his 2022 campaign so far has been a lack of swing and miss in his game. His chase rate has fallen to the 42nd percentile, an incredibly steep and almost unbelievable decline. His strikeout numbers have also heavily suffered in the past few seasons. In 2019, the glory days of Patrick, he struck out 238 batters. In 2021, his last full season, he had 143. His ability to strike people out fizzled within the 60-game season in 2020 and seemingly disappeared in the full season in 2021. For the majority of pitchers in the MLB, relying on striking batters out is the way to find success, as strikeout rates have increased to match the power-hitting surge of recent years. In 2022, Corbin has 102 strikeouts in 110.1 innings. With a good chunk of the season left to go, perhaps Corbin can improve his numbers a bit, but getting back to his All-Star form is not possible. Hitters are more confident than ever when he takes the mound. Nationals management can not be happy with this signing, as they are dishing out $23.3 million every year for Patrick Corbin to lose games.

Signing baseball players to $100 million contracts is one of the riskiest investments a team can make. On one hand, locking up a player guarantees their service to your team for multiple years to come. On the other, injuries, change of scenery, and regression are factors that can mess with a player’s ability to perform at their once-elite level. Baseball is an unforgiving, random sport. As highlighted by the examples above, taking a chance on a player does not always work out, but it must be done if the game wants to stay alive. While not every team will end up with the perfect situations out of all their player signings, the contracts that end up in favor of the team make that risk all the more worth it. It is easy to criticize these players who have failed to produce the monetary value that was assigned to them on their contracts, but these people are still professional athletes, deserving of the same respect as anyone who steps onto the field.


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