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Declaring WAR on MLB's Biggest Contracts

Despite what Edwin Starr said, WAR is good for something. Of course, I’m talking about nerdy, baseball stat-geek WAR; something that was unheard of when Edwin sang his famous anti-establishment tune. Like any stat, Wins Above Replacement can be misleading, particularly with defensive calculations. Still, by taking into account every player’s defensive and offensive contributions, WAR is the most effective method of player evaluation.

Last year, according to WAR, the top three position players in baseball were Evan Longoria, Shin Choo-Choo, and Albert Pujols. You might be surprised to see Choo in that group, but he had a terrific 2010 season offensively and defensively. League MVPs Josh Hamilton and Joey Votto ranked in the top 10. Ubaldo was the most valuable pitcher last season, with Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright, and Josh Johnson finishing just behind. Ubaldo’s WAR received an enormous boost because he pitched so effectively in Coors Field.

While studying last year’s WAR rankings, I noticed something interesting. For the most part, the game’s highest paid players were not the most valuable. Of MLB’s top 25 earners of 2010, very few actually earned their keep. It’s proof that big spending in baseball doesn’t pay.

Without a doubt, baseball’s most overpaid player in 2010 was Carlos Lee. The Astros paid Lee $19M and he rewarded them with one of the worst seasons of any player in baseball. With a -1.6 WAR, Houston would have been better off releasing Lee and replacing him with their best AAA outfielder. He was a major liability on defense and offense. Unbelievably, Houston still owes Carlos another $37M over the next two seasons. I don’t think the Astros were picturing this when they signed him to a 6 year, $100M contract in 2007. At this point, Lee is close to committing larceny.

There were plenty of other awful contracts. Jeter earned $22.6M last season, but had a WAR lower than David Eckstein’s. Ryan Howard, Carlos Beltran, Alfonso Soriano, Barry Zito, and AJ Burnett are other players that were grossly overpaid last year. In fact, out of the top 25 earners, only four players came close to earning their money: Miguel Cabrera, Matt Holliday, Roy Halladay, and C.C. Sabbathia. That’s it. The rest were basically money pits.

What does this mean for the Rockies? The organization is taking on substantial risk with the recent contract extensions of CarGo and especially Tulo. Naivety isn’t an excuse for the Rox. They’ve been burned by bad contracts before. Last year, Todd Helton was the 18th highest paid player in baseball, but his WAR was that of a bench player. To make matters worse, Helton will make roughly $2M more in 2011.

I’m not trying to trash Helton. I think he is the greatest Rockie of all-time and probably deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. However, his contract hasn’t been a great investment for the Rockies. He hasn’t topped 30 homeruns in a season since 2004 and hasn’t hit 20 since 2005. He isn’t even close to being the same player he was when he signed the deal. Over the past six seasons, he has been very good, but not elite.

One key difference between the Helton deal and the Cargo/Tulo contracts is that Todd was older when he signed. Yes, the Rockies committed a decade to Troy, but he will be 36 when his deal is done. Helton will be 39 by the time his contract expires. Gonzalez will only be 32.

By signing Troy and Carlos early, the Rockies think they will be paying for the two players’ best seasons. It’s sound reasoning; most of the game’s overpaid are earning their money based on previous success. Players like A-Rod and Manny Ramirez were once great, but are in decline and no longer deserving of the money they make. Inevitably, it’s necessary for teams to spend money, but they must use their resources wisely. The Rockies committed a bunch of money this off-season, but believe they were prudent with their spending. Let’s just hope that Tulo and CarGo are performing at peak levels in five years. If they aren’t, it could spell doom for the Rox.

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Tags: Adam Wainwright AJ Burnett Albert Pujols Alex Rodriguez Alfonso Soriano Barry Zito C.C. Sabbathia Carlos Beltran Carlos Gonzalez Carlos Lee David Eckstein Derek Jeter Edwin Starr Evan Longoria Joey Votto Josh Hamilton Josh Johnson Manny Ramirez Matt Holliday Miguel Cabrera Roy Halladay Ryan Howard Shin Choo-Choo Todd Helton Top 25 MLB Salaries Troy Tulowitzki Ubaldo Jiminez WAR Wins Above Replacement Worst Contract In Baseball

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