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The Strike Zone

Who is delivering the best return on investment? Part I: Hitters

Carlos Beltran's superb play has endeared him to the fans in St. Louis. (US Presswire)

Over the winter, the baseball world saw an eye-popping amount of cash thrown around on the free agent market thanks largely to the peaceful settlement of another Collective Bargaining Agreement and the promise of increased television revenue. But at least as far as the top free agent hitters have gone, not all of that money has proved to be well-spent so far. That has less to do with big names underperforming than it does teams paying players whose ages and salaries may make them less competitive in the long run, rather than more.

While acknowledging that two and a half months is very early to render a verdict on a multi-year contact, what follows is an attempt to rank the winter's most expensive free agent hitters in light of the help these players are providing their teams' bids for contention this year.

NOTE: Only players who signed contracts with an average annual value of $10 million were considered, as there's a big dropoff between Michael Cuddyer's contract and that of the next most-expensive deal, Jason Kubel's $7.5 million AAV with the Diamondbacks.

Carlos Beltran, Cardinals (.311/.396/.591, 19 HR, 2.5 WARP)

Contract: 2 years, $26 million

Beltran, 35, is clearly the steal of the winter, as he's enjoying the best season of any hitter who was on the free agent market this past season. After years of missing time due to injuries, he's played 66 of the Cardinals' 69 games, and his 19 homers are second in the league behind Ryan Braun, while his .349 True Average ranks fourth. Alas, he can't do it alone. Since jumping out to a 20-11 start, the Cardinals have gone 15-23, with the rookie first baseman Matt Adams (.244/.287/.390) struggling to fill the shoes of the injured Lance Berkman and the loss of Chris Carpenter underscored by the underperformances of both Adam Wainwright (4.46 ERA in his return from Tommy John surgery) and Jaime Garcia (4.48 ERA, and now on the disabled list for shoulder impingement).

Albert Pujols, Angels (.255/.312/.439, 11 HR, 1.2 WARP)

Contract: 10 years, $240 million

After signing the largest non-Alex Rodriguez contract in major league history, Pujols famously started the season in the worst slump of his career. Expanding his strike zone to swing at everything this side of the peanut vendor's toss from the upper deck, he hit just ..217/.265/.304 through the end of April and failed to homer. Even after going yard for the first time on May 6, his downward spiral continued; as of May 14, he was hitting just .197/.235/.275. The May 15 firing of hitting coach Mickey Hatcher may or may not have catalyzed his turnaround, but he's been the Albert Pujols in the catalog since then, hitting .318/.388/.620 with 10 homers. That has not only helped the Angels dig their way out of an early season hole, they've been the hottest team in baseball since then, and are just one game out of a Wild Card spot. Still, the slump is a reminder that with his contract and his age (32), there's a whole lot more downhill to come over the next 9 1/2 years.

Prince Fielder, Tigers (.306/.384/.490, 10 HR, 0.9 WARP)

Contract: 9 years, $214 million

There's been nothing wrong with Fielder's performance per se, but the move from Milwaukee's hitter-friendly Miller Park to pitcher-friendly Comerica Park has suppressed his numbers. Fielder hit .294/.414/.592 at Miller from 2009-2011, compared to .285/.361/.472 so far in Comerica; meanwhile, his road stats have stayed quite similar beyond a spike in batting average, from .279/.404/.503 to .326/.407/.508. In terms of True Average, which adjusts for park and league scoring environments, his .302 mark is right around his career .306 mark, though it's down 21 points from last year. The real problem is that his teammates are underachieving, and the club's structural flaws are showing, so instead of running away with the AL Central as predicted, the Tigers are 33-35 and sitting in third place. They're just three games back, and neither the division-leading Indians (who have a much worse run differential, −31 to the Tigers' −10) nor the White Sox (who are 7-11 this month, enough to bump them out of first place) look invincible. But even if the team's second base, designated hitter and rotation problems are solvable in the short-term, one has to wonder the extent to which adding a third megacontract to those of Miguel Cabrera (owed $65 million through 2015) and Justin Verlander (owed $40 million through 2014) is going to impact the team's flexibility, particularly with the latter's deal expiring after 2014.

Jose Reyes, Marlins (.274/.349/.389, 16 SB, 0.9 WARP)

Contract: 6 years, $106 million

The good news is that Reyes has been healthy, playing in 67 of the Marlins' 68 games thus far, and getting along famously with Hanley Ramirez, whose move off of shortstop was grudging, at best. The bad news is that Reyes has been running in the opposite direction of his team lately; he's hitting a searing .300/.364/.529 in June, but his teammates must be too preoccupied by the NBA playoffs to notice. They're hitting a collective .205/.267/.307, with the trio of hitters directly behind him -- Omar Infante (.215/227/.246), Ramirez (.206/.296/.381) Giancarlo Stanton (.174/.254/.281) -- stinking like yesterday's fishwrap. Thus Reyes has scored only six runs in 17 June games, two of them via his own home runs, and the team's 4-13 record for the month has dropped them to 33-35, good enough only for fourth place in the NL East.

Aramis Ramirez, Brewers (.263/.338/.479, 9 HR, 0.9 WARP)

Contract: 3 years, $36 million

The 34-year-old hot cornerman's performance has split the difference between his 2010 disappointment and his 2011 rebound, and he's been a significant upgrade beyond Casey McGehee, if not a mid-lineup force to offset the loss of Fielder. It hasn't been enough for the Brewers, who find themselves 32-37, running fourth in the NL Central and looking more like pretenders than contenders. Ramirez isn't to blame for that; the struggles of Rickie Weeks, Randy Wolf, Yovani Gallardo and John Axford loom much larger, as do the season-ending injuries of Mat Gamel, Alex Gonzalez and Chris Narveson. But the fact that the Brewers are less than one-sixth of the way through Ramirez's contract at a time when they appear to be in need of retooling means that this deal is bound to become a millstone for Milwaukee sooner rather than later.

Jimmy Rollins, Phillies (.260/.310/.374, 11 SB, 0.7 WARP)

Contract: 3 years, $33 million

Given the decline in his performance (.255/.316/.403 from 2009-2011), Rollins' deal looked like one that was founded more in sentiment for what he had done in the past than common sense regarding what he could deliver in the future. So far, those concerns have been realized. Not only has the 33-year-old shortstop continued his downward trend -- magnified by the fact that manager Charlie Manuel continues to write his name in the leadoff spot -- but with the absences of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and now Roy Halladay due to injuries, the Phillies look old and increasingly vulnerable. They're 33-37, mired in last place in the NL East, and the reckoning with the weight of their huge financial commitments is only beginning.

Michael Cuddyer, Rockies (.270/.326/.511, 11 HR, 0.8 WARP)

Contract: 3 years, $31.5 million

Cuddyer's numbers look acceptable if not exceptional at first glance, but once you consider the fact that scoring at Coors Field (6.38 runs per team per game) has shot back up to pre-humidor levels, his performance is less impressive. A peek at his splits shows a .295/.364/.543 line at home, but just .241/.280/.472 on the road, with a BABIP gap (.330 versus .256) that implies that he may be developing bad habits that don't translate once he comes down from the mountain. Cuddyer's deal wouldn't look awful as a finishing touch on a contender, but the Rockies are far from one; their .373 winning percentage would be a franchise low, so it's tough to see what they're gaining by paying him to do anything but serve as a placeholder -- albeit a versatile one -- as they retool.

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