• David Price reportedly won't need Tommy John surgery, keeping him off this list of high-priced pitchers who suffered serious setbacks not long after signing nine-figure deals.
By Jay Jaffe
March 03, 2017

Getting an MRI. Forearm/elbow. Second opinion. Dr. James Andrews. When in close proximity, those words tell an all-too-familiar story, one that doesn't discriminate between untested rookies and perennial All-Stars: the looming possibility of Tommy John surgery. Fortunately for the Red Sox, those chilling words were rendered largely moot on Friday when the team announced that David Price will not need season-ending surgery on his left elbow and instead will be treated with rest and medication. 

Last season, Price's first in Boston after signing a seven-year, $217 million contract that is the richest ever given to a pitcher, was an uneven one for the former Cy Young winner. He posted a 3.99 ERA and a 3.60 FIP (both his highest since his 2009 rookie season) but led the AL with 35 starts and 230 innings and ranked fourth with 228 strikeouts. Rick Porcello, the surprising AL Cy Young Award winner, was the only other Red Sox starter to qualify for the ERA title, and even after they acquired Chris Sale from the White Sox during the off-season, the club would have had a difficult time this season trying to survive a long absence from Price. 

Still, the Price scare is a reminder that few things in baseball are as fraught with danger as giving out nine-figure contracts to starting pitchers. Of the 25 biggest deals ever signed by hurlers, at least 10 have gotten less than the expected return on that investment. (A few others have had Price-like cause for concern: The Tigers' Justin Verlander, in 2015 and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, in 2016, each missed more than two months but appear to be in working order this spring; the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg signed a $175 million extension last May that kicks in this season, but he made just one start last year after mid-August because of an elbow problem. He's in camp and says he's pain-free.)  Below is a look at 10 such pitchers and where their contracts rank in average annual value, according to Cot's Contracts.

CC Sabathia, Yankees (10th, $24.4 million, 2012 to '16)

Sabathia's initial seven-year, $161 million contract with the Yankees, signed in December 2008, set a record for the largest ever for a pitcher, and for the first three years of it, he was superb, pitching to a 3.18 ERA (138 ERA+) while averaging 235 innings and 6.1 WAR and helping New York to a world championship in 2009. Instead of officially exercising his opt-out following the 2011 season, he signed a five-year, $122 million extension, and while he was solid in '12, he has pitched to a 4.54 ERA while averaging just 151 innings and 0.9 WAR in the four seasons since; he reached 200 innings only in 2012 and '13, and was limited to just eight starts in '14 due to knee surgery. He did enjoy a bounce-back in 2016 (3.91 ERA, 3.0 WAR in 179 2/3 innings) and thanks to the health of his shoulder triggered a $25 million vesting option for 2017.

Cliff Lee, Phillies (T-11th, $24 million, 2011 to '15)

Lee was brilliant over the first three years of his deal (2011 to '13), with a 2.80 ERA while averaging 222 innings and 6.8 WAR, but flexor tendon strains limited him to just 13 starts in 2014, and continued elbow trouble sidelined him during spring training in '15. Ultimately, he never pitched in the majors again after July 31, 2014.

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Johan Santana, Mets (14th, $22.917 million, 2008 to '13)

Santana was the heavyweight champion of pitching contracts prior to Sabathia's deal thanks to the six-year, $137.5 million extension he signed in February 2008 after being acquired from the Twins. Alas, the 2008 season was the last one in which Santana made at least 30 starts, and while he pitched well over the course of 54 starts in 2009 and '10, both seasons ended with surgery; the bone chips in his elbow (removed in September 2009) were a trivial mater compared to the anterior capsule tear that ended his 2010 season. Santana didn't pitch at all in 2011, was limited to 21 starts (including a no-hitter) in '12 while battling back and foot injuries and lost all of '13 when he re-tore the capsule. In all, he made 109 starts for New York, which means he lost about 2 1/2 out of six seasons of the deal, and he gave the team just 0.2 WAR over its final three years.

Jordan Zimmermann, Tigers (16th, $22 million, 2016 to '20)

After four straight seasons of at least 32 starts for the Nationals, Zimmermann got off to a brilliant start with he Tigers, posting a 1.50 ERA through his first seven outings. But after being knocked around for six weeks he was limited to a total of 9 2/3 innings over four starts after June 30, and he finished the year with a 4.87 ERA in 105 1/3 innings. That doesn't bode well for the remainder of that contract.

Matt Cain, Giants (18th, $21.25 million, 2012 to '17)

Cain signed a six-year, $127.5 million extension in April 2012, and he initially made it look good, throwing one- and two-hit shutouts in the first month of that deal, adding a perfect game on June 13 and helping the Giants win the World Series later that season. He slipped to a 4.00 ERA (86 ERA+) in 2013 and things have gotten even worse since then: he's posted a 5.13 ERA while averaging 14 starts, 80 innings and -0.4 WAR. Speaking of San Francisco . . .

Tim Lincecum, Giants (20th, $20.25 million, 2012 to '13)

Lincecum wasn't injured over the course of his two-year, $40.5 million extension, but the performance of the two-time NL Cy Young winner did erode to the point that the team may have actually been better off without him on the roster. After following his 2008 and '09 award-winning seasons by delivering a 3.08 ERA and 7.9 WAR in 2010 and '11, Lincecum plummeted to a 4.53 ERA and -2.3 WAR combined over the next two years, though he did make a strong showing out of the bullpen during the team's 2012 world championship run. The Giants compounded the issue with an additional two-year, $35 million extension during which Lincecum delivered 232 innings with -0.4 WAR, missing significant time due to forearm and hip injuries.

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Roy Halladay, Phillies (21st, $20 million, 2011 to '13)

After pocketing his second Cy Young Award in 2010, Halladay was brilliant in the first year of his three-year, $60 million extension; in fact, he posted a lower ERA (2.35 versus 2.44) and a higher WAR (8.9 versus 8.3) in 2011 than he had the season before. Alas, a strained latissimus dorsi cost him seven weeks in 2012 and limited him to 156 1/3 innings with a 4.49 ERA, and he managed just 13 turns with an unsightly 6.82 ERA in 2013 while undergoing in-season surgery to remove a bone spur and repair a partially torn rotator cuff and frayed labrum. Though he had a few solid outings upon returning, he couldn't even make it out of the first inning in his Sept. 23 start and never pitched again.

Adam Wainwright, Cardinals (22nd, $19.5 million, 2013 to 17)

Wainwright's five-year, $97.5 million extension looked great in 2013 and '14, when he gave the Cardinals 468 1/3 innings and 12.3 WAR. However a torn left Achilles tendon limited him to 28 innings in 2015, and while he did throw 198 2/3 innings last year, his 4.62 ERA was the worst of his career.

Carlos Zambrano, Cubs (23rd, $18.3 million, 2008 to '12)

Health wasn't Zambran's major problem over the course of his five-year, $91.5 million extension; behavioral issues were. Though he served a DL stint in both 2008 and '09, he totaled 358 innings with a 3.85 ERA (117 ERA+) in those two seasons. Things started accelerating downhill in 2010, when a dugout altercation with teammate Derrek Lee led to a five-week suspension by Chicago. The next year, he wound up on the disqualified list after a disastrous Aug. 12 outing against the Braves in which he gave up five homers, was ejected for throwing a pair of brushback pitches to Chipper Jones and then cleaned out his locker and left the ballpark in mid-game. He never pitched again for the Cubs, who sent Zambrano and $16.45 million of his $19 million salary to the Marlins that winter. By the end of July 2012, he was pitching long relief. In all, he threw just 407 innings over the final three years of the contract.

Barry Zito, Giants (24th-T, $18 million, 2007-2013)

Zito's seven-year, $126 million contract was the largest ever to a pitcher at the time he signed it in December 2006, but he never came close to living up to it. Though he made at least 31 starts in all but one year from 2007 to '12—a foot sprain limited him to nine turns in 2011—he totaled just 5.6 WAR in those years, and he posted an ERA+ of 100 or better once. Zito did ignite the Giants comeback from a 3-1 series deficit with 7 2/3 shutout innings against the Cardinals in Game 5 of the 2012 NLCS, but he followed that up with a dreadful 2013 (5.74 ERA, -2.6 WAR). All told, that's $41 million per Win Above Replacement.  

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