- Less than three full seasons into a five-year, $95 million deal, Boston designated the veteran third baseman for assignment, officially making it one of the worst contracts in baseball history.
The Graveyard of Bad Baseball Contracts seems to go on forever, and if you visit it, the number of names that populate it will overwhelm you. Stop and pay your respects to Josh Hamilton’s $125 million contract with the Angels that they’re still paying out despite the fact that he’s been out of the league since 2015. Say a small prayer at the tomb of Mike Hampton’s $121 million deal with the Rockies. Don’t mind the dirt flying from the holes that will someday hold Jason Heyward’s $184 million pact with the Cubs and Chris Davis’ $161 million contract with the Orioles.
But all of those signings that went wrong—and are still going wrong—pale in comparison to the latest one that’s been buried six feet under the ground. On Friday afternoon, the Red Sox pulled the plug on one of the worst deals that the franchise has ever handed out, designating third baseman Pablo Sandoval for assignment just two-plus seasons into a five-year, $95 million deal that went bad almost from the moment ink touched paper. Over three years and only 161 games (he missed virtually all of the 2016 season with a shoulder injury), Sandoval hit .237/.286/.360, hit just 14 home runs and played defense so bad that Boston would have been better off with a mannequin at the hot corner. All of that added up to -2.0 Wins Above Replacement for Sandoval with the Red Sox.
The truth of baseball is that virtually all long-term contracts will eventually go bad. Time is undefeated, and as players age, players worsen. In a lot of cases, a deal has an unhappy beginning long before its unhappy ending. Albert Pujols’ $240 million deal with the Angels has netted the team just 13.8 WAR so far over five-plus seasons. Prince Fielder’s $214 million contract with the Tigers was worth just 7.0 WAR over its first four seasons and change before he retired last year due to a chronic neck injury. Matt Kemp’s $160 million contract with the Dodgers is on its third team in five years and has totaled a meager 3.9 WAR thanks to his horrid defense in the outfield.
But few contracts go as terribly from the get-go as Sandoval’s. At no point was he anything close to productive for the Red Sox. He showed up to spring training in 2015 already under fire for looking rotund, seemed to silence his critics with a strong April (.312/.398/.442 in 88 plate appearances), then cratered after that (.232/.269/.351 in 417 plate appearances from May 1 onward). The next season was the same spring song and dance with regards to his body, only this time, Sandoval lasted just three games before a shoulder strain turned into season-ending surgery (though in that span, he did manage to break his belt on a swing).
Despite his poor production and declining health, Sandoval was named the starting third baseman ahead of the 2017 season. Given that opportunity, he proceeded to hit .212/.269/.354 over 108 plate appearances, interrupted by knee problems that cost him all of May. His return lasted 14 games in June, in which he hit .147 and was buried on the bench, losing time to the likes of Deven Marrero and Josh Rutledge. His final appearance before going back on the disabled list, this time with an inner ear infection, featured a single in three trips to the plate—an ignominious end to his time in Boston.
Sandoval’s DFA will likely lead to his release: No one will claim him and his onerous contract off waivers, and as a 30-year-old veteran whose organization has given up on him, he’s unlikely to stick around in the minors. Available for the league minimum, some team desperate for help at third base may try to convince him to come on board via a minor league deal and see what he has left. But it’s hard to imagine that, after years of mediocre offense and with a glove that’s below average, Sandoval has anything left to offer.
But if Sandoval’s on-field contributions with Boston left much to be desired, he will at least have a legacy as one of the game’s greatest financial mistakes. Of all the players in league history to sign a deal of $95 million or more, only he and Ryan Howard produced negative value over the length of it; Howard edges him out, worth -4.5 WAR while pulling in $125 million from the Phillies from 2012 to ’16. Sandoval was not as big a monetary loss as Boston’s other notable free-agent disaster, Carl Crawford, who got $142 million and lasted only 161 awful games (the same as Sandoval, oddly enough) in Boston before being shipped to the Dodgers in 2012. But Crawford at least was instrumental in that Los Angeles deal, which helped the franchise clear the books during that lost season and restock ahead of a World Series-winning campaign in ’13. Sandoval will do no such thing for Boston: He is a lost cause, through and through.
Is there anything to learn from this mess, though? Sandoval’s deal may be a chilling specter in the minds of general managers when they scour the free-agent market, but it won’t stop them from handing out $100 million or $200 million contracts. And despite the complaints of certain Boston media personalities who apparently can’t stand the thought of a man being paid in accordance with what the free market dictates, the league and its teams—which hold all the financial power—don’t need to be protected from themselves with things like buyout provisions. Sandoval was a disaster, but no one forced the Red Sox to give him $95 million. All contracts go bad; the best you can hope for is a few good years to subsidize the remaining bad ones.
The Red Sox made that bet on Sandoval and lost badly. They will make that bet again on some other player and likely lose again, just as every other major-market team will. That’s the risk of free agency; like WOPR learned in WarGames, the only winning move is not to play.
And it’s worth remembering that Sandoval got that $95 million deal from Boston because of the seven very good years he had in San Francisco while playing on below-market wages thanks to MLB’s artificial constraints on salary for young players. He may not have been worth the contract the Red Sox gave him, but he had earned it, every last penny, with what he did for the Giants and the value he created for himself. That’s the beauty of free agency.
The earth will be packed around the grave of Sandoval’s contract, and it will hold a high place in future lists of the game’s worst all-time deals. But just like the contracts of Hamilton and Hampton and countless others, its lasting legacy will be as a reminder of just how difficult free agency can be.