Overpaying aging players is the baseball way - NBC Sports

Overpaying aging players is the baseball way
Past their prime, stars like Pujols, A-Rod and Hamilton are paid for previous accomplishments

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July 29, 2013, 9:30 am

Here is something fun for the entire family: A list of the ten highest paid baseball players by average annual salary and how they are doing this year (all stats through Sunday):

1. Alex Rodriguez ($27.5 million, four years after this)

How he’s doing: Has not played an inning all year, awaits what most people think will be a draconian punishment for steroid use, is fighting with the team about getting on the field (in a twist from the usual story it’s the TEAM that does not want the player on the field).

 2. Felix Hernandez ($25 million, six years after this)

How he’s doing: At 27, he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball. He is tied for the American League lead in starts (22), and heads the league in ERA (2.34) and innings pitched (153 2/3). King Felix is right in his prime and is pitching perhaps better than at any point in his career. His contract continues until he is 33.

3. Josh Hamilton ($25 million, four years after this)

How he’s doing: Miserably. He’s hitting .220/.273/.407 and has looked utterly lost all year in his first season with the Angels.

4. Ryan Howard ($25 million, three years after this)

How he’s doing: Hitting .266/.319/.465 with 11 homers and is essentially unplayable against left-handed pitchers (his strikeout-to-walk ratio against lefties this year is 39 to 3). He is on the 15-day disabled list with left knee inflammation.

5. Zack Greinke ($24.5 million, five years after this)

How he’s doing: Probably not as well as the Dodgers would like considering he’s just in the first year of his deal. He’s 8-3 with a 3.49 ERA. He has been injured. His strikeout rate is down to its lowest level since his dreadful second year in the majors and his walk rate is the highest it has ever been. He’s getting by but the Dodgers surely want more.

6. CC Sabathia ($24.5 million, three years after this)

How he’s doing: He’s having the worst season of his career so far. His 4.65 ERA is more than a run higher than his career number, has allowed more hits than anybody in the AL than Joe Blanton, and everything is trending down. A couple of scouts I’ve talked to say he’s looking worn down by the many, many innings he has thrown over the years. He’s just 33, so he could rebound. But it’s also true his arm – with more than 2,700 innings of mileage – is older than 33.

7. Albert Pujols ($24 million, seven years after this)

How he’s doing: Disastrously. Forget his .258/.330/.437 numbers. Forget that the defensive statistic suggest that after being one of the best defensive players in the game, he has become a liability as a fielder. Now he’s also hurt – and close observers say it was apparent he’s been hurt all year. For the first 10 seasons of his career, Pujols was making a strong case to be one of the four or five best hitters who ever lived. But he’s 33 now, the last three seasons have shown clear decline, and there doesn’t seem a happy ending here.

8. Cole Hamels ($24 million, five years after this)

How he’s doing: He has pitched somewhat better lately after a miserable start, but all in all he’s 4-13 with below-league-average 4.09 ERA. Many people say he has pitched better than his numbers and it’s just one of those seasons. They say he’s still throwing well and he should pitch better. The Phillies better hope so – five years left on that contract.

9. Cliff Lee ($24 million, two years after this)

How he’s doing: Brilliantly well, thank you very much. Lee is simply a magician at this point in his career. He’s 10-4 with a 3.05 ERA, he has a six-to-one strikeout to walk ratio. He’s 34 now, but he’s pitching better than he did in his 20s.

10. Prince Fielder ($23.8 million, seven years after this)

How he’s doing: Not so good. The Prince is hitting .261/.353/.440 – numbers way, way down from the last four or five seasons. He has long been a defensive liability –more so now – which means DH can’t be too far in his future. And he’s closing in on his 30s, and it’s the early 30s when many of his comps (Ryan Howard, Kevin Mitchell, Boog Powell, Greg Luzinski, etc) really began to deteriorate quickly.

OK, so that’s pretty bad isn’t it? And it gets worse as you go down the list. Johan Santana might never pitch again. Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito make a combined $63 million this year and all three have ERAs higher than 4.60. Carl Crawford can’t stay healthy. Roy Halladay can’t stay healthy. Mark Teixeira is hurt and fading fast. Vernon Wells hasn’t had a decent year since 2010, and he’s got another year of $20 million plus left on his deal.

This is the baseball way. It’s the sport where you don’t get paid for what scouts think you will do … you get paid for what you have already done. Mike Trout might be the best overall player in baseball right now – he will get $400,000 this year (tip money for his underachieving teammates Pujols and Hamilton) because he’s 21 years old and the Angels have him under control. In five years, some team will give Mike Trout a boatload of money for what he’s doing now. Meanwhile, the Giants are paying Barry Zito an enormous sum of money because he won a Cy Young Award more than a decade ago.

This system all but guarantees that these long term contracts will be disasters a vast majority of the time. It’s simple mathematics.

1. Teams have players under control for their first six seasons, so that usually takes player into their late 20s.

2. Players tend to peak around 26, 27 and 28.

3. Many players – most players, in fact – tend to begin a pretty serious decline in their early 30s, precisely the time they become free agents and have teams throwing money at them.

So what chance is there of a successful free agent contract? The Ryan Howard contract had almost no chance at all – it did not even kick in until he was 32. What precedent was there to think Ryan Howard would be a great player in his mid 30s? The Josh Hamilton contract, same deal, it had almost no chance – he’s 32 and just in the first year of the deal.

Even a relatively successful contract like the CC Sabathia deal – the Yankees got four fine seasons and a World Series out of him – will likely end in despair.

But hey, what can you do about it? Players age faster than almost anyone expects – it has always been that way. At the end of the season, New York second baseman Robinson Cano becomes a free agent. His second base rival Boston’s Dustin Pedroia just signed an eight year, $110 million deal – a long and lucrative contract, obviously, but for quite a bit less than he could have gotten on the open market  -- but Cano figures to play it out. Cano is one of the best players in baseball. He’s hitting .297, slugging .509, playing gold glove defense, carrying a Yankees offense almost single-handedly.

So what’s going to happen? Some team – probably the Yankees, but certainly some team – will give Cano an enormous contract, six years at minimum, probably eight years. Hey, he’s a great player. Like Pujols was a great player. Like Hamilton was a great player. Like Howard and Teixeira and Kevin Brown and Johan Santana …

He won’t just stop being a great player, right? Cano will turn 31 in October. And the cycle, one as old as time, will repeat itself again.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski