In the wake of this shocking news, it looks like Chone Figgins might very well earn $9 million this year for playing very little actual baseball. Meanwhile, Vernon Wells is going to earn $42 million over the next two seasons for playing very little actual baseball, unless one or two of his teammates are seriously hurt or maimed or suspended.
These things are happening, of course, because at some point a few years ago, somebody thought that Figgins and Wells would, a few years down the road, be much better baseball players than they actually are. I certainly won't try to argue that those were good contracts ... but it was hard to see this coming, exactly.
In the four seasons before Wells got his mega-deal, he posted a 118 OPS+; in the four seasons after, just 103 (and even worse in the two seasons since then).
In the three seasons before Figgins got his four-year deal, he posted a 103 OPS+; in the three seasons since, just 68. Which makes him one of the biggest free-agent busts in history, I suppose.*
* Here's one list of busts (and then, coincidentally enough, some photos of busts).
The problem with Wells' contract wasn't the dollars, really; it was the years. He's actually had two real good years on this contract, but seven years for a real good player just doesn't make any sense. The problem with Figgins' contract wasn't really the dollars or the years, though both were probably a bit excessive; the problem was that his performance fell off a cliff, which nobody (that I've seen) predicted.
But good players do sometimes decline more quickly than we expect. Just leafing through a preseason annual from 20 years ago -- Bill Mazeroski's Baseball '93, to be precise -- one finds plenty of cautionary examples. There's a section listing the top four players at each position, in each league. Looking just at the American League, there's
- No. 3 catcher Ron Karkovice - Coming off his best season, Karkovice had a 97 OPS+ over the previous four seasons; he was roughly a league-average hitter. Or so it seemed. Over the next four seasons, his OPS+ tumbled to 81, and he was finished at the tender age of 33.
- No. 4 first baseman Cecil Fielder - Fielder's Wins+ over the next four seasons: 0, 2, 1, 0.
- No. 2 second baseman Carlos Baerga - He'd been great in 1992 and would be great again in '93. But after good seasons in '94 and '95, Baerga was essentially washed up at 27. Damnedest thing.
- No. 4 third baseman Kelly Gruber - Okay, a weird rating. But still on point, because after playing really well from 1988 through '91, Gruber was terrible in '92. And so didn't deserve the No. 4 slot on this list. But things just got worse. He managed only 18 games in 1993, and never played in the majors again.
- No. 3 center fielder Mike Devereaux - Quote: "Scouts say Devereaux could continue to be a 25-homer, 100-RBI man for the next four or five years." Reality: Devereaux hit 14 homers and drove in 75 runs in 1993 ... and never equaled those numbers before retiring.
- No. 2 right fielder Ruben Sierra - Just 27 in 1993, Sierra should have been in his prime. And thanks to a bizarre comeback, Sierra did play until he was 40. But he wasn't nearly as good after turning 27 as before.
Other examples abound, but (in case you haven't already figured this out) I did sort of stack the deck, as our analysis probably wouldn't come up with the same rankings as the magazine. For example, we probably wouldn't have written this about Andre Dawson in the right-fielder section:
4. ANDRE DAWSON, Boston -- Seven knee operations have taken some of the bounce out of his step, but Dawson at 38 has more to offer than most players 10 years younger.
SCOUT: "Mark it down: 25 homers and 90 to 100 RBIs. His bat has slowed some, but he'll see more breaking balls in that league, and when they hang one, he can turn it around in a hurry. Being able to DH some is really gonna help him, but if you're the manager, you want him in the field as much as possible. His arm is still one of the best."
Hahahahahaha. By 1993, Dawson was a terrible fielder and the manager (Butch Hobson) was smart enough to limit his 38-year-old outfielder to 20 games in the outfield. Not that DH'ing helped him much, as those "25 homers and 90 to 100 RBIs" actually became 13 homers and 67 RBIs.
But we're really not talking about elder statesmen like Dawson. All the guys on the above list were in their 20s or early 30s, and all declined sooner than anyone figured they would. It happens. Not usually as spectacularly as with Chone Figgins, or as expensively as with Vernon Wells. But it has always happened, and always will.