How 2012’s biggest under-performers can turn it all around.

It’s mid-September. Most of the stories and narratives in the season are starting to sharpen to a point. On one hand, we have players who explode out of the gate, defying expectations and catapulting teams up and away. Unfortunately, there are also those who aren’t so lucky. The players who have fallen on rough times, leaving oversized promises undelivered. But now’s not the time for cynicism! It’s only mid-September. There’s still plenty of time for underperforming players to battle back. It’s baseball, and strange, outlandish things happen every day.

Using current Fangraphs WAR dollar valuations, I’ll run through the 10 most underperforming players with respect to their free agent contracts, and then give an example of what they can do in the final month to make up the deficit.

10. Jeff Francoeur (-1.9 WAR, $6.75MM)

After a hot start to his career followed by years of poor production, Francoeur entered 2012 hot off of a career-saving season, accompanied by a shiny new two-year contract. His followup has been less than great, to put it lightly. His -1.9 WAR is the seventh-worst season in the last five years, and there’s still three weeks to go. (Incidentally, four of the top seven took place in Kansas City. Bonus points to anyone who can name them without looking.)

How he could turn things around: Hit 33 more home runs in 2012.

9. Barry Zito (0.5 WAR, $19MM)

Zito’s freefall since moving across the Bay and signing a then-record contract for a pitcher in December 2006 has been well-documented. He’s only topped two WAR once since the new contract, but this year was a low for him, even by recent standards. His 2012 K/9 of 5.34 is a personal career worst, in any level of professional baseball, major or minor.

How he could turn things around: In the four remaining starts this year, throw four straight 26 strikeout shutouts. That would be a -2.68 FIP in 36 innings, adding 3.7 WAR in the process.

8. Carlos Lee (0.4 WAR, $18.5MM)

Lee’s contract has been known as an albatross for some time now, but at the time of the signing, he had a career .357 wOBA and a 5.6 WAR season under his belt. This is likely Lee’s final placement on rankings such as these, as his six-year, $100MM contract ends in a few short weeks.

How he could turn things around: Hit a home run and walk twice every day.

7. Carl Crawford (0.4 WAR, $19.5MM)

What else is there to say about Carl Crawford? Brilliant in Tampa and awful in Boston, Crawford wasn’t exactly a favorite of the Red Sox faithful. Fortuitously for Boston, general manager Ben Cherington managed to offload Crawford and fellow $20MM+ man Adrian Gonzalez for essentially the low, low price of getting someone else to sign those checks.

How he could turn things around: Return to action three weeks after Tommy John surgery, and hit a triple and two singles every day, with a stolen base.

Johan Santana (1.2 WAR, $24MM)

Johan Santana is the highest-paid pitcher in all of baseball, and honestly, if it weren’t for the terrible shoulder capsule tear that he suffered two years ago, he’d have a decent chance at earning every penny. This year was an injury-shortened anomaly from Santana, but he still showed flashes of his previous brilliance, throwing a no-hitter in June. If he’s healthy, don’t expect to see Santana in a similar place next year.

How he could turn things around: Like Crawford, get healthy first, but after that, pitch at a Matt Cain level for every remaining inning of 2012 Mets baseball to rack up 4.1 more WAR.

5. Vernon Wells (0.5 WAR, $21MM)

The elder statesman of spectacularly awful contracts, Vernon Wells’ production fell off of a cliff immediately after ink met paper, and that was a year before the contact even took effect. During the length of the contract, from 2008 to the present, Wells has produced 6.2 WAR. He’s cashed checks in the same timeframe totaling $84MM, when including the signing bonus. That’s more than three times the going rate for WAR, and to make things worse for the Angels, he still has two years and $42MM on the books.

How he could turn things around: Lobby Bud Selig to give him three chances at every plate appearance, tripling his wOBA.

4. Jason Bay (-1.0 WAR, $16MM)

Try as I might, I can’t fault the Mets too much for giving Jason Bay $16MM every year for four years. Aside from a terrible 2007, Bay had averaged nearly four WAR over the previous four years, split across Pittsburgh and Boston. In the three years since, he’s totaled a single win above replacement.

How he could turn things around: Bat 1.000, alternating doubles and walks for the rest of the year, for a .968 wOBA.

3. Alex Rodriguez (2.1 WAR, $30MM)

Alex Rodriguez earns his spot on this list not because he was terribly unproductive, but because he’s getting paid $30MM. To be worth that contract, A-Rod would have to average 6.6 WAR a year. Is he capable of that? Four or five years ago, absolutely. He’s one of the best infielders to ever play the game. Now, at age 37? I’m not so sure. Still, A-Rod managed to rack up 2.1 WAR in an injury-shortened year. Not bad at all, but certainly not $30MM’s worth.

How he could turn things around: Get hit by every pitch from now until the rest of the year, and then steal 2B four times a night with a 100% success rate.

2. Ryan Howard (-0.5 WAR, $20MM)

Vernon Wells might be the elder statesman of awful contracts, but Howard’s recent extension should be the new pacesetter. Howard rang in the first year of his new contract by producing at a level below a freely available AAA player, and he got $20MM for the privilege. Unbelievably, he still has $105MM left on the deal. I can understand locking up a franchise player, but Ryan Howard’s broken the four WAR barrier only twice in his nine-year career, and he’s not getting any younger.

How he could turn things around: Hit two HRs every day for three weeks.

1. Michael Young (-1.6 WAR, $16MM)

Michael Young and Adrian Beltre have identical contracts. Both are getting paid $80MM over five years. But who would you rather have on your team? After this year, Beltre will have had three consecutive years averaging six WAR. Michael Young has never even come close to that in a single season. Now, this year is definitely unusual, and you can almost always count on Young to chip in a couple of WAR, but right now, he’s hitting at the average replacement level, and he’s been a designated hitter in almost half of his appearances. Sorry, Evan Grant.

How he could turn things around: Hit like Barry Bonds did between 2001-2004… then double that.

Honorable Mention: Bobby Bonilla (0.0 WAR, $1.19MM)

I had to mention Bobby Bonilla’s 25-year deferred payment buyout, which pays him $1.19MM every year until he’s 72 years old. I like to take every chance I can to mention Bobby Bonilla’s financial situation, because it fills me with joy inside.

How he could turn things around: Do nothing. Send a birthday card to his agent every year until 2035.

References & Resources
All stats current as of games finished on Sunday, September 12th, 2012.

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Comments

  1. Brad Johnson said...

    #10, I can’t name the seasons, but I imagine Jose Guillen, Yuni Betancourt and Jeff Francoeur could be appearing multiple times. I’m going to go cheat now…

    …so there was a fourth. Didn’t realize he was that bad that year.

  2. DB said...

    The comment about Bonilla is stupid.  Had he taken what he was contractually owed and bought an annuity, he would be in the same place.  That his employer did the same thing is irrelevant.  That was a finance transaction, not a baseball one.

  3. Brad Johnson said...

    I’m actually surprised more teams don’t do that. I think we might see that become a little more common as players begin to look for over $30 mil in a season.

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