Mr. 600: Will A-Rod’s Contract Be the Worst in Baseball History?

Note: I wrote this article for Bleacher Report and while it’s not a straight forward fantasy article, I found that the analysis on A-Rod’s 2010 season-to-date has plenty of relevance for keeper leagues.
On Wednesday, August 4th 2010, Alex Rodriguez became only the seventh player in Major League history to hit 600 or more home runs and the youngest player in history to reach the 600 home run mark.

Minutes later, no one really cares.

Rodriguez is one of the premier faces of baseball’s steroid era. As an admitted user, his stats will forever be looked upon with shadows and questions of validity.

Beyond what A-Rod has done, is what he will do. Without the aid (supposedly) of performance enhancing drugs going forward and closing in on back-to-back sub-par seasons, will A-Rod’s future performance be worth the seven years remaining on the 10-year, $275 million dollar contract he signed in December of 2007? Or will this contract, which has him playing at the age of 42, go down as the worst in baseball history?

This season, A-Rod is making a base salary of $32 million. However, by smacking home run number 600, he will receive an additional $6 million, bringing the total bill to $38 million.

To this point in 2010, A-Rod has delivered career lows in AVG, OBP, SLG, and stolen bases (not counting his 149 plate appearances in 1995). His total production this season has been worth two wins above replacement . He’ll have to be explosively hot over the season’s final two months to even come close to actually earning the $38 million he is on the books for this year.

What about the future? A-Rod is 35 years old and his body is already showing signs of breaking down. Last season, A-Rod had labrum surgery on his hip, which kept him out through May. This season, A-Rod has missed time due to tendinitis in his hip as well as a groin strain.

This wouldn’t be the first time an alleged steroid user’s production fell off partly due to his body breaking down and partly due to a decline in skills (though A-Rod has admitted to his use of PEDs).

 

Sammy Sosa hit .253/.332/.517 with 35 home runs in his age 35 season. He would only play 114 games combined over the next three seasons—Sosa did not play in 2006—before he was out of baseball all together. The 2005 season, the same season Sosa’s numbers sharply declined, was 41-year-old Rafael Palmeiro’s final season.

After hitting 38 home runs in 2003, Palmeiro hit only 23 in 154 games in 2004 and only 18 the following season in 110 games. Ken Caminiti, who admitted to steroid use after his retirement, ran into a rash of injury issues over his last few seasons.

Perhaps the only difference between these three players and A-Rod is that none had as much natural ability as Rodriguez did.

As another way to compare the numbers, the true all-time home run king, Hank Aaron, hit .300/.396/.607 (1.003 OPS) with 44 home runs at A-Rod’s current age of 35. That season, Aaron was worth 8.1 wins above replacement. Aaron would go on to hit 38, 47, 34 and 40 home runs the following four seasons before declining at age 40.

One of the most amazing things to consider with those home run totals is the at bats in which Aaron needed to hit them. From 1970 through 1973 Aaron would see a decrease in games played and at bats each year, yet the home runs numbers never suffered. In 1973, it took Aaron only 392 at bats to hit 40 home runs, or one home run every 9.8 at bats.

Unlike Aaron, as a pure hitter, Alex Rodriguez is showing signs of decline at his current age regardless of home run totals and results of balls in play.

To this point in the 2010 season, A-Rod’s walk rate is his lowest in 10 seasons and he is chasing pitches outside the strike-zone more frequently than he ever has (since that stat has been recorded). Not only has his discipline worsened, but he has turned from a power hitter to a more contact oriented hitter.

A-Rod has been striking out less frequently this season, yes, but it has come at the expense of driving the baseball. His contact rate, if it should hold over the final two-months, would be his highest ever. Normally this would be a good thing, but when A-Rod does make contact, more often than not, he’s not making very good contact.

A-Rod’s line drive rate this season sits at an extremely low 15.5 percent. Not that A-Rod was ever an elite line drive hitter (his career line drive rate is 18 percent, 20 percent has been about league average), but when you don’t hit line drives and you don’t hit a large amount of home runs, it is extremely difficult to maintain a decent AVG. Such has been the case this season.

Is it the injuries that have changed A-Rod’s approach at the plate? Perhaps, but that doesn’t exactly bode well for future projections as he enters his age 36 and beyond seasons.

The outlook for A-Rod’s offensive projections is not as bright as it used to be and his defense is not getting any better either.

According to advanced defensive metrics, A-Rod has been a sub-par third baseman since 2005. Both UZR and Total Zone , for the most part, have had A-Rod pegged with negative ratings . Considering the hip injury and his age, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hope that A-Rod’s future defense will be much better, which further decreases his overall value.

In essence, what we have is a 35-year-old former steroid user showing declining skills both at the plate and in the field.

If we are looking at this 10-year, $275 million dollar contract in the context of the Yankees and their ability to stretch payroll further than any other franchise in baseball, we could easily justify it by assuming how little significance $20 million will be to the payroll in 2016 and 2017.

However, if we are judging this contract based solely on how much a franchise pays a player and what return they get on that investment, regardless of payroll, it’s hard to imagine A-Rod being a $20 million dollar player at age 40, 41, and 42. At this point it is even a little hard to imagine A-Rod being a $31 million dollar player next season or a $29 million dollar player in 2012 and so on.

There are many bad baseball contracts out there right now. As the a team like the Cubs desperately tries to rid themselves of the Alfonso Soriano money, the Yankees have the luxury of not worrying about what they pay A-Rod. However, a bad deal is a bad deal and A-Rod may end up making the Yankees pay for the inflated numbers of his past rather than numbers that will help them win in the future.

Unless this season is just a fluke and somehow A-Rod manages to turn the clock back a few years as he ages into his upper 30s, this is going to go down as possibly the worst contract in baseball history and A-Rod as the game’s most over-payed player ever. 

All Contract info via Cot’s Contracts