MLB's most problematic contracts: Mookie Betts dilemma headlines AL East edition

Sporting News

We all love to read (and write!) about the worst contracts in baseball. You know the big ones by heart: Josh Hamilton, Barry Zito, Jacoby Ellsbury, Albert Pujols, Mike Hampton and on and on.

But the big-money deals that go south aren’t the only types of contract situations that create big problems, and that’s what we’re going to look at with this series. These are the contract situations that keep general managers and team presidents — or whatever the official title happens to be for the decision makers — up at night. They don’t have easy resolutions, though we’ll try to offer options where options might exist.

MORE: Rankings, predictions for the best MLB free agents on the market

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We’ll go through MLB, division by division, and look at the most pressing issues for every team in the majors.

Up first: the AL East.

Yankees: Jacoby Ellsbury

Contract details: One year, $21.1 million, with $21 million club option ($5 million buyout)

Need to know: The $5 million buyout just might be the most cathartic money spent in the history of the Yankees franchise, at least for the fans.

The Ellsbury deal — seven years, $153 million — has long been a disaster, which is a shame because Ellsbury was one hell of a player before he joined the Yankees and injuries derailed his career. He led the AL in stolen bases three times (2008-09, 2013) and finished second in the AL MVP voting in 2011. And he was OK in his first year with the Yankees, hitting 16 homers, to go with a 111 OPS+ and 3.6 bWAR. But he averaged just 124 games and a 2.1 bWAR from 2015 to 2017, and didn’t play at all in 2018 or 2019, a variety of injuries keeping him away from the field. He doesn’t seem likely to play in 2020, either, and the Yankees would probably love to have that $21 million available to spend on other needs.

Resolution options: Just wait for the merciful end, pay the buyout and move on.

Red Sox: Mookie Betts

Contract details: Final year of arbitration in 2020, free agent after 2020

Need to know: Red Sox owner John Henry has talked publicly about his intention to get the team’s 2020 payroll under the luxury tax number of $208 million (the 2019 season opened at $236 million). This week, J.D. Martinez decided not to opt out of his contract, which pays him $23.75 million in 2020, muddying the waters for what the Sox might decide to do with Betts, who is arbitration-eligible for the final time in his career. Last year, Betts and the club settled at $20 million, and this year that number could be as much as $10 million higher.

But the Betts issues aren’t just about 2020, of course. The big question is this: Will Mookie Betts wear a Boston uniform in 2021 and beyond? He’s one of the five best position players in baseball; in his five full seasons, his “worst” bWAR is 5.9. Even though 2019 was, compared with his 2018 AL MVP season, a “down” season, he still led the AL with 135 runs scored, won a Gold Glove and posted a 6.8 bWAR. Deciding what to do with Betts — the best player on his team and an incredibly popular player — is quite the task for new front-office guru Chaim Bloom. His lack of a contract is the problematic part.

Resolution options: Bloom could trade Betts this offseason, though it would be nearly impossible to get adequate value for a player like Betts, a rental superstar. But Bloom can’t trade Betts for an underwhelming return as his first impact move in charge of the Red Sox, right? The Sox could try to work out an extension, but this is a club that already has a lot of money on the books — five players are guaranteed between $17 and $32 million through 2022 (if J.D. Martinez turns down future opt-outs) — and there are other needs the club has to fill, too. They could also let Betts play out the 2020 season and leave as a free agent, getting a draft pick for compensation. Or, if the 2020 season starts poorly, they could trade him in July.

Rays: Tommy Pham

Contract details: Arbitration eligible in 2020-2021, free agent after 2021

Need to know: Assuming Blake Snell’s so-so 2019 was an aberration, the Rays don’t have any bad contracts on the books. But sticking to the goal of picking one player per team, we’ll go with Pham. He’s been an outstanding addition (acquired in a trade with the Cardinals), posting a 134 OPS+, 28 homers and 30 stolen bases in 184 games with Tampa Bay. And he hit .360 in the postseason for the Rays this October, with three multiple-hit games and a pair of home runs.

But he plays for the Rays, and every dollar counts. Pham made $4.1 million in arbitration in 2019, and MLBTradeRumors.com projects that he’ll get $8.6 million for 2020. Remember what happened when Corey Dickerson had a stellar 2017 season — All-Star nod, 27 homers, .815 OPS — and was projected to get a similar amount? The Rays shipped him to Pittsburgh in a trade. So, yeah, it’s fair to wonder what they’ll do with Pham, regardless of how good he’s been in his time wearing a Tampa Bay uniform.

Resolution options: Pay the man his money.

Blue Jays: Randal Grichuk

Contract details: Four years, $40 million remaining on five-year, $52 million deal

Need to know: Like the Rays, the Jays don’t have a lot on the books in the way of guaranteed money. Toronto gave Grichuk the five-year extension last spring, covering his final two years of arbitration and first three potential free-agent years. He was coming off an up-and-down-but-not-bad first year with the franchise (like Pham, he was acquired in a trade with the Cardinals): 25 homers, 117 OPS+, 2.2 bWAR in 124 games.

But unlike Pham, Grichuk’s 2019 wasn’t very good. He played 151 games, but posted a 93 OPS+, .280 on-base percentage and 0.3 bWAR. He hit 31 home runs, but struck out 163 times, with only 35 walks. That 4.66 K/BB ratio ranked 129th of 135 qualifying players last year. That’s not the type of improvement the Jays wanted to see (well, it wasn’t improvement at all), and even though his AAV (right around $10 million) isn’t awful, it’s not great, either.

Resolution options: They’re invested in Grichuk, so the best course of action is to do everything they can to help him improve as a player. And if he doesn’t, he’ll get traded for less value than the Jays thought they were getting when offering him the extension.

Orioles: Chris Davis

Contract details: Three years, $69 million remaining on seven-year, $161 million deal

Need to know: You know all about the Davis' struggles. He’s batted .172 with a 53 OPS+ (100 is league average, remember?) and 28 homers in 233 games over the past two seasons. And the Orioles still have to pay him for three more years.

Resolution options: Barring some type of magical career revival, he’ll be released at some point and the Orioles will eat whatever money remains on the deal. The only question is when.

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