Renteria, Taveras head the list of biggest free-agent busts (cont.)
At least there was a reasonable chance that Bradley would star. The signings that hurt worst may be those involving a player counted on to be nothing more than reasonably solid -- Pat Burrell, for instance. In each of the last four years he put up an OPS between .875 and .902. That's not great for a 32-year-old who can't play the field, but it's not bad, and certainly worth a two-year, $16 million contract. As is, though, Burrell's OPS for Tampa Bay this year is .657.
Should we have seen this coming? Perhaps so. Aside from the inherent dodginess of a brutally stiff-bodied hitter of his age, Burrell has always been utterly useless against American League pitching. (His career OPS in interleague play is .707.) He'll improve some, but the broke Rays will mourn the loss of their $16 million all the same.
In fairness to the executives who signed them, if every player mentioned here was clearly a potential catastrophe, each also came with some mitigating factor attached. The two players competing for the prized title of worst signing of the winter did not.
The first is shortstop Edgar Renteria. Thirty-three and a mediocre defender with an unreal amount of wear on his treads, he has had one year in the last six in which he was something more than a decent hitter, and is thus exactly the sort one doesn't want to tie on to. So of course the San Francisco Giants, who have made a cult of this class of player, signed him for two years and $18.5 million, and have been rewarded by the sight of Renteria trying to keep his slugging average and OBP above .300.
The second is Reds center fielder Willy Taveras. We can grant that there must be something about him that doesn't show up in the boxscore -- he has, after all, played for two pennant winners -- and still marvel at the idea of paying a man with a career slugging average of .337 $6.25 million for two years. Always inept at the plate, Taveras is hitting like a pitcher this year, with a remarkable .220/.269/.273 line, and may be the single biggest reason why the Reds aren't quite in the race right now.
Whether one thinks Taveras or Renteria was the worst signing comes down to matters of principle and philosophy. Is it worse to pay an outrageously bad player a relatively small sum of money, or to pay a merely bad one three times as much? I would tend toward the former -- Renteria, after all, is usually passable even at his worst, whereas Taveras strains mightily to be so at his best. Either way, the sight of Taveras weakly grounding out to first, or of Oliver Perez throwing a ball three feet wide of the plate, and the accompanying mental images of burning piles of greenbacks, are what should come to mind this winter once the elderly and injured hit the market. People do win the lotto, but tens of millions lose.
Tim Marchman lives in Chicago and opines at tmarchman.com.
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