Here in Reds land, it seems there is an eternal debate about whether or not certain players are “worth” their contracts and about whether or not the Reds should give so much of their payroll to a few players and on and on. I thought it was time for a facts-based assessment. There will be a few opinions here, but mostly, I’m interested in looking at the facts. Specifically, how much value a player is providing relative to what he is being paid. First, however, we need to get two things out of the way.

  1. Free agents are more expensive than players still in their first 6 years of team control. This should be obvious, but too many people ignore it. You can’t reasonably compare the pay a player receives after his 6th year with the pay of players who are still under teams control. We need to compare apples to apples. To that end, I will use FanGraphs’ estimate on the cost of WAR/season on the open market. Right now that’s about $7.7M. However, that number will go up over the next several years because inflation happens in baseball.
  2. I’m not worried about percentage of payroll. What matters is production. On a roster like the Reds’, which is dominated by young players, it’s very easy for one or two veteran contracts to take a huge percentage of the payroll.

Now, let’s take a look at how the players currently on the team and past their first six years have done relative to what they’re being paid.

Good Contracts

Brandon Phillips, 6 years, $72.5

I’m just interested in the numbers and the numbers say that, so far, Phillips has been worth $82.2M since beginning his extension in 2012. That’s almost $10M in excess value and he still has a year left. Do I think Phillips should start next year? No, I do not. But he has provided plenty of value to the Reds since signing. This was not a bad contract relative to the market. He was underpaid for much of it and is now slightly overpaid. That’s usually how these things work.

Undecided

Joey Votto, 10 years, $225M

Chad tackled this for Cincinnati Magazine, and I suggest you go read it. The upshot is that as long as Votto doesn’t fall off a cliff, he’ll be worth the contract. Will he be overpaid at the end? Sure. But that’s part of what gets you about $60M in value last year.

Homer Bailey, 6 years, $106M

I don’t want to play hindsight too much here. So far, however, Homer has underperformed his contract by about $25M. In order to fully make up the value of his contract, he would need to be about a 4 WAR player for each of the next 3 years. That’s a tall task for a pitcher who’s only done it once before, but it’s possible. If you discount the TJ surgery, he would need to be roughly a 3 WAR player each year to be worth the remaining years of his contract, and that seems more reasonable.

Bad Contract

Alfredo Simon, 1 year, $3M

Despite only being paid $3M this year, Simon has actually cost the Reds about $11M total because he has generated negative value. And this gets to the point I want to make. It has never really been the big contracts that kill the Reds. It’s the little contracts. It often seems as though they just throw a few million at guys they know and assume it will be fine, but players like Simon and Schumaker and the like kill them because those guys do get playing time and when they play, they are bad and cost the Reds wins. Replacement level is meant to represent the kind of player who can be had on the open market more or less for free. If you are paying more than the league minimum to someone who is below replacement level, something has gone wrong. If the player is over 30 and doesn’t have a track record of being a truly valuable player, what’s gone wrong is that the front office has made a poor choice.

It’s not Votto or Phillips or even Bailey whose contracts cause problems. All of those deals are at least defensible. It’s they way bad, small contracts stack on top of each other that costs the Reds wins.