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AJ Pierzynski is the White Sox' Worst Contract?

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So Tim Dierkes, of mlbtraderumors.com, decided to stretch his beat a bit and move into player value analysis with a list of the 45 worst current contracts in baseball. He limited his list to those contracts which are worth more than $15 million. Now, anyone with an ounce of sense could come up with a pretty good list of terrible contracts. Barry Zito? Check. Andruw Jones? Present. Eric Byrnes? Done. However, when you start stretching to 45, you’re going to elicit some controversy.

While he wasn’t attempting to include a player from every team, the White Sox have a pretty high payroll with quite a few players on multi-year contracts that fit the bill. Should be a slam dunk to find a contract that doesn’t look too good. But which contract does Dierkes choose?

  • A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox.  Three years, $18.35MM ($6.12MM per year). Signed October of 2007. The Sox already had him under contract through '08.

Yup, not Scott Linebrink and his 4 year, $19 million boondoggle (with no trade protection, just for additional giggles). Or Paul Konerko and his 5 year, $60 million sunk cost. AJ. This choice betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of player valuation and evaluation.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that AJ’s contract is great. I wasn't happy with the extension at the time because I was (and still am) quite concerned that AJ will fall off the production cliff and, as Dierkes points out, there wasn't exactly a pressing need to extend him at the time considering his contract situation. However, unlike his compatriots, at least AJ managed to get through the first part of his contract providing value. On the contrary, Scott Linebrink was good for about three months and then got hurt, missed significant time, and wasn’t particularly impressive upon his return. His peripherals were turning ugly well before the White Sox signed him and now he’s added durability concerns. And, according to Fangraphs, last season he was worth about a half win – or about $2M – and was paid $4M. Konerko did provide good production for value in his first year of this contract – about 4 wins, or $14.5M, versus his annual salary of $12M. Since then, however, things have gone downhill and fast. He provided about 2 wins in 2007 and 1 win in 2008. So, thus far, he’s provided about $26M in value versus a salary of $36M. And that trend certainly doesn’t suggest a reversal that will match his annual salary.

One other thing to point out about Linebrink and Konerko – they play in positions that it isn’t exactly hard to find good production for much, much cheaper. Catcher, on the other hand, is a premium position and while AJ does not provide good defense, his ability to stay healthy and provide decent enough offensive production makes him a relatively valuable commodity. Dierkes defends his choice by saying "AJ isn't much with the bat...the Sox could've just kept him through '08."  Well, I'm not sure there are many catchers who are much with the bat; and some might argue Konerko isn't much with the bat, certainly not for a first baseman. And I don’t recall there being a surplus of catchers on the market this offseason, while relievers and positionless hitters were (and to an extent still are) readily available and for sums far less than Linebrink and Konerko.

Maybe AJ will fall off the cliff in the next two years. While his production has been very consistent the last five years – basically sticking right around .270/.310/.415 and catching 130 games – that doesn’t leave much room for error. However, the other two probably have fallen off the production cliff, at least in terms of what they’re being paid, or at the minimum have had years in which their production didn’t match their compensation. AJ is at least projected to be worth his salary in 2009. The choice of AJ's contract being the worst is quite befuddling when you actually consider the respective production of these three players so far, their projections, and how simple – or, in AJ’s case, how difficult – it would be to replace each of them.