My colleague Dan Szymborski, creator and all-knowing expert of the ZiPS projection system, has produced his annual list of baseball's biggest albatross contracts for ESPN Insider. His list factors in future projected value along with the remaining salary owed the player to arrive at an estimated surplus value (which, in the cases of the players on this list, is negative).
Albert Pujols, who is essentially now on a six-year, $165 million contract that covers his age-36 to age-41 seasons, ranks No. 1. Others in the top five are Robinson Cano, Prince Fielder, Matt Kemp and Miguel Cabrera, players getting older and with limited defensive value but a lot of money left on their contracts. Cabrera is certainly still an asset, but he's still owed $248 million; how valuable will he be when he's making $32 million when he's 40? Cano's story is similar, a good player but with many years left on his deal.
Anyway, one name on the list is distinct: Texas Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus, who is still owed $103 million through 2022. Dan projects Andrus with a surplus value of minus-5.6 wins. What makes Andrus different is that he wasn't signed as a big slugger or an older star or a risky pitcher, but a young player who could play defense. He signed his extension in April 2013, when he was entering his age-24 season, having already played four seasons in the majors. The $120 million deal -- which didn't kick in until 2015 -- was viewed as reasonable, locking up a young player through his prime years, with the final guaranteed year of 2022 coming when he was still only 33.
At the time, there was even optimism that Andrus would develop more at the plate. In 2012, he'd hit .286/.349/.378, establishing career highs in all three triple-slash lines. His OPS+ of 94 was still below league average, but for a shortstop viewed with an above-average defense, that's still a valuable player. Baseball Reference rated him as a 4-WAR player in both 2011 and 2012 (and again in 2013).
Since then, however, Andrus has gone backward. His offense has gotten worse, stabilizing with OPS+ marks of 82, 81 and 80 the past three seasons. As it turns out, his 2012 season was simply a slight upward tick; his OBP has gone down each of the past three seasons. More problematic, however, is that his defense has also declined. From to 2011 to 2013 he averaged plus-9 defensive runs saved per season; in 2014 and 2015, his totals were minus-13 and minus-1. He has gone from a 4-WAR player to 1.0 and 2.1.
If he can at least maintain his defense at league average, he's not a bad player. He has been extremely durable, averaging 158 games the past four seasons. It is, however, a reminder that betting on defensive value is tricky, particularly because defense peaks much earlier than people generally believe. Sabermetrician Tom Tango, in a 2008 study of shortstops, wrote:
"The degree of regression will establish the peak age and the slope toward the peak age. I tried different regression values, and it always maxes out at age 28. So, that is one conclusion we can make: On average, shortstop fielding prowess peaks no later than age 28. Recall that, in the first (unregressed) table, the peak age was around 23. So, the true answer lies somewhere between these points (without regression and with maximum regression). The second chart above seems to satisfy this condition."
There's a reason teams don't really pay for defense in free agency. It's not only shortstops. Other positions (with the exception of catchers) show similar aging curves. You can bring up Jason Heyward, but he's an effective enough offensive player that his contract would be reasonable even if he were just an average defender. But this could be one reason the Atlanta Braves traded Andrelton Simmons this offseason. While he's only 26, his bat hasn't developed and his defensive runs saved numbers have gone from plus-41 to 28 to 25. That's still amazing defense (only Kevin Kiermaier was credited with more DRS in 2015), but if he goes from elite to merely good as he ages, his value, as with Andrus, will drop significantly.
Of course, there are elite defenders who age pretty well; they don't necessarily fall off a cliff. Adrian Beltre was a plus-20 runs defender four times in his 20s and was still plus-18 in 2015 at age 36 (although did have a minus-5 season in 2013). Adrian Gonzalez still rates as one of the best first basemen in the game. Brandon Crawford, by the metrics, just had his best defensive season at age 28.
In general, however, don't expect your 26-year-old shortstop to get better. Your 32-year-old center fielder has almost certainly lost a step or two. And guys like Kiermaier and Kevin Pillar, who had excellent metrics in 2015, are unlikely to match those sterling numbers again in 2016.