Crawford: Worst big-signing start ever?

October, 14, 2011
With Red Sox principle owner John Henry admitting Friday that he opposed the Carl Crawford signing, the left fielder's disappointing season is back in the spotlight.

"[Crawford was] definitely a baseball signing. In fact, anyone involved in the process, anybody involved in upper management with the Red Sox will tell you that I personally opposed that. They all know that,” Henry said during a surprise appearance on Boston sports radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub.

“Why? Because we had plenty of left-handed hitting. I don’t have to go into why. I’ll just tell you that at the time I opposed the deal. But I don’t meddle to the point of making decisions for our baseball people. This was driven, and Theo will tell you this, by our baseball people. It wasn’t a PR move, and neither was the Gonzalez signing.”

While one can debate the merits of openly criticizing a player with whom you still have many years of necessary co-existence, there’s no question that the first year of the 7-year, $142 million contract was an epic failure. Just how bad was Season No. 1 of Crawford’s contract? You can make a strong argument that it is the worst start to a deal of this magnitude in free-agency history.

In that past decade, there have been 18 free-agent contracts issued of at least $50 million in total value and $15 million in average annual value (this includes only free-agent contracts, not extensions). When you assess the net difference between the average annual value of the contract and what the player actually contributed in that first season, Crawford grades out as the worst -- and it’s not particularly close.

As one can see, Crawford’s return-on-investment is easily the worst in the past decade. Barry Zito’s 7-year, $126 million contract is often held up as the cautionary free-agency tale, as Zito’s production never justified such a contract in the first place and he didn’t elevate his game upon signing the deal, either. He has not had a single season since joining the Giants where he justified his average annual value.

Crawford’s return in the first year of his contract -- which is worth just over $2 million more per season -- blows Zito’s out of the water.

Some of the other most-maligned contracts in MLB history appear on this list, including Jason Bay’s deal with the Mets, Jayson Werth’s from this past offseason with the Nationals and Carlos Lee’s with the Astros. Carlos Beltran’s first season with the Mets is often cited as one of the worst first-year performances after signing a free-agent deal in league history. Given that they are both athletic outfielders whose value, in part, is derived from their defense, Beltran seems like an apt direct comparison. Unfortunately for Crawford, even Beltran’s uninspiring start to his Mets career easily surpasses Crawford’s first taste of the dirty water.

While Crawford was demonstrably worse in 2011 than Beltran was in 2005, the latter posted a remarkable bounce-back season in 2006 -- the second year of his deal with the Mets. In that season, he posted an MVP-caliber performance, complete with a 7.9 Wins Above Replacement mark that fully re-established his value as an impact player and made everyone remember why the Mets gave him that lucrative contract in the first place.

Crawford certainly retains the skill set to put together a similar return-to-form himself, though we know he’ll be attempting it without the complete support of the team’s principle owner, the man who issued him a contract that has started as poorly as any free-agent contract of its magnitude in the last decade. In fact, extending back even further and loosening the parameters a bit, there is only one contract since 1990 of at least $50 million total value (putting aside the AAV of $15 million requirement) to grade out worse in the first season; not Mike Hampton, not Kevin Brown -- but Adam Dunn’s freshly-signed contract, one that generated a stunning -$27.0 million return in 2011. Clearly, not good company for Crawford.



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