Saturday, April 17, 2010

Zambrano and Soriano: Vastly Underpaid Cubs

Fonzie and Zambrano: I dub thee, FonZ.
If you've read the headline and the photo caption, you already think I'm either kidding or out of my mind. I'm not kidding. Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano are vastly underpaid.

Anyone who has been watching over the past couple of seasons (and does not bear the surname Zambrano or Soriano) would dismiss this notion with all the scoffing he or she or it could muster. Carlos Zambrano is in the middle of a five-year, $91.5 million contract. Alfonso Soriano is still in the first half of an eight-year, $136 million contract. Soriano is a bum. Zambrano is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. The same labels must apply to anyone who would insinuate either one of them is worth that much money, let alone underpaid. It's as simple as that.

Then allow me to oversimplify matters. Let's look at how valuable Zambrano and Soriano have been over their careers according to what kind of salary they would have commanded on the free agent market every year. A caveat: no player makes his worth on the free-agent market. Well, few players. For every Jeff Samardzija signing an exorbitant deal before ever playing a major league game there are dozens of youngsters thriving in the majors for less than they are worth until they can break through the arbitrated ceiling of collusion. 

But let's just say Carlos and Alfonso could have had an exception where each year they were able to sign a free-agent contract based on their previous year's accomplishments. I'll use one resource to keep it simple: Fangraphs.

Fangraphs uses a player's offensive and defensive contributions (though for pitchers they use strictly their pitching numbers, an oversight that undervalues Zambrano's contributions) to calculate Runs Above Replacement (RAR), Wins Above Replacement (WAR), and the player's free-agent value according to the going rate per expected win. You can read more about their methodology in their more-than-thorough explanatory series.

Let's take a look at Soriano's career numbers compared to the theoretical replacement player (of which the Cubs farm system has had myriad candidates . . . that's not a compliment).
Alfonso Soriano's value is, contrary to Cubs fans' belief, greater than 12 cents.
 The bottom right-hand corner is probably making you swear a little bit. If he could have made free-agent dollars his entire career, Soriano would have earned $93 million, and he's only been paid $48.3 million? That can't be right. Well, it's not entirely right. Fangraphs has pro-rated his $8 million signing bonus with the Cubs across all eight years of his contract, but his total salary numbers don't yet include 2009, in which he made $16 million, 17 if you include the signing-bonus pro-ration. That would bring his total salary earned to $65.3 million. Add to that the fact that he's probably already made in excess of $1 million this year (whoa, I know) and we can put his real salary for his career at a nice even (and evil) $66.6 million. 

I want to draw your attention specifically to 2007. Soriano made $10 million that year and was worth $22.8 million. Remember that? Cubs won the division? Went to the playoffs (and went home unceremoniously)? That $12.8 million savings (yes, savings) allowed the Cubs to also sign Ted Lilly, Mark DeRosa, and Jason Marquis. Remember that? And do you remember 2008, when Soriano made $14 million and was worth . . . $14 million? The Cubs were pretty good that year, too. 

There's no getting around the atrocity that was Soriano's 2009, so I won't try to. Fangraphs says the Fonz was worth -$3.2 million as a free agent, which I guess means he could have found a team who would pay him $3.2 million to not play for them. That's pretty much as bad as you can be. At that point, Soriano crossed the overpaid line to the tune of $7.4 million. Even if he recovers, Soriano can't be expected to live up to his $18 million a year salary over the next 5 years.

But my point is this: up to this point, Soriano has been worth $26.4 million more than he has been paid over the course of his career. Yes, he may close that gap very shortly, but consider this: as restrictive as you might think his current salary might be on the Cubs' ability to sign free agents next year, the backloaded nature of his contract (and his outstanding play) put the Cubs in prime position to compete for a World Series championship in 2007 and 2008. In my opinion, that was worth the $18 mill/5 yr gamble. Now on to the Z half of FonZ.
Big Z. Big value. Relatively small salary.
Zambrano also signed a signing bonus that can be pro-rated as $1 million per year for each year in his current 5-year plan, so we can add $18.75 million for 2009. That puts Carlos's career worth through 2009 at $98.5 million and his actual salary at $58.25. Two things to add to that: 1) unlike Soriano, Zambrano's true bargain-basement days were also spent with the Cubs (he brought $28.2 million of worth before ever breaking the million-dollar level in total salary on the major-league level); 2) these value numbers don't include hitting, and Carlos's bat has been worth quite a few Runs Above Replacement at his position, a ridiculous amount that should put his free-agent value several million dollars higher over the course of his career.

Probably the most shocking thing to Cubs fans would be the 2009 value: Carlos was worth $16.2 million last year! Granted, he's being paid to be worth more than that and his offensive contributions probably only would close half of that gap. But even missing time to injury and failing to reach 200 innings for the second consecutive season, Carlos is worth a boatload of money. Deemed a failure by almost everyone, Carlos's 2009 was his most valuable in terms of net worth (not adjusted for inflation) of his entire career! In terms of WAR, it was his best season since '06. Call him not an ace. Call him a head case. He is dead valuable to this team, even if he was ridiculously unlucky last year.

Z just had a hard luck year, and this year isn't shaping up to be any luckier. Bloop hits, bad defense, and poor run support have conspired to reduce Carlos's win total, but none of that makes him any less valuable.

In sum, FonZ might not be worth what they'll make over the next several years, but in the big picture, these have been two players who have been vastly underpaid and extremely overcriticized. They both gave the Cubs a great shot at a World Series and could do so again. You'd think the world's greatest fans would appreciate that.


  1. This is extremely interesting. I'm most concerned with their current value and that bothers me. Most players are overpaid when they are on their initial slave labor minor league contracts.

  2. Yeah, this is all really semantics. I think it's important to see that the Soriano deal in its entirety is not as terrible as it's being made out to be. Sure, if you isolate the last five years, it looks stupid. But the first two years of the deal gave the Cubs the flexibility to make a legitimate run after an absolutely abysmal 2006. If there was another way the Cubs could have turned things around after that year, well . . . I don't think there was one. I wish things had worked out better, but those were two great years that would not have played out that well without Soriano & Z.

  3. None of that makes any practical difference moving forward if either one of those guys fails to play well.

  4. This is not a good argument. Those Fangraphs salary values should be labeled "strictly for entertainment purposes only". They are not definitive values and shouldn't be treated like normal stats such as ERA and OPS. Are you saying then that Lincecum should have made $37MM last year? Oh well, that's what Fangraphs says.

    Those are not realistic figures. If you'd like to determine who is under and overpaid, look at similar players who play similar positions, and compare their salaries, like anyone in their right mind would do. Props on the MLBTR mention, I know how big that is for a blog, but honestly man, this is one of the worst arguments I've ever seen, especially considering how heinously awful and overpaid both Zambrano and Soriano really are.

    Do yourself a favor and stay away from Fangraphs until you can handle it.

  5. Trust me, I know the dollar values aren't supposed to be interpreted as
    "this is what this guy should have been paid," and that's not really the
    crux of the argument. What it does show, for what it's worth, is about
    how much a team would have to pay a free agent you could expect to put
    up those stats every year. And I believe I've said either in the post or
    in the comments or . . . in my head that neither guy is very likely to
    produce to the level of their contracts in the remaining years they're
    being paid.

    The key point is that it's unfair to look just at the remaining years of
    the contract in evaluating a player's worth in total. People go on and
    on about the five years left on Soriano's deal and completely ignore the
    value he gave the Cubs for the first two years, years in which they had
    a completely legitimate shot at winning it all. Take into account where
    the team started in 2006, and that's a truly amazing turnaround that
    would never have been possible without A) Soriano's contributions and B)
    the back-loaded nature of Soriano's contract that allowed them to sign
    DeRosa, Lilly, Marquis and extend the contracts of Dempster and Zambrano.

    And no one ever complains about how little the Cubs paid Zambrano at the
    beginning of his career, just how much he's being paid in his current
    5-year deal. If fans stopped to think about it, they'd realize that
    Zambrano has contributed a lot more in terms of wins than they have paid
    him in dollars.

    Thanks for the comment.

  6. I see the usefulness of this argument, but it really only applies to Zambrano- who has been with the Cubs the whole time. Soriano may have been underpaid over his career thusfar, but that's completely irrelevant to his current team. Being overpaid indicates your contract with your CURRENT team. You can't leave a job that pays you 5 dollars an hour, then get one that pays you 100 bucks an hour for the same job and say "Gosh, I'm underpaid" if you're providing 75 bucks worth of value. So Soriano is still overpaid, because he'll never live up to close to his contract.

    Zambrano might have a legitimate case with the Cubs that he's underpaid over his career with them (and might well remain so through his whole contract). It's irrelevant though because even based on current performance he's still not a bad contract. The guy has been pitching close to his value over his contract. He's definitely no steal, but he's durable and he's an above average pitcher. If the Cubs don't appreciate him, I would advise a much smarter team to trade for him and win a championship. If I'm a team like the Red Sox, Angels, Jays, or Mariners I would be seeing if I could pry him loose from the Cubs at a reasonable value.

  7. You're right. In the case of Soriano, this is really just overstatement
    to call people's attention to the fact that for the first year of
    Soriano's contract, he was worth more than what he was paid, and he
    fully earned his money in the second year. Cub fans in general don't
    like to revisit those realities, that's all.

  8. These are after-the-fact figures. Honestly, if they could get Lincecum's performance with 100% certainty many clubs WOULD pay 37 million over one year. Heck. Clemens got 20 million and he wasn't even a sure bet, nor did he perform close to that level. Do you think the Yankees wouldn't buy a guy if they knew for certain he'd have a season like Lincecum? It might not be precisely 37 million, but it could easily be 35 million. Pitching prices are depressed due to their volatility and injury potential. When you remove that, a good pitcher is incredibly valuable.

  9. Amazing how you argue that Soriano is underpaid because he didn't completely suck two years ago. You leave out the part about him being a complete turd in 2009-2010. No reason to use logic in your argument if it gets in the way.

  10. You're wrong. Just because they were underpaid in the past does not mean they should be overpaid now. Basically that is what you are saying. The fact of the matter is neither player is worth what they are being paid now. Most, if not all, players are underpaid until they hit their arbitration and free agency. Both Soriano and Zambrano turned those early seasons into contracts that will in the long run make them overpaid when looking at their entire careers.

    Maybe they WERE underpaid previously. But they are not currently underpaid. This is a stupid and inaccurate article.

  11. No, he did mention his awful 2009 and Soriano has been one of the top 2 hitters for the Cubs to date this season. Two years ago Soriano did more than not suck, he carried a two-time division champion, was an all-star, and put up some great numbers at the plate.

  12. That isn't really fair. The Cubs signed these guys to long-term deals, and in Soriano's case they likely knew that they were going to underpay in the early years and overpay in later years. These aren't one year deals so the relevant metric is what they have done over the duration of the contract, not the year-by-year fluctuations.

  13. you sir are a moron thinking these 2 garbage players are stupid arguments about past worth could ever convince me these guys are worth 200+ million. You can make your argument for any player in the league who was decent when they made half a million.

  14. Almost every player in the MLB is underpaid when they first come into the league. The Cubs did not underpay, they have clearly over paid. It has crippled the team.

  15. The "underpaid" tag is to get your attention. I know Soriano's 2009 season was crap. I think he'll have a better year this year, but in no way do I think he'll be worth $18 million. The point of my argument is that it's unfair and foolish to judge the contract entirely on the last 5 years of the deal. You have to take into account the position the Cubs were in at the time and the great benefit the Cubs reaped in the first 2 years of the contract. Yeah, they're overpaying for him now, and he's not worth the full measure of the deal. But that deal brought the Cubs 2 really good shots at winning the World Series. To fail to acknowledge that is unreasonable.

    I do, however, completely understand those who think all things considered it was a bad signing. But people generally overstate just how bad it was.

  16. "Maybe they WERE underpaid previously. But they are not currently underpaid. This is a stupid and inaccurate article."

    You should read more. They get dumber.

  17. Good. I'd hate to convince you of something I don't agree with in the first place. I don't think the two together are worth what they'll make over the next several years. I do think they the money they've collected so far has been less than what they have been worth to their teams in the past. That doesn't change the future, but it does take the edge off. Thanks for commenting.

  18. They will overpay. They haven't yet. And I think it was actually the brick wall in left that crippled Soriano last year. The Cubs should probably get rid of that, too.

  19. The Cubs are paying for production Soriano gave to other teams. He may not have yet been paid commensurate with his career production, but all that matters is whether he is being paid more than his production for the Cubs has been and will be worth. The answer to that question is an overwhelming "no."

  20. I think you mean the answer is "yes," he is being paid more than his
    production is worth. But I think in the sum total of his Cubs production
    alone, he probably crossed that line midway through last year or later.
    The sad thing is, his April 2009 was shaping up to be one of if not the
    best month he's had as a Cub, but then after the injury it went real bad
    real fast.

  21. This article is bad because

    1- Nearly every player is rated to be worth more than he actually makes. You'll like this one: Ben Zobrist was rated to be worth $37.6 million last year! He made $400,000. That's $37.2 ahead of his salary for one year! Here's a full career comparable: Barry Zito. He's made $42.3 mil and is worth $65.6 mil. He's in the same situation as the other two, he played great when he was pre arb and arb, got a huge contract, is a couple years into it, and is worth a good bit more than he's made. I'd like to see you argue Zito is underpaid

    2- Just Like Zito's, Zambrano and Soriano's contracts are backloaded

    3- These players are clearly on the decline. So I don't see the argument here. Okay, Z-Pack and Fonzi have been worth more than they've been paid. But they were better then. They suck now.

  22. Ha, good thing for Zobrist he had such a good year, because he owed Tampa $7.3 million after his first two seasons. (By the way, it goes to show that plenty of players are valued below what they're paid or even in negative dollars. I say as much about Soriano's 2009 season.) You don't owe it to me to read things through thoroughly, but I say at the outset of the post that most players don't get paid what they're worth on the free agent market. I'm just raising the theoretical question, what if they were?

    The big difference with Zito is that he never had a season with the Giants were his WAR free-agent value came close to reaching his salary, even in the lower salary years at the front end of that contract. The other big difference between Zito and Zambrano: Zito is about to turn 32 while Zambrano is on the doorstep of 29. I'm not so sure Zambrano is necessarily on the decline. He's still younger than some of the guys referred to as "prospects" on this Cub team.

    I appreciate the response, I really do.

  23. Then like 90% of the league is underpaid. And the reality, looking from a worldwide perspective, baseball players are vastly overpaid. Maybe Soriano can nearly redeem the contract if 2009 was an aberration, but what if they signed Xavier Nady to an 5 year, 28 million dollar contract to be their starting left fielder? He'd be getting a ridiculous amount less, and he looks like he'd be able to nearly replicate Soriano's play. The OPPORTUNITY COST of having Soriano is really high. Place another player in his position, and it shows just how overpaid he is. I also think you should look at Vernon Wells' fangraphs page, I laughed at it.

    Maybe the Zito example wasn't so good, but I can re-apply the example I used for Soriano. If they signed Randy Wolfe to the same contract he signed Milwaukee (3 years, 30 mil I think) and he won't produce much worse than what Zambrano will do getting paid about double over that span.

  24. Thanks for the Vernon Wells tip. It is ridiculous, primarily because they don't accurately report his signing bonus. It's a really weird contract. He signed a $25.5 million signing bonus paid out in 3 $8.5 million installments each March in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Fangraphs pro-rates it across the life of the contract. But Wells' actual salary was $500,000 in 2008, so it shows up as $3.7 million on Fangraphs. Then they don't have 2009 salaries posted so it looks even more lopsided for everyone.

    The purpose of this thing really wasn't to justify their contracts going forward, though. I just grew tired of hearing everyone focus on the remaining money on both of these guys' contracts and completely overlooking what they've done for the Cubs in the past and the fact that the Cubs underpaid for those contributions at the time. Now they're making the balloon payments on the mortgage and fans/media want to burn down the house they've been living in on the cheap.

  25. Soriano is not worth $25..One of the worst signings in the history of the game. Point, period, end of conversation.

  26. Yeah. It really sucked when they signed him after a 90+ loss season and went on to win consecutive division titles. I don't know if you're a Cubs fan, but it really pissed most of us off. I can't think of a single benefit of signing him.

    Oh, crap, was I not supposed to reply? I forgot the conversation was over.

  27. This article proves the old adage. There are lies, damn lies and statistics.

  28. So many things so very wrong with that statement. As has been documented, Soriano was great for two years and led the Cubs to division titles. He sucked last year, but so far has been one of the best hitters on the team. Surely that has to be worth more than $25

  29. Great well thought out argument here. As a Cubs fan let's just hope these two stars return to form for the duration of the season!

  30. Jeez man, Cub fans are brutal. Try to give 'em a break and they just wanna make you look dumber than Carlos Zambrano. Did you guys catch that he expects to enter the playoff rotation EVEN if he stays in the 'pen all year? Lou's response: the playoffs are a long way off.


Spill it.

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