|Fonzie and Zambrano: I dub thee, FonZ.|
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.