The Five Biggest Free Agent Busts Of The Last Ten Years

It’s that time of year again known as the off-season in pro baseball and as always free agency was one of the hottest topics at the GM meetings this past week (November 5-8, 2007). The other two were instant replay and trying to approve the wearing of batting helmets for first and third base coaches. The helmet issue arose due to the death of Rockies Minor League manager, Mike Coolbaugh, who died after being struck in the head by a line drive while coaching first base.

Looking back in retrospect, free agency was born out of 70 years of player frustration at the hands of baseball owners who held a choke hold on player’s rights. The Brotherhood Strike (1890) was the first attempt by the ball players to end the owners grip on player mobility as they organized the National Brotherhood of Ball Players. But it failed miserably and the owners kept their death grip on the game until 1966.

That year, the players enlisted the services of Marvin Miller, labor union activist, and formed the Major League Ball Players Association (MLBPA). The final nail in the coffin of the owner’s reserve clause binding players to one team happened when both Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax refused to re-sign their contracts. In 1970, Curt Flood, St. Louis Cards outfielder, took the leagues to court to officially challenge the clause by negotiating a player trade citing the 13th Amendment and Antitrust legislation as grounds for the law suit.

He lost the case in 1972 in the Supreme Court by a 5-3 vote, but due in part to large-scale public sympathy, the damage had been done. In 1975, Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith played without contracts and then declared themselves free agents. The owners, whose grip on the ball players was weakened by concessions that came out of the Flood case, had no choice but to accept the Collective Bargaining Agreement put forth by the MLBPA, effectively ending once and for all the reserve clause’s effectiveness.

I’ve come up with a list of the five biggest free agent busts of the last ten years by putting in some due diligence and doing some research. Hopefully, you’ll see my reasoning behind choosing the five ball players that are on this list. I arranged the list from lowest annual contract salary to the highest, and oddly enough three of the five are pitchers.

Biggest Bust #5 – Albert Belle (LF/RF – Orioles) – 5 years, $65 million ($13m/yr.)

Albert “Joey” Belle played for three teams in his injury shortened 12 year career — the Indians (1989-96), the White Sox (1997-98), and the Orioles (1999-2000). He was called “Joey” (his childhood nickname) while in the minors, but his temperament and excessive drinking habits labeled him a high risk draft prospect in college, and it was during his counseling for alcohol abuse that he started going by his proper name of Albert.

Even though his career was ended in 2000 due to a severe hip injury, Belle’s career was continually clouded by his questionable behavior both on and off the field. He was suspended in the 1986 college World Series when he went into the stands after a fan had been shouting racial slurs at him. In 1990, he threw a baseball into the stands, hitting a person that was taunting him about his alcohol rehab. He also ran into a Halloween vandal with his car after catching him in the act of throwing eggs at his house.

In 1994, a corked bat got him suspended. He was fined in 1996 for colliding with Fernando Vina on a play at second base. And in 1995, Hannah Storm of NBC Sports was the target of a profane outburst during the 1995 World Series when she approached him for an interview. It was also reported that the Indians billed him $10,000 a year for damages done to opposing team’s clubhouses during road games.

At the end of the 1999 season, Belle invoked a clause in his contract that would guarantee that he would remain one of the three highest paid players in baseball, and when the White Sox refused to give him a raise, he immediately became a free agent. The Orioles, desperate to get back into a pennant chase, jumped at the opportunity and signed Belle to a five year contract worth $65 million. But Belle’s career would end after only two of the five seasons on the contract when he was diagnosed with degenerative osteoarthritis of the hip. He was only 34 years old.

During his career, Belle became only the fourth player all time along with Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx to have eight straight seasons of 30 or more homers and 100 or more RBI’s. In 1995, Belle became the only player in MLB history to hit 50 homers and 50 doubles, and to this day he remains alone in the record books with that stat.

Biggest Bust #4 – Chan Ho Park (P – Rangers) – 5 years, $65 million ($13m/yr.)

Park has been with 4 teams in 14 professional seasons. He was picked up by the Dodgers as an amateur free agent in 1994 where he spent eight seasons (1994-2001), then pitched for the Rangers (2002-05), the Padres (2005-06), and finally the Mets (2007). But the “bust” occurred when he was in a Rangers’ uniform.

After a 15-11 season with the Dodgers in 2001, Park signed with the Rangers for five years and $65 million, which was a record for size of contract signed by a pitcher at the time. But while he was in Texas he was hampered with injuries and a hitter friendly ballpark that did not play out in his favor. Park was an unpopular figure in the Dallas area. The media constantly demeaned him in print with nicknames like “Heave Ho Park”, “(It’s) Outta Tho Park,” and “Oh No Park”, not to mention the jeers of fans that he was an under achiever hurting his team as well as a big waste of money.

Not wanting to label Park as a pitcher who could not succeed, upper management took the stance that he didn’t fit the Rangers’ organization. So on July 29, 2005 the Rangers traded him to the Padres for Phil Nevin, and he was immediately shelled for seven runs and eight hits in only 4.1 innings in his first outing in a San Diego uniform. The only highlight of his 2006 season came as a reliever for Korea in the World Baseball Classic.

February of 2007 saw Park ink a one year, $3 million deal with the Mets, but he was immediately sent to AAA New Orleans due to a poor spring performance. On April 30th he pitched only one time for the Mets filling in for an injured Orlando Hernandez, but was sent back down to New Orleans on May 3rd and then designated for assignment on June 4th. On June 12th he signed a minor league contract with the Astros’ triple A franchise at Round Rock, but as of season’s end, he never joined the Astros due to unimpressive stats in the minors. This past November 7th, Park supposedly accepted an offer from the Dodgers to report to spring training in 2008.

Some of the notable events of Park’s career include being the first South Korean pitcher to reach 100 victories in the majors. In 2001, he gave up Bonds’ record breaking 71st home run and then his 72nd later in the game. April 23, 1999 saw him give up two grand slams in one inning to Fernando Tatis. And in the third inning of the 2001 All Star Game, he surrendered the home run to Cal Ripken, Jr. (later named the game’s MVP) which put Ripken in the record books for being the oldest major leaguer to accomplish that feat.

Biggest Bust #3 – Mo Vaughn (1B – Angels) – 6 years, $80 million ($13.3m/yr.)

Vaughn was another high priced free agent whose career ended abruptly in injury. He played 13 seasons with three teams — Red Sox (1991-98), Angels (1999-2001), and Mets (2002-03). He played his college ball at Seton Hall and was drafted by the Red Sox in 1989 (1st round – 23rd pick), and made his MLB debut on June 27, 1991. When he was playing in the Cape Cod Baseball League his teammates included Chuck Knoblauch and Craig Biggio.

Vaughn was a very popular figure in Boston mostly because of his charity work in the community and his personality, but his issues with Red Sox management and the local media eventually spelled the end of his career in a Red Sox uniform. Despite starting the 1998 season with a ninth inning walk-off grand slam to beat the Mariners, the season was filled with constant bitterness between him and management. After the Indians knocked Boston out of the divisional series, Vaughn announced his free agency.

Within days, he signed the highest paying contract (at the time) with the Angels. In 1999 and 2000 he hit over 30 home runs and drove in over 100 RBI’s. He was plagued by injuries in 1999, one of which included falling down the dugout steps on his first play of his first game and badly spraining his ankle. In 2001, he never played in one game the whole season. But the Mets saw him as a run producer suited for the middle of their lineup and took him in trade for pitcher Kevin Appier on December 27, 2001.

Despite the new opportunity in the Big Apple, Vaughn could not resurrect his past performance in Boston nor kick the injuries that were nagging him the past few years. He had a poor season in 2002, and only appeared in 27 games due to a chronic knee injury in 2003. At that point, doctors were telling Vaughn that continuing to play baseball would eventually render him disabled. For Vaughn, this closed the door on his career.

Biggest Bust #2 – Kevin Brown (P – Dodgers) – 7 years, $105 million ($15m/yr.)

Though Brown had an 18 year career in the majors, he was never one that I would consider a great pitcher. He was mediocre at best, running hot and cold and the hot part usually happening at contract time. Brown always reminded me of a ball player from yesteryear named “Jumpin'” Joe Collins. They called him that because he “jumped” to wherever the money was.

Brown played for six different teams — Rangers (1988-94), Orioles (1995), Marlins (1996-97), Padres (1998), Dodgers (1999-2003), and Yankees (2004-05). He was drafted fourth in the first round of 1986 by the Rangers, and made his debut in 1989, and was placed as #2 in the rotation behind Nolan Ryan. He had average seasons in 1990-91, but in 1992 he was 21-11 making him the first Rangers pitcher since Fergie Jenkins (1974) to win 20 or more games.

He spent 1995 with the Orioles after the 1994-95 strike was settled, and then went to Florida for the 1996-97 seasons. The highlight with the Marlins obviously came in the ’97 season when they won the World Series. When Marlin’s ownership dismantled the championship team, Brown was traded to the Padres for the ’98 season. He helped get the Padres to the series, but not before he blew a save opportunity in Game 5 of the NLCS.

When Brown signed his contract with the Dodgers, he became the first $100 million man in baseball, and in my opinion the most overrated. The contract was oftentimes referred to as the worst one ever from a team’s point of view because throughout his final years he would only average nine wins per season and be hampered continually with injuries.

Brown was traded to the Yankees in December of 2003 — a trade I have never agreed with and my skepticism was well documented with “I told you so’s” after only two years in the Bronx. Though he dealt with health problems (back and spine) during ’04, Brown proved he lacked intelligence when he angrily stormed out of Torre’s office, punched the wall outside, breaking his left hand. Brown would be out of action for the remainder of the season.

Brown would make an attempt at returning in 2005, but would fail miserably being plagued with back problems and other injuries throughout the season. His 4-7 record and 6.50 ERA was enough, and in February of 2006, he announced his retirement. For Yankee fans it was too long in the making. For me, it was the end of a foolish waste of money.

Biggest Bust #1 – Mike Hampton (P – Rockies) – 8 years, $121 million ($15.1m/ yr.)

Hampton was drafted by the Mariners in 1990 and made his major league debut in 1993. Besides Seattle (1993), he has been with the Astros (1994-99), the Mets (2000), the Rockies (2001-02), and the Braves (2003-present). Hampton would get off to a disappointing start in Seattle and get shipped off to Houston after only one season. The best year of his career came in 1999 with the Astros when he posted a 22-4 record and a 2.90 ERA as well.

Hampton was also revered as one of the better hitting pitchers in the league and would win five Silver Slugger Awards in a row. In 2001 while with the Rockies he batted .291 and hit 7 home runs. But coupled with his hitting prowess that year was a disappointing 14-13 won/loss record and a dismal 5.12 ERA. Adding insult to injury, he developed control problems. In 2002, things just got worse. His ERA swelled to 6.15 and he posted a miserable 7-15 record.

As a result, in November of ’02, Hampton was traded to the Marlins then immediately to Atlanta. He won 14 games in 2003 and in 2004 he helped get the Braves into the post season. Limited by injuries in 2005, he posted a 5-3 record, only to have his season end with an elbow injury that August. He would undergo Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2006 season while in rehab, and 2007 would prove to be no better. In March, he tore an oblique muscle; in April, a bullpen start was shut down due to recurring elbow pain; and after having another elbow procedure done shortly thereafter, the Braves announced that he would miss the entire 2007 season with a torn flexor tendon in his pitching elbow.

As of the date of this article, there is no news about Hampton or his future. For me, this contract was more ridiculous than A-Rod’s $25.2 million per year only because the Yankees got some good out of A-Rod. A writer for Sports Illustrated said it best — “This deal, signed in the wild winter before the ’01 season, was doomed from the start. The lefty Hampton was so bad — 21-28, 5.75 ERA — that the Rocks paid Florida (and then the Braves) to take him. The Braves still owe Hampton — who missed all of ’06 and ’07 — $15 million for ’08.” Now that is a “bust” if ever there was one.

As always, if you have any comments or questions, e-mail me at [email protected] and I will respond to you as quickly as I can. Until next time, here’s hoping your free agent isn’t a bust.

Nicole Thomas

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