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High-Priced Release Candidates: Where Are They Now?

Well, they're not contributing to their Opening Day teams, that's where.

Back in early April, I looked at four players who had big salaries and little on-field value: Eric Chavez, Jeff Suppan, Dontrelle Willis and Pat Burrell. Basically, these were four guys with pretty short leashes in terms of performance; their recent track records had been pretty sub-par even before factoring in their relatively exorbitant financial commitments.

Conveniently, all four of them followed through on my prognosises (prognosi?), as all of them proved to be major liabilities in the field for their respective teams. Now, three of them are in new organizations, and the fourth player is on the brink of retirement as injuries have essentially destroyed his career. But while they all failed to produce for the team that they began the year with, things have worked out pretty differently for each player since then.

After spending 7 years as one of the better, if not the best, third baseman in the American League, Chavez has essentially been a non-factor for the A's the past four seasons despite taking up a significant portion of the team's payroll with his double-digit salaries. The A's have always been really high on Chavez, and that was clearly reflected in the relatively huge contract they gave him. But injuries have seemingly sapped Chavez of his durability and effectiveness. He's been on the DL since May with back and neck injuries, and is reportedly contemplating retirement after being essentially a replacement-level player when he's been able to get on the field the past four years. Let's just say that the odds that the A's exercise Chavez's 2011 club option aren't too high right now. This guy is far more likely to be at home chilling hard next year than to be on a MLB roster.

The other three players [unsurprisingly] struggled to begin 2010, but they've all managed to find a place in a new organization, presumably somewhat thanks to name value. Jeff Suppan's four-year, $42M contract with the Brewers was nothing short of a disaster for Milwaukee outside of Year 1, and he now finds himself on the DL in St. Louis after making eight starts for the Cardinals. His ERA was much better for the Cards (4.14 compared to 7.84 in Milwaukee), but his peripherals indicate that he's the same guy that he's been for a while now: a fringe fifth starter who probably doesn't belong in the majors.

Willis has had a couple chances this year, first in Detroit and then in Arizona after he was designated for assignment, but now he's in his third organization this year after signing a minor-league deal with the Giants. Unfortunately, the 28-year-old has never really bounced back since falling apart upon joining the Tigers in 2008, and it's been pretty clear for a while that the D-Train is essentially running on fumes. It's not easy to find a job these days when you've put up a 6.86 ERA with 82 strikeouts and 119 walks in 123 innings over the past three seasons. 

Maybe Willis signed with San Francisco after seeing how it revived Pat Burrell's career though, as the left fielder has been raking since getting away from the American League. After putting up a .218/.311/.361 line in 146 games as Tampa's designated hitter over the past two seasons, Burrell has essentially returned to being the same player that the Rays thought they were getting from Philly: lots of power, lots of walks, and not much defense. He's added a serious burst of power to the Giants' lineup, batting .285/.378/.527 with 10 homers and doubles apiece in 56 games thus far. 

Clearly, these four players have seen their prospects go in pretty different directions. Chavez stayed on the same team but is near that point where it's fair to write him off. The same can be said for Suppan and Willis, although other teams have clearly been willing to give them additional chances. Burrell, on the other hand, is proving to be a pretty useful player still. Maybe it was the fact that he wasn't playing the field, maybe it was the American League...    maybe it was just something we can't really explain.

But I think that the plight of these four players emphasizes a pretty strong point: When a guy's no longer actually productive on the field, his salary simply shouldn't be a reason to give him a 25-man roster spot and playing time. Eating the money will always be better than giving a guy like Chavez or Suppan playing time that their performance simply doesn't warrant. It's called a sunk cost, and that's often a category that high-priced release candidates fall into.