Every free agent contract in baseball is a gamble, but the five-year, US$95 million (NZ$129m) deal the Boston Red Sox handed third baseman Pablo Sandoval before the 2015 season had a particularly steep downside.
To justify the contract, the Red Sox had to hope Sandoval, in no particular order, stayed healthy, stayed in shape, stayed productive and didn't hurt them defensively. It was a lot to ask of a player who, to that point, had posted two superlative seasons and a handful of middling ones in San Francisco while struggling with his weight for much of his career.
On Friday, the Red Sox essentially acknowledged they had lost the bet, and it came with a staggering cost. In designating Sandoval for assignment, the Red Sox effectively cut ties with the 30-year-old third baseman to whom they still owe about $49 million in guaranteed salary. In the heat of a pennant race, with a glaring need for production at third base, they are paying Sandoval all that money to go away - or more likely, to play for someone else.
Only one other team in history, the Los Angeles Angels, have swallowed more dead money from a single contract than the Red Sox are doing with Sandoval; the Angels owed Josh Hamilton just over US$68 million when they unloaded him in 2015.
What did the Red Sox get for their US$95 million? Not very much. Essentially one season's worth of games (as he missed nearly the entire 2016 season). A .237/.286/.360 slash line. Fourteen home runs. A WAR of -2.0, which means he was worth two wins fewer than a random, hypothetical, league-average (and cheap) replacement would have provided. And because of Sandoval, the Red Sox traded Travis Shaw before the 2016 season, only to watch him become a star for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Though Friday's move cemented the Sandoval contract's place among the worst in the history of baseball, it was a move the Red Sox had to make. While they led the American League East at the all-star break, their lead was only 3 ½ games over a pair of scary pursuers - the New York Yankees, who are scary because of their financial might and loaded farm system, and the Tampa Bay Rays, who are scary because they have nothing to lose.
With Sandoval either hurt, out of shape or otherwise a drain on the lineup, the Red Sox have already tried six different starters, including him, at third base this season, none of whom proved to be a permanent solution. There could be a seventh on the way, as the Red Sox are expected to promote top prospect Rafael Devers in the coming days from Class AA, where he has hit .300 with a .977 OPS this season, to Class AAA.
Assuming they don't get an established third baseman on the trade market, they could bring Devers to the big leagues by the end of the season, similar to the way they handled outfielder Andrew Benintendi a year ago.
Technically, the Red Sox have 10 days to trade or release Sandoval, who is owed roughly $7 million for the rest of this season, $37.2 million for 2018 and 2019 and a $5 million buyout in 2020.
Once the Red Sox release him, thus locking in their financial commitment, someone (maybe the Giants?) is likely to take another (low-cost) chance on him, and he will wear another uniform, collecting Red Sox checks, a constant reminder of the risks of big-money, guaranteed contracts, and the steep cost when you bet big and lose.