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The Diamondbacks’ Worst Contracts: #4, Russ Ortiz

Frequently mentioned in discussions of this topic, yet definitely not the worst

Arizona Diamondbacks Photo Day Photo by Stephen Dunn /Getty Images
  • Date signed: December 2004
  • Length: four years (2005-08)
  • Cost at time: $33 million
  • Adjusted 2022 cost: $63.00 million
  • Production: -3.2 bWAR
  • Negative value: $88.60 million

How the player got there

There is only one off-season which was responsible for two entries on this list. Perhaps not surprisingly, it came after the disastrous 2004 season, where the team finished thirty-three games below the previous campaign, with a 51-111 record which still remains the worst record in the National League in my lifetime - and I’m no spring chicken! The team’s situation led to the departure of Jerry Colangelo during the season, and a slew of big moves as the team sought to rebuild from a franchise-worst campaign. We’ve already discussed the contract extension given to Shawn Green in January 2005, which ranked ninth. It wasn’t even the least effective one signed by the Diamondbacks that winter.

To be fair, some ended up good value. Just before Ortiz joined, the D-backs inked 3B Troy Glaus to a bigger four-year deal, for $45m. He was gone even quicker than Russ Ortiz, after just one season in Arizona. But Glaus was worth at least three bWAR each year of the deal; the total of 15.4 bWAR actually makes it one of our better contracts, with a positive value of $37.29m. It may have had a knock-on effect, since the day after, the team signed Ortiz to a four-year deal, which is still considered one of the worst ever by the D-backs. It even recently made it onto a Sporting News article, listing the 15 worst free-agent signins of all time, by any club. Hey, I would say it was that bad...

Said Ortiz, “I could see that they were serious. Winning’s important. I wanted to be a part of what they’re trying to accomplish. They convinced me from Day 1 they were headed in that direction.” Ortiz was only a year removed from a fourth-place finish in the Cy Young voting, having gone 21-7 with the Giants in 2003. He was a fifteen-game winner for Atlanta in 2003, but there was a worrying trend in both his ERA and underlying stats like Ortiz’s fielding independent ERA (FIP). Both of these had consistently increased over each of the previous three seasons before signing in Arizona:

  • 2001: ERA 3.29, FIP 3.52
  • 2002: ERA 3.61, FIP 3.97
  • 2003: ERA 3.81, FIP 4.17
  • 2004: ERA 4.13, FIP 4.80

At age 30 when he signed here, Russ was no longer on the upside of the aging curve, and his peripherals were borderline terrifying. He walked 112 batters in 2004, the second-highest figure in the National League, and his strikeout to walk ratio of 143:112, ranked 83rd of the 89 qualifying pitchers in the majors. Quite what the Diamondbacks’ front-office was thinking, offering a four-year deal to such a pitcher, is unknown. There’s a reason why Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote a piece headlined, “Is This Guy Worth $33 Million?” which quoted one American League executive as calling the Ortiz signing “the worst contract of the winter so far”.

Manager Bob Melvin disagreed, saying “He’s certainly a guy we’ve earmarked from Day One,” An unnamed owner (probably Ken Kendrick) went the intangible route: “If Russ Ortiz is anything, he’s a competitor. What does a competitor do? As a pitcher, he goes out there every time his turn comes up and he puts his life on the line, and this guy has done that.” The contract gave Ortiz a $3.5 million signing bonus payable over the term of the deal, in addition to annual salaries of $6.5 million, $7 million, $7.5 million and $8.5 million.

What went wrong

“Why would I need to change? That’s what I’m going to keep asking everybody from now on. Why should I feel like I need to redeem myself? Why should I feel the need to go back to the drawing board? I don’t need to tweak anything or improve or modify.”
— Russ Ortiz, 2/19/06

Well, we got a decent month out of Ortiz. In April 2005, he went 2-1 over his first five starts, with a 3.60 ERA. Russ walked almost as many (10) as he fanned (12), and a FIP north of five proved to foreshadow future problems. He blew up after the calendar turned to May, and by the time he hit the DL on June 17, his ERA had ballooned to 5.88, almost in line with his FIP (5.98). It was the first time in his career Ortiz had missed a start, with a “strained rib-cage” the official explanation. He missed two months, but when he came back had the second-worst month ever by an Arizona starter (min. four starts), Across 18.1 IP, Ortiz allowed 29 hits and 12 walks (with only four K’s), for an OPS against of 1.212, on his way to a 10.80 ERA.

There was a vague hope before the season Ortiz might not make the 2006 Opening Day roster. Nothing came of it, and 2006, somehow, proved even worse. Russ was winless in six starts, managing a total of 22.1 innings with a 7.54 ERA (6.06 FIP), including this gem from Ortiz after his April 13 loss, allowing four earned runs in 4.1 innings: “I felt great. In my mind, I made seven mistakes, and one guy hit it out and the other six went for doubles. Seven mistakes today and they all got hit. I’m not very happy, obviously, that I put us in that situation, but at the same time, it could have been a lot worse. It was one of those games where they hit them all in the right place”

His final start came June 11, allowing seven earned runs in 3.1 IP. Two days later he was dumped, the team deciding they were better off eating the $22 million still due to Russ over the remaining 212 years of the contract. He ended up the worst pitcher in team history, despite making just 28 appearances. Said GM Josh Byrnes, “We’re like most clubs: Every dollar counts. You want to spend them as effectively as possible. That affected the decision, but we also were true to ourselves, and we want to put our best 25 on the field and try to win games. That led us to our decision... We tried a lot of different things and it just wasn’t working, so we decided to give someone else a shot.”

The someone else turned out to be the Baltimore Orioles, but they quickly discovered the problem was Ortiz, rather than the Diamondbacks. He made five starts there and, somehow, managed to be worse still: 34 hits and 10 walks in a mere 15 innings, for a 1.359 OPS against, and a 14.40 ERA. At this point, all you can say is, “Well done!”. He went to mop-up duty in the bullpen, and the following year pitched poorly back in San Francisco, until an elbow injury in August led to Tommy John surgery. Ortiz missed all of 2008 as a result, drawing a line under the contract. It finished with the following stats:
Ortiz (2004-07): 7-22, 6.94 ERA, 227 IP, 290 H, 184 R, 175 ER, 125 BB, 117 SO, -3.2 bWAR

In terms of sheer performance and bWAR, it’s the most inadequate one we will find. Ortiz received more than four and a half million dollars per W from the D-backs. Remarkably, he still found employment after Tommy John, first for the Astros, before finishing his career with the Dodgers in 2010 - posting a 10.29 ERA over six relief appearances, and retiring. Since then, he has done a good chunk of charity work, and by almost all accounts, is a genuinely nice guy who was well-liked in the clubhouse. For us fans however, few are more notorious in team history than Russ Ortiz, a name invoked to this day to scare small children into good behavior.

Biggest lesson to be learned

A pitcher who has got steadily worse for three consecutive seasons is not likely to be a good long-term investment. Kinda obvious, really.