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The Diamondbacks’ Worst Contracts: #12, Matt Mantei

Paying big bucks for an oft-injured closer didn’t work. Who could possibly have known?

Diamondbacks Photo Day Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images
  • Date signed: January 2001
  • Length: four years (2001-04)
  • Cost at time: $22 million
  • Adjusted 2022 cost: $51.06 million
  • Production: 1.5 bWAR
  • Negative value: $39.06 million

How the player got there

Matt Mantei came to the D-backs as the result of a trade with the Marlins in July 1999. Arizona sent Vladimir Núñez, Brad Penny and a player to be named later (Abraham Nunez - no relation) to Florida, and got the closer they needed in exchange. The D-backs had gone into the season with Gregg Olson in the role, but he blew his first three chances. Brian Anderson ended up being the first Arizona pitcher that year to notch a save, and the front-office went on the hunt. Mantei was solid after his arrival, notching 22 saves with a 2.79 ERA, and his near-100 mph fastball helped propel the D-back to their first division title. That winter, he signed a one-year deal at $2.8 million (about $6.5m in current money).

2000 started off in bumpy fashion. Mantei struggled in spring, and began the year on the disabled list with bicep tendinitis. Arizona adopted a closer by committee, the first six saves going to four different players. Mantei eventually returned, but did not pick up his first save until game #46, on May 25, then shared closer’s duties with Byung-Hyun Kim, until taking over full-time in early July. After early struggles - his ERA was still 9.72 at the end of June - he was excellent the rest of the way. From the start of July, Mantei had a 1.57 ERA, converting fifteen saves in sixteen chances. Matt then parlayed that into a $22 million, four-year deal, the final season being a player option.

What went wrong

Mantei simply couldn’t stay off the disabled list. He reached thirty innings of work in just one of the four seasons. That was 2003, and Matt was not bad, making 50 appearances and saving 29 games with a 2.62 ERA. Even there, he still missed five weeks with tendinitis in his throwing shoulder. The rest of the contract, that was the rule rather than the exception, with problems arising almost from the very start. He didn’t get through the first month of the new deal unscathed, before elbow issues flared up. Kim took over as closer - we all know how that ended! - while Mantei underwent Tommy John surgery on June 19, having thrown a mere seven innings since signing the contract.

This was already the 27-year-old’s eighth stint on the DL, and during it collected his second rehab World Series ring, having done so in 1997 for Miami, while recovering from rotator cuff surgery. After the usual 12 month rehab, Mantei eventually returned to the mound on June 28, 2002. He was now the team’s set-up man, and the numbers weren’t pretty, with an ERA of 4.73 across 26.2 IP, though the FIP was somewhat better, at 3.94. The following year, Kim got his long-desired chance to be a starter, opening the door for Mantei to start closing again. Said manager Bob Brenly, ‘’It was all predicated on the fact that we thought Matt Mantei was back and 100 percent healthy and could resume his role as a closer.”

As noted, that was the one year where Mantei lived up his contract. being worth 2.1 bWAR while earning just over $7 million. Matt then exercised his $7 million option for the 2004 season... and promptly fell apart again. He picked up his final major-league save on May 1st, and made his last appearance with Arizona a week later, working the sixth inning and allowing a run against the Phillies at Bank One Ballpark. Shoulder tendinitis put him back on the disabled list once more, having thrown a mere 10.2 innings and posting an ERA of 11.81 in the final year of his contract. Over the four seasons, Mantei was paid more than $220,000 per inning he pitched, or about $630,000 per save.

Biggest lesson to be learned

Players that have been injured before, are more likely than usual to be injured in the future, and represent a poor - or, at least, potentially highly risky - investment of resources.