Building an MLB roster is all about maximizing value from the high-priced superstars all the way down to the last guy on the bench.
With that in mind, a team that gets good bang for its buck is going to be in a better position to field a competitive and well-balanced roster. That's especially true for a team like the Tampa Bay Rays working under more strict payroll restraints than some of the league's more free-spending teams.
Looking back at the recently concluded regular season, we've highlighted the best and worst bang-for-your-buck players at each position in 2021.
Since injuries are an unavoidable part of the game, players were not penalized for missing time because of injury. Instead, the focus for worst value was on players who simply underperformed relative to expectations and their salaries.
Players making less than $1 million were also excluded from the conversation. Otherwise, all of the best value spots would have simply been occupied by the best pre-arbitration player at each each position. The focus here was on value relative to cost, and all pre-arbitration players are good values by default.
Players were chosen based solely on their production relative to their salary in 2021. Past production and potential future value were not part of the equation.
For context, the average MLB salary in 2021 was $4.17 million.
Let's get to it!
Best Value: Mike Zunino, Tampa Bay Rays
Salary: $2 million
After logging a 50 OPS+ and minus-0.3 WAR in 118 games with the Rays in 2019 and 2020, Mike Zunino had a $4.5 million club option declined at the start of last offseason. The 30-year-old ultimately returned to Tampa Bay on a new one-year, $2 million deal that includes a 2022 club option, and he put together the best season of his career.
He earned his first All-Star nod and posted a 138 OPS+ with 33 home runs and 3.7 WAR in 109 games, and the pitching staff had a 3.58 ERA in 860.1 innings with him in the crouch.
Worst Value: James McCann, New York Mets
Salary: $8.2 million
James McCann was an All-Star in 2019, and he posted a 143 OPS+ in 111 plate appearances in 2020, setting himself up for a solid four-year, $40.6 million payday in free agency. The 31-year-old was part of a busy offseason for the Mets under new owner Steve Cohen, but it hasn't panned out.
He hit .232/.294/.349 for a 77 OPS+ with a 27.9 percent strikeout rate, tallying minus-0.2 WAR in 121 games. The backloaded deal will pay him another $8.2 million in 2022 before he earns $12.2 million in 2023 and 2024.
Best Value: C.J. Cron, Colorado Rockies
Salary: $1 million
C.J. Cron joined his fifth team in five years when he signed a minor league deal with the Colorado Rockies during the offseason. He played his way onto the Opening Day roster during spring training and quickly seized the everyday first-base job.
The 31-year-old hit .281/.375/.530 with 31 doubles, 28 home runs and 92 RBI, and his career-high 3.4 WAR ranked ninth among all first basemen. The Rockies rewarded his performance with a two-year, $14.5 million extension earlier this month.
Worst Value: Eric Hosmer, San Diego Padres
Salary: $21 million
Among first basemen, only Paul Goldschmidt ($26 million), Joey Votto ($25 million) and Freddie Freeman ($22.4 million) had a higher salary in 2021 than Eric Hosmer. He still has four years and $60 million remaining on his eight-year, $144 million contract.
The 31-year-old had a 104 OPS+ with 12 home runs and 65 RBI in 151 games, and the Padres front office explored the idea of packaging him with a top prospect at the July 30 trade deadline in an effort to offload his remaining salary.
Best Value: Brandon Lowe, Tampa Bay Rays
Salary: $2.5 million
Jorge Polanco ($4.3 million) and Ozzie Albies ($3 million) both deserve mentions as terrific bargains at second base, and veteran Josh Harrison ($1.25 million) also exceeded expectations. However, the pick here has to be Brandon Lowe, who is halfway through a team-friendly six-year, $24 million deal that could extend through 2026 with a pair of club options.
The 27-year-old logged a 142 OPS+ with 31 doubles, 39 home runs and 99 RBI in a 4.8 WAR season for the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays. Even with a slight raise next year, he'll still be a steal with a $4 million salary.
Worst Value: Matt Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals
Salary: $18.5 million
Once a staple in the middle of the St. Louis lineup, Matt Carpenter moved into more of a backup infielder/pinch-hitter role in 2021.
The 35-year-old posted a career-low 65 OPS+ in 249 plate appearances, hitting .169/.305/.275 with just 15 extra-base hits and a 30.9 percent strikeout rate. He has indicated that he wants to play in 2022, but he'll likely have to play his way onto a team as a non-roster invitee next spring.
Best Value: Rafael Devers
Salary: $4.6 million
Jose Ramirez ($9.4 million) remains drastically underpaid, and Joey Wendle ($2.25 million) deserves a tip of the cap as a first-time All-Star. But it's 24-year-old Rafael Devers who gets the nod as the best bang for your buck at the hot corner.
Still just 24 years old, he anchored the Boston offense that ranked fifth in the majors in runs scored during the regular season, hitting .279/.352/.538 with 37 doubles, 38 home runs and 113 RBI in 156 games. A sizable raise awaits this offseason in his second year of arbitration.
Worst Value: Eugenio Suarez, Cincinnati Reds
Salary: $10.8 million
Maybe it was the failed attempt to shift him to shortstop, or maybe it was something else, but Eugenio Suarez never looked comfortable in the batter's box during the 2021 season.
While he hit 31 home runs, the rest of his offensive line was ugly. He hit just .198/.286/.428 for an 80 OPS+ while racking up 171 strikeouts at a 29.8 percent strikeout clip. That all added up to a horrible minus-0.7 WAR in 145 games, and the Reds are still on the hook for another $33.9 million over the next three years.