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Big investment, no return: South Florida teams have endured free agent busts

After signing a three-year, $27 million deal, Heath Bell squandered eight of 27 save chances and had a 5.09 ERA in his one season in Miami.
After signing a three-year, $27 million deal, Heath Bell squandered eight of 27 save chances and had a 5.09 ERA in his one season in Miami. Miami Herald Staff

From American League catchers with a penchant for strikeouts, to underachieving offensive linemen, to a point guard who squabbled with a parking lot attendant, South Florida teams have paid a fortune for players who imploded or simply didn’t measure up once they arrived.

On Friday, we sized up the 25 biggest draft busts in South Florida sports history. Today we rank the 20 biggest free agent busts. On Sunday, we’ll rank the 10 biggest trade busts.

This list does not include several Marlins who signed big-money deals (Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes, etc.) who played well here but were shipped off as part of payroll dumps. Nor does it include players who signed here at minimum money at the end of their careers (Chad Johnson, Penny Hardaway, Tim Raines, among others), because not much was expected, so they cannot be considered busts:

1. Heath Bell. Signed to a three-year, $27 million deal during Miami’s wild spending spree in the months before the opening of Marlins Park in 2012, Bell was an excuse-making disaster from the start, blowing four of his first seven save opportunities. He ended up squandering eight of 27 save chances and had a 5.09 ERA in his one season in Miami. The Marlins shipped him to Arizona but were forced to cover $8 million of the $18 million he was still owed.

2. Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Months after winning a World Series with the Red Sox in 2013, the veteran catcher signed a three-year, $21 million contract to play not far from his home in West Palm Beach. But he led all catchers in errors and hit just .220 in 2014, then started 2 for 29 this season before the Marlins designated him for assignment.

3. Gibril Wilson. Impressed by his work with the Giants and Raiders, the Dolphins gave the veteran safety a five-year, $27 million contract, including $8 million guaranteed, before the 2009 season. But Wilson was horrendous in pass coverage, had no interceptions and was released after one season.

4. John Buck. Deceived by his one excellent season with the Toronto Blue Jays (.281, 20 homers), the Marlins bestowed Buck with a three-year, $18 million deal before the 2011 season. Buck flopped, hitting .213 with 28 homers in 246 games for Miami over two seasons, then was dealt back to Toronto.

5. Jake Grove. Bill Parcells gave the former Raiders center a four-year, $28 million contract in 2009, including $14.5 million guaranteed. He made only 10 starts in his one season with the Dolphins, then was cut the following year when Joe Berger beat him out.

6. Eric Green. Green landed a six-year, $12 million contract from Don Shula in 1995, making him the highest-paid tight end in NFL history to that point. He caught 43 passes for 499 yards and three touchdowns in his one season here. But he had weight issues and a dubious work ethic, prompting Jimmy Johnson to release him when he took over for Shula.

7. Al Leiter. The veteran left-hander signed a one-year, $8 million contract before the 2005 season, but his second stint with the Marlins was a disaster: 3-7, 6.64 ERA, 144 baserunners in 80 innings. He was shipped to the Yankees in July and finished out his final season in the big leagues.

8. Ernest Wilford. Parcells gave the former Jaguars receiver a four-year, $13 million package, including $6 million guaranteed, before the 2008 season. He responded with a measly three catches for 25 yards, thus earning about $2 million per reception before his release.

9. Dannell Ellerbe/Philip Wheeler. Neither linebacker was a complete disaster, but they were vastly overpaid, with then-general manager Jeff Ireland giving Ellerbe five years and $35 million, with $20 million guaranteed, and Wheeler five years and $26 million, with $13 million guaranteed. In recent months, Wheeler was cut and Ellerbe was traded to New Orleans.

10. Richard Marshall. The veteran cornerback signed a three-year, $16 million contract in 2012 but played in just four games before sustaining a back injury. He was subsequently released.

11. Reggie Torbor. The Dolphins gave the former Giants linebacker/defensive end a four-year, $14 million contract in 2008, but he started three games over two seasons and contributed only 40 tackles.

12. Justin Smiley. One of the first signings of the Parcells regime, the veteran guard was given a bundle (five years, $25 million, $9 million guaranteed) but lasted only two years before being cut.

13. Michael Doleac. The former pre-med student at Utah was one of the most intelligent players in Heat history but didn’t do much to justify the four-year, $12 million contract he signed in 2004. He averaged 3.7 points and 2.9 rebounds in three seasons, starting 11 games.

14. Rafael Furcal. The Marlins believed he would be their solution at second base last season. But he couldn’t stay healthy and played in just nine games, going 6 for 35. A wasted $3 million. He retired on Tuesday.

15. Smush Parker. The veteran guard, given a two-year, $4.6 million deal by the Heat before the 2007 season, ended up playing just nine games before going on leave after a November altercation with a parking lot attendant. The Heat waived him in March.

16. Filip Kuba. The Panthers signed the defenseman to a two-year, $8 million deal to replace Jason Garrison in 2012, but he had only one goal in 44 games, and the Panthers were outscored by 19 goals with Kuba on the ice.

17. Garrett Jones. The Marlins, hoping he would be an upgrade at first base over Logan Morrison, signed the former Pirate to a two-year, $7.5 million deal before the 2014 season. But Jones hit just .246, led all first basemen with 13 errors and was dealt to the Yankees last December.

18. Damion McIntosh. In 2004, then-Dolphins general manager Rick Spielman signed McIntosh to a six-year, $23 million contract, convinced he would be the answer at left tackle. Alas, McIntosh was a disappointment and was released three years into the deal.

19. LaPhonso Ellis. Averaged 6.2 points and shot 40 percent for the Heat in two seasons after signing for three years and $10 million in 2001. It was a significant decline, and Ellis wouldn’t play in the NBA again, done at 32.

20. Greg Oden/Eddy Curry. The Heat took low-risk chances on two once highly regarded veteran centers who were still in their 20s at the time. But neither could rejuvenate their careers in their lone season here, or anywhere subsequently.

Honorable mention: Marc Colombo. Ireland envisioned him as the stop-gap solution at right tackle in 2011. The $2 million salary was palatable but the performance wasn’t (nine sacks allowed).

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