We’ve entered the era of the $30 million dollar a year player in Major League Baseball.
Market value dictates that these guys are worth what they get per season, it’s just the length of the deal that usually throws everything out of whack. I’m pretty sure Mike Trout’s market value according to WAR is somewhere around $50 million. That doesn’t mean the Angels are champing at the bit to pay him that.
I’ll never shed a tear for billionaire owners who are raking in dough from the various revenue streams that come from owning a sports franchise, but money is still finite. There’s a luxury tax in baseball that no team wants to get hit with, but with contracts moving up every season, it’s gonna start getting really tough for big market clubs to stay below the threshold.
It’s hard to say any contract is “sinking” the usual top-five spending teams, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to unmovable contracts. We all know the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox of the world have no problem eating money, but even the juggernauts have some players that are affecting their ability to take on more cash.
Here are some big-ticket salaries that are already sinking their clubs, and a few that are on the verge of doing the same.
20 Miguel Cabrera
There are some signings where you absolutely know you’re flushing money down the toilet, but it’s still a necessity. I’m sure when Detroit signed Miguel Cabrera to an eight-year extension, they knew the latter years of the contract would be a disaster. Still, the brittle and declining Cabrera made $30 million last season playing only 38 games. Far worse is the fact the Tigers are still on the hook for an astronomical $154 million. It’s almost always a bad gamble to sign your franchise icon long-term, but it’s still nice to know loyalty exists in pro sports… even if it’s blind loyalty. This is arguably the worst contract in baseball.
19 Albert Pujols
I said “arguably,” because Albert Pujols still exists. Sure, he has a lock Hall of Famer just like Cabrera, but man is his contract ugly. I won’t speculate on Albert’s actual age like everyone else, but even at his listed age of 38 he’s massively overpaid. Coming off a season in which he was one of the worst regulars in the game statistically, Pujols raked $27 million in 2018. Beyond that, the Angels still owe him $87 million. Look, Pujols was always getting paid by someone, but when a player like this hits Free Agency after 30, you just gotta hope it isn’t by your team.
18 Jason Heyward
It’s hard to say the Cubs are hurting for revenue or talent, but I bet they’d like a mulligan on this one. While they’d probably trade all the money in the world for their World Series title – one that Jason Heyward barely contributed to, mind you – it’s still gotta hurt paying this guy $28 million to be slightly above average. Heyward has already collected close to $80 million from the Cubs for a collective WAR of about five. Not only that, they still owe him over $100 million going forward. There’s only so much you can credit a guy for his defensive prowess (even his dWAR is down) when he’s clogging your payroll like this.
17 Yoenis Cespedes
Yoenis Cespedes’ $29 million salary in 2018 was a washout. His $29 million in 2019 will probably be one too. There’s no telling what his $29 million in 2020 will be, but he’ll probably be coming off two major heel surgeries and very few games played in two seasons at that point, so there’s not much to look forward to. As big as he was for the NL Champion Mets in 2015, it would sure be nice to have his money freed up to extend their pitchers. Cespedes is a great player when healthy, but he seems to have a really hard time being that for weeks at a time.
16 Jordan Zimmermann
What the heck happened here? Jordan Zimmermann hit Free Agency at the perfect time. He was coming off some big years in Washington right around his age 30 season, so it’s no wonder someone stepped up to pay him… but $110 million for a non-Ace is steep. Zimmermann has rewarded Detroit by being one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball ever since. He has collected $60 million for a combined 84 ERA+. On top of that, they still have two more seasons worth $50 million to pay him. We may not see Detroit get close to the playoffs again until these contracts are off the books.
15 Joey Votto
Put your pitchforks down, I’m well aware at how great Joey Votto is. The thing is, when you’re a team that almost always wallows in the basement of your division, what’s the point of paying a guy $25 million a year? OK, sure you have to keep the fans interested, but this seems to be a good formula on how small market teams remain non-contenders. The Reds are slowly building towards something, but they could probably accelerate that and get a king’s bounty for an aging Votto even with $125 million still coming to him. Well, maybe not, that is a TON of cash.
14 Homer Bailey
Let’s stick in Cincinnati, shall we? Remember Homer Bailey? Barely - 2018 was the first time he pitched over 100 innings in four years. In those four years the Reds have been on the hook for about $70 million. That’s a lot of cash for a couple no-hitters. Bailey was THE guy on the bump in Cincy for a few seasons before he was rewarded with a long-term deal to remain a Red. For as much as Votto makes, at least he contributes at an MVP level. Bailey hasn’t put up an ERA+ over 100 since 2013, and he still made $21 million last year, and will make $23 million next. Stop paying pitchers long-term!
13 Ian Desmond
This one never had a prayer, not even in the thin air of Coors Field. Ian Desmond has collected $30 million from the Rockies so far for a 78 OPS+ and 29 homers over two seasons. As grim as that is, they’re still on the hook for $38 million more. This entry can really just be “pick a Rockie,” because they have made some horrible financial decisions over the past few years. Last offseason Colorado paid a king’s bounty for a few relievers and still couldn’t get over the hump. This offseason they’re likely to lose Adam Ottavino because of that, and he could arguably be the best of the bunch going forward.
12 Chris Davis
It’s insane that we’re still qualifying Khris Davis as “Khris Davis with a K,” because Chris Davis with a C shouldn’t even be discussed anymore. Davis was the worst player on the worst team in baseball and they pretty much have no choice but to pay out his remaining salary. He was basically the worst player in baseball in 2018 and he did that to the tune of $23 million. Imagine “earning” $23 million to utterly fail at your job? THAT’S the dream. Now imagine being that bad and still having $92 million coming your way in the future. Chris Davis, ladies and gentlemen. THIS is probably the worst contract in baseball.
11 Alex Gordon
Only $20 million more to go, Royals fans ($24 if you count the buyout). I think it’s safe to say the Royals backed the wrong horse when they locked up Alex Gordon to his big contract. The small market club has paid Gordon $48 million since their World Series title, and been rewarded with a little over three WAR. Look, you take the good with the bad, but it must be tough to watch Gordon struggle while all your other stars leave via Free Agency. The Royals have one of the smallest payrolls in the game, so Gordon’s $20 mil on the books in 2019 is a tough pill to swallow.
10 Eric Hosmer
Then again, Royals fans can’t be too bent out of shape that Eric Hosmer signed with San Diego last offseason. Hosmer was a solid fan favorite who helped bring Kansas City a couple of glory years, but he got paid like a superstar. You always want to cut a player some slack in his first season in new digs, but Hosmer put up league average numbers at a power position for $21 million in San Diego. Even when you factor in a small bump in production, they’re paying him $123 million more to be the “vet leader” of their young team. Steep.
9 Wei-Yin Chen
This signing almost never made sense, but it’s the Marlins. When has the Marlins’ game plan ever made sense? Wei-Yin Chen pitched 133 innings to the tune of $10 million this season. That money isn’t astronomical for a pitcher of his caliber, even when you factor in his poor 76 ERA+ down year… but he still has at least $42 million left on his contract. A Marlin making $20 million in 2019 seems insane. Only Martin Prado and Starlin Castro will make more than $10 million as of now. You gotta think Jeets is gonna do everything in his power to try and dump Chen this offseason.
8 Mark Melancon
“Big ticket” closers will always scare me. I can’t rip on guys getting their money, but they just almost never feel like sound decisions. Signing relievers beyond three years is usually a bad deal. Mark Melancon was coming off some big save years when he signed with the Giants after the 2016 season. So far halfway through his $57 million contract he’s put up 14 saves and a 1.5 whip. Thankfully for the Giants he was decent in 2018 when they paid him $20 million! He has $28 mil coming to him over the next couple years, so San Fran better hope he can be a little better than decent.
7 Giancarlo Stanton
He’s a Yankee, and despite what some fans think, he’s an absolute stud. Why the heck is he on the list? The Yankees never let a big contract stand in their way, and I fully expect Giancarlo Stanton to improve on the 2018 season that people seem to think wasn’t good. It was good, it just wasn’t “guy who signed a $300 million contract good.” Still, I don’t care who the player is, owing a guy $260 million is a scary proposition. Stanton will definitely beast in that ballpark for a few more years, but the Yankees might be crossing their fingers in hopes he opts out after 2021 (he won’t).
6 Felix Hernandez
This one’s similar to Miguel Cabrera – how could Seattle not lock their guy up long term? Unfortunately for them, Felix Hernandez looks like a cautionary tale on why locking up pitchers is usually a losing proposition. While the Mariners are only on the hook for one more unmovable year at nearly $27 million, they’ve already paid him close to $200 million, and you can’t tell me that hasn’t hampered their spending elsewhere. The Mariners are consistently on the outside looking in, and contracts like Felix’s are probably one of the reasons.
5 Robinson Cano
Robinson Cano is another reason why the Mariners may continue to be perennial disappointments. Even after Felix Hernandez' contract comes off the books, they’ll still be paying Cano almost $100 million. If that’s not bad enough, they’ll be paying him until he’s 40. While Cano can still mash and the DH will be an option down the line, he’s 35 and coming off a PED suspension. That can’t be very encouraging to Mariners fans. If his production slips, his $24 million annual salary really starts to look like one of the worst contracts in the game.
4 Yu Darvish
What happened here? Baseball experts love to tell you that pitchers who switch from the AL to the NL usually fair better, but that hasn’t been the case thus far for Yu Darvish. After a poor performance in the World Series with the Dodgers, Darvish signed a six-year, $126 million contract with the Cubs. Darvish proceeded to throw just 40 innings before his season was lost to injury. Again, it’s hard to imagine money holding the Cubs back, but you can’t tell me there aren’t at least some restrictions when Darvish and Heyward are $40+ million worth of payroll between them.
3 Zack Greinke
It’s tough to really get on Zack Greinke who is still a top-flight starter, but $35 million a year is just so much money. The Diamondbacks appear to be on the verge of a rebuild, losing players like AJ Pollack to free agency, and possibly even putting Paul Goldschmidt on the block. While Goldschmidt makes a boatload, I don’t think they’ll have any trouble moving him. Greinke on the other hand will be 35 and is still owed $104 million over the next three years. That money might throw a wrench into their plans. Sometimes good players start to cost too much money.
2 Troy Tulowitzki
Remember him? Toronto has paid Troy Tulowitzki $40 million over the past two seasons to play 66 games. His WAR over those 66 games is 0.1. Tulo looked like one of the stars of the game before injuries basically derailed his career. Since being traded to Toronto in 2015, he’s essentially played about one-and-a-half seasons worth of games in his time there. With the Blue Jays in a bit of a transition period, they’re probably not in the running for big free agents, and even if they were, the $34 mil they owe Tulo over the next two years would probably put a damper on those plans anyway.
1 Manny Machado
I’m going there. Whoever signs Manny Machado long-term is going to be whining about it within a few years. I am in no way saying Machado – or even Bryce Harper – won’t deserve the money they inevitably get, but speculation for their deals are astronomical. I understand the business of the game, talent wins, but $35-40 mil a year on one player just doesn’t feel like a sound investment. While big market clubs will probably sign both of these guys, one hamstring tweak might sink your season. Everyone wants to stay below the luxury tax threshold, so some mid-level clubs may sneak into the negotiations, and if that happens we could be looking at a trade within a couple years.