Many sports reporters have predicted over the past couple of years that baseball will eventually reign supreme as the most popular sport in the United States once again after losing the crown to football. More people are pushing their gifted children toward baseball, as there is a low risk for injury and massive contracts that are fully guaranteed as long as you get off to a good start in your career. International players are also coming over more frequently, making the game more global.
Speaking of those guaranteed contracts, it seems that baseball more than any other sport has the longest and largest contracts in the United States. There are five contracts active in baseball right now that were signed for at least a decade, and there are 15 contracts that are worth more than $160 million total. When all of that is guaranteed, it’s hard to not want to play baseball for a living.
Let’s take a look at those contracts that are worth the most to see how team-friendly they are. As you can probably guess, there aren’t a lot of player in the list that are under the age of 30 as veteran players are rewarded handsomely for signing with new teams. Here are the 15 active contracts in the MLB worth more than $160 million, judged by what their team has gotten out of the deal.
15 Chris Davis - $161 million
Our list begins with Chris Davis, who showed flashes with the Rangers in the late 2000s before getting sent to the Orioles in 2011. Since then, Davis has been one of the best home run hitters in all of baseball, but doesn’t bring much to the table outside of his power numbers. Davis signed a deal in 2016 that would keep him in Baltimore through the 2022 season for a total of $161 million over seven years for an average of $23 million per year.
In his nine MLB seasons, Davis has posted a career Wins Above Replacement of just 17.7, though he is at 16.5 over the past four seasons. That still works out to an average of 1.97 WAR per year, and he has been up and down since becoming an Oriole. Davis’ strikeout numbers continue to climb, unfortunately, as he has posted 427 strikeouts in the past two seasons. Now that he’s over 30, those numbers will likely get worse.
14 Joe Mauer - $184 million
At one point, Joe Mauer was considered to be the best catcher in all of baseball and posted monster numbers, making six All Star appearances in an eight year span. At his peak, Mauer was hitting .365 with 28 home runs and 96 runs batted in. Since then, Mauer has not been close in power numbers and his contact numbers have gradually dropped. Still, the Twins gave him an eight year deal before the 2011 season worth $184 million for an average of $23 million per year.
Mauer has seen his Wins Above Replacement drop to an average of 2.82 per year since signing the deal, which is only a mediocre number. Now at 33 years old, Mauer is certainly overpaid and will be on the books through the 2018 season. That’s not encouraging for the worst team in baseball as their former star hit just .261 with 11 home runs in 2016.
13 Jason Heyward - $184 million
Jason Heyward exploded onto the scene in 2010 after being one of the most hyped up rookies in years. Heyward delivered with a .277 average, 18 home runs, 72 runs batted in and 11 stolen bases with Atlanta. In 2015, Heyward became a member of the Cardinals for a season before hitting free agency, where the Cubs gave him a $184 million deal over eight years, working out to a $23 million per year average.
Heyward had spent the previous two seasons with a WAR over 6.0, but floundered at the plate in his first season with the Cubs as he batted .230 with just seven home runs and 49 runs batted in during what was easily his worst season. Even his oWAR was negative during 2016, and the Cubs could be on the hook until 2023. So what keeps him from being the worst deal? It’s because he has only had one bad season, is still just 27 years old (which gives him time to turn the hitting around) and he’s an elite defensive player.
12 Zack Greinke - $206.5 million
After plenty of solid seasons in Kansas City, Zack Greinke made his way to Milwaukee and then Anaheim before landing with the Dodgers in 2013. Greinke spent three seasons with Los Angeles, making two All Star Games and posting an ERA of 2.30. Before 2016, there was a sweepstakes for Greinke, and the Diamondbacks became a surprise team by signing him for six years and a total of $206.5 million (more than $34 million per year).
It was a huge risk to give a 33 year old pitcher that much money, and it hasn’t paid off for the Diamondbacks at all early in the deal. Greinke had a decent record of 13-7 in his first season, but posted a 4.37 ERA, more than two and a half points higher than the year before. Greinke also posted a 2.3 WAR, which was his lowest since 2011.
11 Albert Pujols - $240 million
Albert Pujols is one of the best hitters of this generation but he also brings a negative dWAR. Pujols signed with the Angels before the 2012 season, which will keep him in Anaheim until after the 2021 season. The deal is worth a total of $240 million over 10 years, an average of $24 million per year. The massive contract came on the heels of Pujols’s worst season, though it was still a good year by most measures.
Now, the Angels have a 36 year old that has only made one All Star appearance in his five seasons with the team, and he is batting a mediocre .266. The power numbers are still solid, but Pujols has certainly become overpaid at this point in his career. With five more years on the books, this deal could get ugly fast.
10 Stephen Strasburg - $175 million
Just like Jason Heyward, Stephen Strasburg was a rookie that had a ton of hype coming into the 2010 season, and he finally made his debut in the summer with everyone watching. Since then, Strasburg has shown huge potential, but has also been an injury risk. Strasburg signed an extension with the Nationals before the 2016 season, keeping him in Washington until after 2023 with $175 million over seven years, for an average of $25 million per year.
The only reason that this deal isn’t ranked higher is because Strasburg has struggled to stay healthy for an entire season. Strasburg has made 47 starts over the past two seasons, but the numbers are there. His career ERA is 3.17, which is phenomenal, but he has only been able to eclipse 183 innings once in his career.
9 David Price - $217 million
After spending the early part of his career with Tampa Bay, the Tigers were able to strike a deal to bring David Price to Detroit in 2014. Then, Price was shipped to the Blue Jays the next season as they made their playoff push, though he became a free agent after the 2015 season. A bidding war took place for the 30 year old pitcher, and it was the Red Sox that landed him with an offer of seven years for $217 million ($31 million per year average).
Though the deal is not long, the Red Sox got a pitcher on the wrong side of 30 for what is a tie for second most money per year behind only Clayton Kershaw. Price was above average in his first season, eating up a lot of innings and posting an ERA of 3.99 and a 17-9 record. While Strasburg and Heyward have chances to move up this list, it doesn’t seem likely for Price, so his rank could slide after next season for best blockbuster contracts.
8 Miguel Cabrera - $240 million
There is no doubt that Miguel Cabrera has been one of the best hitters in baseball over the past decade. In his 14 season career, Cabrera has been to 11 All Star Games, and has knocked out 446 career home runs with a .321 average. Detroit gave Cabrera an extension before the 2016 season to keep him around until after 2023, for a total of $248 million and a yearly average of $31 million, tying him with David Price.
If Cabrera was a well rounded player, there would be no price that’s too high even though he is getting up there in age. Cabrera still rakes the ball, but his defensive play has been well below average in his career. Last year alone, Cabrera brought a -1.5 dWAR to the table, which weighed down his terrific 5.5 oWAR.
7 Robinson Cano - $240 million
After nine seasons with the Yankees and five All Star appearances, it was clear that Robinson Cano was one of the best second basemen in baseball, if not the best. After 2013, Cano had a career batting average of .309 with 204 home runs and 822 runs batted in. Though his glove wasn’t the best, he wasn’t a liability in the field and was hitting at a premium position.
That’s why the Mariners were willing to strike a deal to bring Cano to Seattle for $240 million over 10 years, an average of $24 million per year. The deal didn’t look great after the first two years, but seems to be better after Cano posted a .298 average in 2016 with 39 home runs and 103 runs batted in. If he can keep that up, this will end up being a good contract, but he is going to be 34 years old in 2017 and still has seven years left on his deal.
6 Joey Votto - $225 million
If it weren’t for Joey Votto, there is probably not a single member of the Cincinnati Reds that you could name off the top of your head. Votto has been a stud with the Reds, making four All Star appearances over 10 seasons with 221 home runs, 730 runs batted in and a career average of .313. While some don’t like Votto’s large contract of $225 million over 10 years, it’s not the worst deal out there.
Votto is signed through the 2023 season, and is now 33 years old. His numbers are going to drop off fast at one point, but first basemen have had a tendency to age well compared to other positions (look at Cabrera and Pujols). Votto is still putting up amazing numbers, and his average per year of $22.5 million is among the lowest on our list. Between that and his solid 4.73 WAR per year, he’s still a decent deal.
5 Justin Verlander - $162 million
If we were making this list a year or two ago, Justin Verlander’s contract might be toward the bottom. That’s because Verlander signed a deal before the 2013 season to keep him in Detroit until after 2020 for a total of $162 million for an average of $25 million. Verlander then had 52 starts over a two season span in 2014-15 where he posted a record of 20-20 and an ERA over 4.00.
Verlander rebounded in a big way in 2016, finishing with an ERA of 3.04 and a record of 16-9, nearly winning the American League Cy Young Award. Now that there’s only four years on his deal, it looks like the Tigers are going to get some good value out of Verlander if he keeps up the performance. Verlander is 33 years old right now, and a solid start to 2017 will make him a very valuable trading piece for Detroit if they find themselves out of the pennant race.
4 Giancarlo Stanton - $325 million
Not everybody is a fan of excessively long term contracts, but they aren’t as bad when you consider a player’s age. When the Marlins signed Giancarlo Stanton to a 13 year deal, he was just 25 years old and was already posting some big time numbers. Now at 27 years old, Stanton still has 11 seasons on his 13 year deal that was worth a total of $325 million. The number is huge, but the average is $25 million per year.
When the Marlins get toward the final few years of the deal, that $25 million is going to sound like a bargain compared to other salaries years from now, as long as Stanton continues to put up solid numbers. So far, Stanton is carrying a career .266 batting average, and already has 208 home runs and 540 runs batted in. There’s still time to improve on that average, though this deal could go way down the list or eventually become the best team-friendly contract in baseball.
3 Max Scherzer - $210 million
Despite their great seasons, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw did not win the 2016 National League Cy Young. That means it must have been a special player that topped all of them, and it certainly was as Max Scherzer of the Nationals beat them all out. Scherzer signed a seven year deal worth $210 million before the 2015 season and has been a star with Washington in his two seasons since then.
Even though he’s 32 years old, Scherzer shows no signs of slowing down and will only be on the books for five more seasons, meaning that there’s little chance the Nationals won’t get supreme value out of this contract. Scherzer has struck out 560 batters in two seasons, posting a record of 34-19 and a 2.88 ERA. That’s good enough for a 13.3 WAR, which is worth over $93 million in that span while Scherzer got paid $60 million.
2 Felix Hernandez - $175 million
Felix Hernandez was brought into the Major Leagues by the Mariners as a teenager more than a decade ago, and has been a star pitcher ever since then. Hernandez has 12 MLB seasons under his belt (all with Seattle), posting a record of 154-109 with a 3.16 ERA. Though he has had his ups and downs over the past five years, he is one of the best in the league when he’s on and is still a solid pitcher at his worst.
The Mariners were able to get Hernandez for $25 million per year before the 2013 season ($175 million total) through the 2019 season. It was a good deal for the Mariners as they were getting the prime years from Hernandez and are able to let him go before he really starts to decline. The Mariners have gotten more than $26 million in surplus for dollars per win above replacement so far and Hernandez would have to fall apart for them not to keep that surplus up.
1 Clayton Kershaw - $215 million
The best of the massive contracts in baseball goes to Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, who signed an extension worth $215 million over seven years leading into the 2014 season. Kershaw will be eligible to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2020 season, and even if he doesn’t stick around in Los Angeles, they were able to get the best years of his career. Kershaw is making $30.7 million per year, which is actually not even an overpay.
Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball by a longshot over the past few years, tallying a career mark of 126-60 with a 2.37 ERA. Kershaw has been able to stay healthy for the most part despite missing a portion of the 2016 season. Even if he were being paid $40 million per year, you could argue that Kershaw is still the best contract in baseball.