There are few things more difficult than projecting how well an athlete will perform many years in the future, as many factors such as age and injury ultimately affect performance in a significant manner. It is quite common in Major League Baseball to see relatively unproductive players earning exorbitant contracts, or to see teams taking drastic measures to minimize the damage caused by an onerous contract. The New York Mets, for example, elected to buyout and then defer Bobby Bonilla’s 2000 salary – $5.9 million – until 2011, when the team would begin paying him roughly $1.2 million every year for 25 years.
There are more recent examples of teams eating salary in order to free up space on the 40-man roster, as the Los Angeles Dodgers decided that it would be best to pay Brian Wilson roughly $10 million not to pitch for them in 2015. Wilson had exercised his player option after a brutal 2014 season, but the Dodgers no longer had a need for the former closer and instead designated him for assignment. It is clear that mistakes are often made on big-dollar, long-term contracts, but plenty of teams have also succeeded in signing star players to deals that are actually below market value.
The following 15 players are currently signed to deals that are significantly less than what the player would get on the open market. The list is limited to players who have been named to All-Star teams or who have received votes for any of baseball’s major awards. The length and average annual value of the contract matters, so while Johnny Cueto may be the best pitcher on this list, he is listed behind others whose teams have them locked up for several more years. The most important determining factor is value, specifically the degree of difference between the player’s open-market value and their current contract.
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15 Giancarlo Stanton
That Stanton appears on this list is likely quite surprising, and for good reason. Having just signed the richest contract in baseball -- worth $325 million over 13 years – it seems implausible that the Miami Marlins are getting excellent value on the deal. So what is the reason for Stanton’s appearance on this list? It is as simple as contract structuring, and the Marlins back-loaded this contract so heavily that Stanton’s annual average value over the first six years (after which point he can opt out of the contract) of the deal is $17.8 million, well below what he would get on the open market for that term.
Entering his age-25 season, Stanton has already appeared on two All-Star teams and was the MVP runner-up last season, slashing .288/.395/.555 and hitting 37 homers during a time in which offensive numbers are down. If Stanton continues to perform as well or better during his prime years, he will be due a raise over the last half of his contract and will likely exercise his opt-out clause (in 2020). Robinson Cano, after all, inked a 10-year deal worth $240 million as a free agent with Seattle entering his age-31 season, and the inflation that is likely to occur over the next six years could make Stanton’s future salary significantly higher than what is currently committed beyond the opt-out year. There is some risk on the part of the Marlins, but -- barring injury or some other disaster -- it seems likely that because of the way the contract is structured, they will be getting all of Stanton’s 20s without having to pay for the decline in his 30s.
14 Hisashi Iwakuma
Iwakuma is one of the more vastly underrated starters in all of baseball, perhaps due to pitching in Seattle with Felix Hernandez, who is arguably the best starter in the game. An All-Star in 2013, Iwakuma also finished third in the Cy Young voting that season. Over 179 innings in 2014, Iwakuma was 15-9 with a 3.52 ERA and a 2.85 xFIP, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was a pristine 7.33. He has a single year remaining on his contract, and he is owed just $7 million for the 2015 season. On the open market, Iwakuma could command a much larger figure, but the Mariners get to keep him in their rotation for just a fraction of what he is actually worth.
13 Evan Longoria
Longoria’s contract is another example of front-office creativity resulting in surplus value in a player’s contract. The Tampa Bay Rays are always on a tight budget, so the team moved to lock up their best player early, signing him to a 15-year, $144.5 million deal that runs through 2022. Entering his age-29 season, Longoria has already been named to three All-Star teams and has earned MVP votes in five different seasons while accumulating 39.5 career WAR according to FanGraphs. Longoria has eight years left on the deal, and will be paid a total of $116.5 million during the remaining years (not counting the option year). For basis of comparison, Pablo Sandoval, also a third baseman but not quite a player of Longoria’s caliber, just signed a deal for five years worth $95 million. On the open market, Longoria would exceed Sandoval’s contract by a wide margin, so the Rays certainly did well by signing Longoria early.
12 Jose Abreu
Abreu had quite the rookie season in 2014, slashing .317/.383/.581 while hammering 36 home runs to go with his 107 RBI. He led the league in slugging percentage, won the Rookie of the Year Award, made the All-Star team, earned a Silver Slugger award and finished fourth in MVP voting. A player of Abreu’s caliber could write his own check in free agency, but the Chicago White Sox swept up the Cuban émigré for pennies on the dollar, signing him to a 6-year, $68 million deal a year ago. In his prime and entering his age-28 season, there is no reason that Abreu could not get a deal worth much more than the $11.86 million in average annual value (AAV) over the five remaining years of his contract, though it should be noted that Abreu’s contract includes a clause that allows him to opt-in to arbitration but out of his guaranteed future salaries.
11 Johnny Cueto
Cueto will be a free agent at the end of this season, so the fact that the Reds only have one guaranteed season of Cueto puts him a little lower on this list than perhaps should be expected of a pitcher who finished second in the Cy Young voting to Clayton Kershaw. An All-Star in 2014, Cueto will be paid just $10 million this season, which, for basis of comparison, is the same amount that Brett Anderson was able to get – plus $4 million in incentives – from the Dodgers after pitching just 43.1 innings in 2014. If Cueto were a free agent today, he could easily justify the $155 million that Jon Lester got from the Cubs, and quite possibly more than that, given he is entering his age-29 season.
10 Jeff Samardzija
Like Cueto, Samardzija has just one year left on his contract, and entering his third year of salary arbitration, the White Sox pitcher is probably due for a raise that will pay him about the same as Cueto’s 2015 salary. Samardzija, who made the All-Star team as a Cub but was traded to the Athletics in advance of the game, had a solid season despite his 7-13 record, throwing 219.2 innings while posting a 2.99 ERA and a 3.07 xFIP to go with 4.1 WAR, according to FanGraphs. His 4.7 K/BB ratio in 2014 was excellent, and paired with ace Chris Sale, the White Sox have the makings of a very formidable rotation.
9 Andrew McCutchen
McCutchen has made four straight All-Star games, earned the Silver Slugger award three consecutive years, and has been in the top-3 of the MVP voting in each of the last seasons, winning the award in 2013. After posting a WAR of 8.2 in 2013, McCutchen was again outstanding while posting 6.8 WAR to go with a slash line of .314/.410/.542 and a wRC+ of 168, according to FanGraphs. Despite this outstanding production, McCutchen will only be paid $37 million over 3 years (with a club option for a fourth year at $14.5 million), well below his open-market value, especially considering the fact that he may well be the best player in all of baseball. At an AAV of just over $12 million per year, the Pittsburgh Pirates have quite a value on their hands.
8 Bryce Harper
Harper has struggled a bit with injuries over the past two years, but entering his age-22 season he has already made two All-Star teams and been named Rookie of the Year. He will be getting paid just $7.5 million over the next two seasons, and given his youth, he is very likely to continue to develop into the dynamic player he is capable of becoming. Despite having a down year and playing in only 100 games, Harper still managed a slash line of .273/.344/.423 while hitting 13 homers, but the reason he appears on this list is because of his potential MVP ability, along with the fact that he will receive just $2.5 million in 2015.
7 Paul Goldschmidt
Goldschmidt’s 2014 season ended early due to injury, but the two-time All-Star and 2013 MVP runner-up should have no problem bouncing back in 2015. Before his injury, the first baseman slashed .300/.396/.542, hitting 19 homers and driving in 69 runs in just 109 games. With four years remaining on his contract (plus a club option), Goldschmidt will be compensated to the tune of just $28.95 million, which equates to an AAV just over $7 million. It is not often that a franchise player in his prime is getting well below $10 million in AAV, so the Diamondbacks are quite fortunate to have a player of Goldschmidt’s caliber on such a team-friendly contract.
6 Yasiel Puig
Puig was something of an unknown quantity when he signed a contract out of Cuba to join the Los Angeles Dodgers. The team was criticized for giving Puig $42 million, but after two seasons of outstanding production, it is clear that Puig is playing well enough to justify a contract far more valuable than his current one. With four years of team control remaining, Puig is guaranteed $30.9 million, equating to an AAV of just under $8 million. For a five-tool corner outfielder, teams can generally expect to pay an exorbitant sum, but the Dodgers have gotten 9.1 WAR over two seasons very cheaply, and they have reason to expect even more out of Puig going forward. Entering his age-24 season, Puig has slashed .305/.386/.502 in his first two seasons in MLB, and by all accounts is just scratching the surface in terms of his potential ability.
5 Hyun-Jin Ryu
Ryu is quite possibly the most underrated pitcher in all of baseball, as he has quietly compiled a 28-15 record while posting a 3.17 ERA and 7.67 K/9 average. The big lefty from South Korea currently has four years remaining on a contract that will pay him an average of just over $7 million per year. Ryu is just 27, and over the last two seasons has been among the leaders in FIP (fielder-independent pitching), placing him among Chris Sale, David Price, Max Scherzer and Corey Kluber. That’s not bad company, especially considering the dollar figure that Scherzer is expected to get in free agency. Ryu is also among the most entertaining in all of baseball, and his improbable friendship with Puig makes the Dodgers dugout an interesting place to observe.
4 Jose Altuve
The diminutive Altuve had a breakout year in 2014, leading the league in hits (225), batting average (.341) and stolen bases (56) while earning his second All-Star appearance and garnering some MVP consideration. The speedy second baseman also gives the Astros tremendous value for his production, as the 24-year-old will earn just $10.5 million over the next three years. For basis of comparison, Stephen Drew was recently signed to a deal worth up to $6.5 million just for 2015, and that is coming off a season in which Drew slashed a paltry .162/.237/.299. It is clear that Altuve is quite a bargain by any standard, especially when compared to what some other second baseman are earning across the league.
3 Jonathan Lucroy
Lucroy had his best season as a professional in 2014, slashing .301/.373/.465 while hitting 13 home runs, driving in 69 runs and leading the league with 53 doubles. The catcher made his first All-Star team and earned some serious consideration as an MVP candidate, all while earning just over $2 million in 2014. He has two years left on his contract (plus a team option for a third) worth a total of just $7 million. Considering that Russell Martin, who is three years older than Lucroy, just signed a free-agent contract worth $82 million over five years, it is clear that Lucroy is earning well below what he is worth on the open market.
2 Madison Bumgarner
After Bumgarner’s historic run in the playoffs, his standing around baseball is at an all-time high. His production, however, is not merely limited to a brilliant postseason run, as the big lefty has been named an All-Star two times in his young career while also receiving Cy Young votes on three separate occasions, finishing as high as fourth following the 2014 season. He has proved to be quite durable, pitching at least 200 innings in each of the last four years, and he possesses a career ERA of 3.06 to go with an impressive K/9 rate of 8.46. It should also be noted that Bumgarner can hit a little bit too, earning the Silver Slugger for his position in 2014. An outstanding pitcher who is just entering his prime could earn an easy nine figures on the open market, but the San Francisco Giants will be paying their ace a mere $28 million over the next three years, and the team holds an option in the two years that follow.
1 Chris Sale
Over the course of his five years in Major League Baseball, Sale has consistently improved with each passing season and, at just 25 years of age, has already been named to three All-Star teams and has been a strong candidate for Cy Young in each of the last three years, finishing third in 2014. He led the league in ERA+ (178) and was second in K/9 among qualified pitchers (10.8), and he is also earning less than what Dan Haren (if he decides to pitch) will earn in 2015. With three years left on his deal (and two years with club options), Sale is being paid just $27.15 million, giving the White Sox exceptional value and two aces that are among the best bargains in all of baseball.
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