While Major League Baseball may be concerned that its slow pace of play may be harming the game’s appeal to a younger generation, nowhere is the game’s health more clear than in the preponderance of massive contracts being handed out to players on a regular basis. An influx of TV money and no salary cap have allowed teams to spend lavishly on the players they want, but if this list proves anything, it is that money cannot buy championships.
The San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals have no players on this list, and both teams were able to meet in the 2014 World Series. Among the teams with representatives on this list of the 15 highest-paid players in MLB, only the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and Detroit Tigers even made the playoffs, and none of those teams were able to advance past the Division Series.
These rankings, which are ranked according to Spotrac’s 2015 “Cap Hit” Rankings (the base salary of the contract added to the average annual value of the player’s signing bonus), demonstrate just how difficult it is for professional talent evaluators to predict a player’s future performance. Many of these teams are actively trying to jettison some of the players on this list through trades simply because of the fact that they have not been able to live up to the value of the contract. Big contracts come with big risks, and only a handful of those appearing in these rankings have performed in a manner deserving of their sizable contracts.
15 T15. Miguel Cabrera, Alex Rodriguez, Jose Reyes, and Masahiro Tanaka: $22 Million
The four players tied for 15th on this list perfectly demonstrate the volatility of long-term, high-value contracts. Though each player will earn $22 million in 2015, their recent performance has varied wildly. In fact, the two Yankees appeared in just 20 games combined in 2014 (all from Tanaka). A-Rod, according to Yankees GM Brian Cashman, will be getting paid an exorbitant sum to be a full-time DH (and may even be a platoon option batting only against lefties), while Tanaka is coming off an injury involving the ulnar collateral ligament and will almost certainly require Tommy John surgery in the future, though not necessarily in 2015 (Adam Wainwright had a similar issue in 2004, but pitched until 2011 before requiring the surgery). In essence, the Yankees are paying $44 million to two players with massive question marks.
Cabrera and Reyes, on the other hand, have been very productive players for their respective teams, with Cabrera clearly producing more than Reyes. Cabrera won the MVP for two consecutive years (2012 and 2013), and he finished in the top ten in 2014. A down year for Cabrera had the Tiger slugger slashing .313/.371/.524 while hitting 25 homers and driving in 109 runs.
14 T13. Joe Mauer: $23 Million
13 T13. CC Sabathia: $23 Million
12 Mark Teixeira: $23.125 Million
11 Cole Hamels: $23.5 Million
10 T8. Albert Pujols: $24 Million
9 T8. Robinson Cano: $24 Million
Cano signed a 10-year deal that was largely panned by observers who noted that the $240 million the Mariners committed to Cano was far more than the second baseman was worth on the open market. To get Cano away from the Yankees, however, it may have taken an offer well above Cano’s value, and in the first year of the deal it does not look so bad. The Mariners have legitimized themselves as contenders and have made several savvy moves to improve their 2015 outlook (locking up Kyle Seager to a long-term deal, for example).
8 T8. Prince Fielder: $24 Million
The Texas Rangers took on Fielder’s contract in a one-for-one swap with the Detroit Tigers for Ian Kinsler. While the Tigers took a great deal of criticism immediately after making the trade, the Tigers may have gotten the better end of the deal – at least when judging by the early returns. Fielder only played 42 games for the Rangers in 2014, after the hulking first baseman went on the disabled list for the first time in his career due to season-ending neck surgery.
7 Felix Hernandez: $24.86 Million
6 T4. Zack Greinke: $25 Million
5 T4. Cliff Lee: $25 Million
4 T4. Ryan Howard: $25 Million
3 Josh Hamilton: $25.4 Million
2 Justin Verlander: $28 Million
Verlander had a down year in 2014, going 15-12 with a 4.54 ERA over 206 innings. That made Verlander – the winner of both the MVP and Cy Young Award as recently as 2011 – the fourth-best option on a Detroit pitching staff that also included Max Scherzer and David Price. General manager Dave Dombrowski believes Verlander will be able to return to form in 2015, but the significant loss of velocity Verlander has experienced makes it unlikely that he will be able to miss bats in the way he did in 2011. In fact, his average fastball velocity is down by over two miles per hour since his Cy Young and MVP season, and heading into his age-32 season, it seems unlikely that it will return in a significant way.
1 Clayton Kershaw: $32.57 Million
Kershaw is coming off his best season as a professional, as he earned his third Cy Young Award and first MVP after going 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA in 198.1 innings. Even though he missed the first month of the season due to a back injury, Kershaw led the league in ERA for the fourth straight season and very nearly led the league in strikeouts as well by averaging an exceptional 10.85 strikeouts per nine innings. His control was also outstanding, walking 1.41 batters per nine in his 27 starts, one of which was a no-hitter that would have been a perfect game if not for a Hanley Ramirez error.
While Kershaw faltered in the playoffs, he is still the undisputed best pitcher in all of baseball. Yes, Madison Bumgarner had one of the greatest postseason runs in history while leading his team to another World Series title, but if general managers were given the opportunity to pay either Bumgarner or Kershaw $32.5 million in 2015, every last one chooses Kershaw. Entering his age-27 season, the Dodgers are paying Kershaw for his prime years, and there are no signs that Kershaw’s performance will decline any time soon. With Kershaw and Greinke, the Dodgers join the Mariners as the only two teams on this list that have gotten the performance they expected out of their highest-paid players.
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