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.
Reyes signed his current contract with the Marlins, who subsequently traded him to the Blue Jays after a single season in Miami. Reyes hasn’t exactly lived up to his contract in Toronto, but he is now a part of a revamped Blue Jays team looking to take advantage of a weakened AL East. According to FanGraphs, Reyes was worth 3.3 WAR a season ago while slashing .287/.328/.398. He also stole 30 bases and scored 94 runs.
14 T13. Joe Mauer: $23 Million
Mauer is yet another player who experienced declining production in the 2014 season, and for a first baseman, the power outage has to be a major concern. Mauer’s slash line during his age-31 season was .277/.361/.371, and he didn’t exactly make up for his lack of offensive production with his glove. New Twins manager Paul Molitor believes that Mauer can bounce back, saying that last year was simply an aberration for a player who has been an MVP and has been to six All-Star games. If he does bounce back, it is hard to expect that there will be much power coming with it, especially since Mauer has not hit more than 11 home runs since 2010.
13 T13. CC Sabathia: $23 Million
Sabathia, who is coming off of injury, is yet another player signed to a massive contract by the Yankees with mixed results. Before his knee injury a season ago, Sabathia dealt with declining velocity and struggled to keep runs off the board in his 46 innings. There were encouraging signs, however, as his strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.80) was outstanding and he posted an xFIP (expected fielder independent pitching) of 3.11 in 2014. Of course, he only started eight games and is yet another high-dollar question mark for the Yankees.
12 Mark Teixeira: $23.125 Million
It should not be surprising that the Yankees dominate this list, as the team is now dealing with the back-end of long-term contracts, the time in which the age-related decline in production begins to set in. So while his 8-year, $180 million deal looked reasonable from 2009 to 2012, the Yankees are not going to get that level of production out of Teixeira for the remainder of his contract. The first baseman has dealt with injuries and now, with declining production, looks to be yet another deal the Yankees will regret in 2015.
11 Cole Hamels: $23.5 Million
Hamels is perhaps only the second ballplayer on this list so far who would probably be able to land a more lucrative deal if he were available on the free-agent market. With Jon Lester getting a six-year deal worth $155 million, it is not inconceivable that Hamels, at 31, would be able to land a similar contract to the one Lester just received. Hamels has been excellent on some very bad Philadelphia teams of late, and despite going just 9-9 in 2014, the lefthander still posted a 2.46 ERA in 204.2 innings. Since 2010, Hamels has reached the 200-inning plateau every season and has not posted an ERA higher than 3.60. If he is not traded in the offseason, expect Hamels to be moved to a contender in advance of the trade deadline.
10 T8. Albert Pujols: $24 Million
Entering only the fourth year of a 10-year deal, Pujols’ contract could look truly awful very soon. It looked like a grievous mistake early in the first year of the deal, as Pujols struggled to a slash line of .196/.234/.275 over his first 35 games as an Angel. He bounced back after that and has been a productive player, just not one who justifies $24 million heading into the 2015 season. After an 11-year run with the Cardinals in which he was worth more than 7 WAR in a season on nine separate occasions, Pujols has only been worth 7.7 WAR in his last three years with the Angels combined, according to FanGraphs. Perhaps his outstanding production will return, but players very rarely improve during their mid-to-late 30s. Unfortunately for the Angels, Pujols’ contract is not the most onerous on their payroll.
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).
With Cano, the Mariners can expect a steady lineup presence and solid defense, and it would not be a surprise to see Cano improve upon his 2014 power numbers in his second season in Seattle. While the contract looks reasonable at the moment, any ten-year deal has its inherent risks and there is no way to know what kind of player Cano will be at the end of this deal in 2023.
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.
Despite big power numbers, Fielder may have been something of an overvalued asset, and more teams are placing an increased value on defense – something Fielder is not necessarily known for doing well. It’s hard to envision what Fielder can bring to the Rangers in 2015, but it probably is not full value on a contract worth $24 million over the course of the season.
7 Felix Hernandez: $24.86 Million
King Felix is worth every penny the Mariners are paying him in 2015, as the ace of the Seattle staff has given his team at least 200 innings every season since 2008. Coming off a season in which he posted a career low 2.14 ERA, Hernandez is poised to compete for a second Cy Young Award after narrowly losing out to Corey Kluber in the 2014 voting. Hernandez’s extension runs through 2019 and includes an option year as well (if certain requirements are met), so the Mariners have one of the best and most durable pitchers in baseball under team control through all of his prime years. At $24.8 million, Hernandez is a steal.
6 T4. Zack Greinke: $25 Million
The Dodgers have a pair of pitchers in the top 15, and both have worked out exceedingly well thus far. Apart from a freak injury to his collarbone caused by a Carlos Quentin charge to the mound, Greinke has given the Dodgers two excellent and injury-free seasons. During that time, Greinke has gone 32-12 with a 2.68 ERA while striking out 8.4 batters per nine innings. His contract contains an opt-out clause at the end of this season, so it is very likely that he will be testing the free-agent waters and getting yet another lucrative deal. It hard to believe that someone making $25 million in 2015 will be due for a raise, but Greinke may have just earned one. At the very least, he will be able to add more years to his current deal at the same average annual value.
5 T4. Cliff Lee: $25 Million
The four-time All-Star and former Cy Young Award winner dealt with elbow problems throughout 2014 that limited him to just 81.1 innings on a bad Phillies team. Philadelphia, having already traded Jimmy Rollins and looking to trade Cole Hamels, has finally shifted into rebuilding mode for 2015, but they still owe Lee his $25 million, not to mention the option year that becomes guaranteed if Lee pitches 200 innings for the Phils or if he doesn't end the year on the DL – or elsewhere if he is traded away.
4 T4. Ryan Howard: $25 Million
Like all of the other high-paid Phillies, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is looking to deal Howard and the $25 million he will earn in 2015. Howard has a limited no-trade clause, and the teams that he cannot block a trade to do not appear to have a glaring need for a first baseman or DH, and they certainly do not want one that has not been all that productive since 2011. Amaro recently said that manager Ryne Sandberg is under no obligation to play Howard due to his sizable contract, and the Phillies may relegate Howard to the bench or platoon role if another player can give the Phillies better production. This may simply be a ploy to make Howard less likely to block a trade, but if Howard is to stay in Philadelphia, it is apparent that the Phillies want to see a productive Howard again.
3 Josh Hamilton: $25.4 Million
When the Angels surprisingly signed Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million deal, it was viewed as perplexing for a variety of reasons. Just a year after signing Pujols to his 10-year deal, the Angels committed an AAV of $25 million to a player who, heading into his age-32 season, seemed primed for disaster. Now heading into his age-34 season, Hamilton has proved the doubters right. He only played in 89 games for the Angels in 2014, and the team made the playoffs despite only having Hamilton available for just over half the season. He also struck out in over 28 percent of his plate appearances, so his tendency to swing away has made his declining production and massive contract even more difficult to accept.
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.
Verlander is immensely talented, and though there have been suggestions that the Tigers try converting him into a “super” reliever in order to get solid bullpen innings out of an area of weakness, it seems very unlikely that a player getting paid $28 million would be in the bullpen all year. If the Tigers end up passing on Scherzer, who is expected to receive a hefty payout in free agency, perhaps it is Verlander’s recent performance that will have given them pause.
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.