MLB baseball players make an obscene amount of money. The highest earner, Clayton Kershaw, takes home over $35 million each season, which equates to over one million per start and $500,000 per hour of work. Amazingly, he makes up less than one-sixth of the free-spending Dodgers’ payroll, a testament to the financial success of the MLB and its teams. No team has a payroll lower than $60 million and 24 teams are above the $100 million mark. The absence of a hard salary cap allows the big market teams like Los Angeles, New York and Boston to spend with little repercussion, save for a luxury tax penalty.
While increasing player salaries are a sign of a thriving game, teams do not always allocate personnel funds appropriately, especially in regards to the players at the upper end of the earning curve.
Below is a breakdown of the top 10 player salaries in baseball and a discussion concerning whether each player is deserving of their contract. As you’ll see, the results aren’t pretty.
01. Clayton Kershaw / SP / Dodgers / $35,571,428
Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game and is arguably one of the best pitchers of all-time. At a spry 29 years of age, he’s accumulated over 55 WAR and currently has the best adjusted ERA of all-time. With a smooth motion and a constantly evolving approach that relies very little on top end velocity, Kershaw should age gracefully and firmly cement himself as one of the top five starters of all-time by the end of his career. $35 million is a bargain for his consistent high-end performance.
02. Zack Greinke / SP / Diamondbacks / $34,000,000
Is there a top flight starter more enigmatic than Zack Greinke? While he’s found his form in 2017, Greinke’s trailing five season ERAs read as follows: 4.37, 1.70, 2.71, 2.63 and 3.48. Yeah, that’s some good pitching, especially the three years sandwiched in the middle, but if you’re paying someone $34 million they better bring sub-3 ERAs every season. Greinke has been this way his entire career, also alternating 2.20 and 4.20 ERA seasons in the late 2000s for Kansas City. Arizona was desperate to make a splash and overpaid a 32-year old after a career season. Now Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick has another four-plus years to think about it.
Not worth it.
03. David Price / SP / Red Sox / $30,000,000
Coincidence that the only three players to make an eight-digit salary with a three handle are starting pitchers? I think not. They say pitching wins championships, and I guess that’s kind of true, but $30 million for a guy with a 3.20 career regular season ERA that balloons to 5.50 in the postseason? The Red Sox are starting to look like the early 2000s Yankees with their flotilla of futile free agent signings. Price’s first season in Boston resulted in a league average 3.99 ERA and many New Englander tears. He’s now back after rehabbing from a bum elbow that will probably need Tommy John at some point.
Not worth it.
04. Jason Heyward / RF / Cubs / $28,166,666
I’ll say it right now…this is the worst one on the list. The Cubs have avoided getting shit for the Heyward signing due to their World Series championship and impressive stable of young players. But Heyward’s career OPS is .759 and hasn’t eclipsed .800 since 2012. Most of his value comes with legs and glove, characteristics that will, and already are, worsening with age. Heyward might not even be worthy of an MLB roster spot in two to three years. Epstein, your signing, woof.
Not worth it.
05. Miguel Cabrera / 1B / Tigers / $28,000,000
Not much to argue about here. Cabrera is in the conversation with Pujols and Alex Rodriguez for greatest hitter of this generation. He hits for power, hits for average, doesn’t strike out much and is remarkably consistent. According to Fangraphs Miguel has been worth almost $450 million thus far in his career. At 34, the heavy-set Cabrera will likely start declining soon, however he’s the type of hitter that will be productive into his late 30s.
06. Justin Verlander / SP / Tigers / $28,000,000
Don’t get me wrong, Justin Verlander is a great pitcher. But his presence among the top 10 player salaries is unfortunate. For some perspective, Verlander is five years older than Kershaw yet has a lower career WAR. He posted a 4.54 ERA season in 2014 and has a 4.63 ERA so far in 2017, not to mention an xFIP over 5.00. Perhaps I’m letting my jealously over his long-term relationship with Kate Upton get the best of me. Not that she needs financial support, but I’m sure Kate isn’t complaining about the Tigers’ frivolousness.
Not worth it.
07. Felix Hernandez / SP / Mariners / $26,857,142
King Felix has been a great pitcher for a long time, but the last three seasons have not looked pretty. His peripheral skills (velocity, K/9, FIP) are all trending in the wrong direction while the ERA has crept up to league average territory. Hernandez seems like a right-handed Sabathia to me, who will remain somewhat relevant by adapting his arsenal and focusing on control. But by relevant I mean a second or third starter in the rotation. Seattle is saddled with this contract through 2019.
Not worth it.
08. Albert Pujols / 1B / Angels / $26,000,000
Mad respect to not Fat Albert. The first 10 seasons of his career might be the best first decade for any player ever. And now, even at 37, the guy still flashes 35 home run power and knocks in 100 runs. However, Pujols has only had a WAR of 2.0 or higher twice in his five full seasons with the Angels, and his WAR thus far in 2017 is negative. Pujols’ atrocious defense and the presence of plenty of other power-hitting first basemen across the league have whittled his surplus value to zero. And the worst part of it all? Pujols is signed for another four seasons after 2017, keeping him in Anaheim until his age 41 season. Ouch.
Not worth it.
09. CC Sabathia / SP / Yankees / $25,000,000
Credit where credit is due. CC Sabathia was an absolute stud in his prime, which lasted a remarkably long seven years, spanning 2006 through 2012. Sabathia signed a massive six-year contract with the Yankees in 2008 but opted out after the 2011 season, at which point the Yankees signed him to an even more lucrative five-year deal. Sabathia’s annual ERAs under that contract? 3.38, 4.78, 5.28, 4.73 and 3.91. While CC has dealt with personal demons over the years and has shown an impressive ability to innovate as of late, he’s another example of why it’s dumb to sign a 31-year old pitcher to a massive contract.
Not worth it.
10. Jon Lester / SP / Cubs / $25,000,000
I’m a bit torn on this one. On one hand, Lester has had only one season with an ERA above 3.75 since 2009. He’s also never gone above an xFIP of 3.90 in that span. His consistent performance typically oscillates between Cy Young candidate and very good #2, which is a great range to reside in. But the Cubs gave Lester a seven-year contract at the age of 31, which as we’ve seen is generally a horrible idea. He was worth every penny over the first two seasons, but there are some worrying trends, like decreased velocity, as Lester closes in on his 34th birthday. I’m gonna give this a pass now, but there’s a real potential for blow-up in a couple years. And combined with Heyward, that won’t be pretty for the Cubs.
In summary, the top 10 MLB player salaries includes seven pitchers and three hitters. Only three of the 10 were deemed to be ‘worth it’, and some of the other contracts look really bad with the potential to get worse. It’s difficult to say that Kershaw, Cabrera and Lester appeared any more worthwhile than the others when they were signed to their respective extensions, so the general policy should be to walk away from any player requesting a contract in the range of $30 million, especially one on the wrong side of 30.
Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, impending 2018-19 free agents, are the talk of the baseball world for the potential contracts they will receive. I say screw them. Harper is potentially a generational talent, but has only performed that way for one season, and will reportedly seek over $40 million per season. Machado is one of the toolsiest players this side of Alex Rodriguez, but has never posted an OPS above .876. They’re both very young (26 at free agency), which takes out some of the risk of say a seven-year deal, however don’t be surprised if teams throw 12-year contracts their way.
It’s one thing to work up the nerve to avoid the free agent feeding frenzy, but another thing entirely to have the discipline and self-restraint to walk away from a home grown star who is still performing at a high level. Verlander and Hernandez are examples of situations where teams should have simply said thanks and moved on, but memories of the good times, the prospect of losing fan support and likely reality of being castigated by local media often clouds management’s thinking.