According to MLB Trade Rumors' perpetually enjoyable free-agent contract predictions, the following free agents are about to sign a deal that will pay them more than $20 million annually:
- Jake Arrieta
- Yu Darvish
- Eric Hosmer
- J.D. Martinez
That's more than last year -- there were only two last year, Yoenis Cespedes and Edwin Encarnacion -- but still way down from two years ago, when there were eight. This probably seems like an obvious thing to say, but $20 million per year is a lot of money. It's more than a quarter of the payroll for half the teams in Major League Baseball. It makes you one of the 125 most highly paid athletes on the planet. It is for upper-tier, top-shelf superstars.
Thing is, though: It is difficult to get equivalent value out of all of these contracts, on a year-to-year basis. Allotting for the fact that all $20-million contracts are not created equally -- Giancarlo Stanton is signed for more than $20 million per season through 2027; Encarnacion is only in Cleveland through 2019 -- the amount of production, for the number of years, is extremely difficult to maintain at a level that justifies that salary.
When I wrote a column like this two years ago, the great Dave Cameron of Fangraphs pushed back a bit, noting that, sure, while a lot of these contracts look bad on the back end, teams account for that, assuming they will get surplus value at the beginning of the contract that makes up for the dead spots on the end. This is a good point, but still: $20 million is $20 million. Presuming that there will be enough surplus at the beginning to make up for the drag at the end is its own assumption. And I like to think this exercise -- in which we look at all the players making $20 million in 2018 and whether or not they will be worth it -- is its own control group. Some of the players are at the beginning of their deals; some are at the end. But we're looking at a snapshot of this year. And there are more of these players making $20 million in 2018 who are unlikely to reach that level of production than who are likely to.
And again: This is nothing against these players. They were surely underpaid for the first sections of their careers. But it's just a reminder to be wary of superstar contracts. The contracts are superstar-level, but they're not always superstar quality.
So let's take a look at those 39 players making $20 million or more in 2018 and see which ones look excessive on their 2018 teams and which ones are a boon. (All salaries -- cap hits, actually -- are from Spotrac.) Remember, we are talking only about 2018 here; most of these contracts still have more years to go after this one.
- Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers ($35.6 million)
- Mike Trout, Angels ($34.1 million)
- Zack Greinke, D-backs ($34 million)
- Justin Verlander, Astros ($28 million)
- Jon Lester, Cubs ($27.5 million)
- Joey Votto, Reds ($25 million)
- Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins ($25 million)
- Buster Posey, Giants ($22.2 million)
- Max Scherzer, Nationals ($22.1 million)
- Bryce Harper, Nationals ($21.6 million)
- Freddie Freeman, Braves ($21.4 million)
So these are your top-of-the-line players, superstars who are paid accordingly. These are all players who, barring an injury (and injuries do happen, all the time!), will earn their $20 million and then some in 2018. Though it is still worth noting: One of these guys (Stanton) is on the trading block right now, one of them (Verlander) was just traded in August and another (Votto) is so expensive in relation to his team's on-field success that you have to wonder if that team maybe wishes it weren't paying him all that right now, even if he is worth it. But still: No one is complaining about the money these guys make. A couple of them (Trout, Harper) will even get substantial raises in the next few years.
Up in the air
- David Price, Red Sox ($30 million)
- Yoenis Cespedes, Mets ($29 million)
- Robinson Cano, Mariners ($24 million)
- Cole Hamels, Rangers ($22.5 million)
- Rick Porcello, Red Sox ($21.1 million)
- Ryan Braun, Brewers ($20 million)
- Aroldis Chapman, Yankees ($20 million)
- Yadier Molina, Cardinals ($20 million)
I'm being nice to Price there: Many Red Sox fans think he's already a bust. (He'll be making $32 million in 2022.) Cespedes' injuries crept up this year, Hamels is creeping down to a league-average pitcher and Chapman was up and down. This is the last year Braun will make $20 million; he drops to $19 million in 2019 and $17 million in '20.
- Miguel Cabrera, Tigers ($30 million)
- Jason Heyward, Cubs ($28.2 million)
- Albert Pujols, Angels ($27 million)
- Felix Hernandez, Mariners ($26.9 million)
- Jordan Zimmermann, Tigers ($24 million)
- Joe Mauer, Twins ($23 million)
- Hanley Ramirez, Red Sox ($22.8 million)
- Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers ($22.4 million)
- Ian Desmond, Rockies ($22 million)
- Matt Kemp, Braves ($21.5 million)
- Jacoby Ellsbury, Yankees ($21.1 million)
- Chris Davis, Orioles ($21.1 million)
- Johnny Cueto, Giants ($21 million)
- James Shields, White Sox ($21 million)
- Homer Bailey, Reds ($21 million)
- Russell Martin, Blue Jays ($20 million)
- Troy Tulowitzki, Blue Jays ($20 million)
- David Wright, Mets ($20 million)
- Alex Gordon, Royals ($20 million)
- Shin-Soo Choo, Rangers ($20 million)
And … here you see the rub. There are future Hall of Famers (Pujols, Cabrera, Hernandez, Mauer?) on this list. There are players who didn't play last season on this list. But all of these jump off the page, on paper, based on recent performance. That David Wright contract still has two more years after this one. Cabrera has five, plus some buyouts. I legitimately forgot James Shields was still in the league. These are the nightmare scenarios. The great contracts pay off, in the short and the long term. But these … these can compromise your whole franchise. When some, most even, of these were signed, the moves were praised. Fans were cheering. Execs were feted. Now? It's hard to even look at some of them. Everyone on this list was once a great player: That's why they got the contracts in the first place. But those days seem long in the past.
The free-agent season is exciting. I can't wait to see where all the free agents go just like you can't. But be careful out there.
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