In one corner of baseball, Alex Rodriguez remains untouchable. It's the part of the game that might mean the most to him: The money. He wrung more of it from his MLB employers, a lot more, than any of his contemporaries. We can't call them peers, not in this discussion.
Two more players just became members of baseball's $200-million-contract club, a joint A-Rod had to himself for a decade. His first free-agency deal, the $252 million for 10 years that the Rangers offered before the 2001 season, mocks all other baseball wages. It's Secretariat at the Belmont, completely alone down the stretch. It's Tiger at the '97 Masters. It's Wilt and his 100 at the Hershey Sports Arena.
Sure, Robinson Cano just received $240 million, which looks pretty close, but he got it in 2013 dollars. Clayton Kershaw signed for $215 million over just seven years, or $30.7 million a year to A-Rod's $25.2 million per annum in the '01 deal. Adjust A-Rod's deal for inflation, and the contract would be valued at $332.2 million today. By the time someone else reaches the $300 million club, A-Rod's 2001 contract will probably be worth more than $400 million in real dollars.
Thirteen years ago, the thought of having Rodriguez in Texas beguiled then-Rangers owner Tom Hicks. He had to have this prize, the beautiful young man so obviously destined be the best ballplayer of his generation. Hicks arranged a shocking contract, the stuff of horror films. It was a monster. Even the Yankees' late 2007 rewrite of the deal, for $275 million over 10 years, doesn't approach the '01 contract. The second deal would be valued at $297.7 million today. Absent unlikely intervention from a federal court, the contract will also be stripped down by $25 million during his PED suspension.
But that doesn't change the sum of the Yankees' esteem at the time the contract was signed. They wanted their brand re-attached to the all-time home-run record. They thought A-Rod could take back what once belonged to Babe Ruth. In the bargain, they might win a World Series or two.
Hicks had no idea what he wanted, or what he'd done, when he signed A-Rod. He has admitted he regrets the deal, but he hasn't said what part he second-guesses the most: How much he bid, or believing that A-Rod would have been a worthwhile investment at a Derek Jeter price point. At the same time Hicks signed A-Rod, the Yankees re-signed Jeter for $189 million over 10 years. Adjusted for inflation, that deal would be worth $248.8 million today.
The most lucrative contracts in baseball history, by total value, without adjustments for inflation:
|1. Alex Rodriguez||$275 million||2008-2017|
|2. Alex Rodriguez||$252 million||2001-2010|
|3. (tie) Albert Pujols||$240 million||2012-2021|
|3. (tie) Robinson Cano||$240 million||2014-2023|
|5. Joey Votto||$225 million||2014-2023|
|6. Clayton Kershaw||$215 million||2014-2020|
|7. Prince Fielder||$214 million||2012-2020|
|8. Derek Jeter||$189 million||2001-2010|
|9. Joe Mauer||$184 million||2011-2018|
|10. (tie) Mark Teixeira||$180 million||2009-2016|
|10. (tie) Justin Verlander||$180 million||2009-2016|
|12. Felix Hernandez||$175 million||2013-2019|
|13. Buster Posey||$167 million||2013-2021|
|14. C.C. Sabathia||$161 million||2009-2015|
|15. (tie) Manny Ramirez||$160 million||2001-2008|
|15. (tie) Matt Kemp||$160 million||2012-2019|
|17. Troy Tulowitzki||$157.8 million||2011-2020|
|18. Adrian Gonzalez||$154 million||2012-2018|
|19. Jacoby Ellsbury||$153 million||2014-2020|
|20. Miguel Cabrera||$152.3 million||2008-2015|
|21. Zack Greinke||$147 million||2013-2018|
|22. Cole Hamels||$144 million||2013-2018|
|23. Carl Crawford||$142 million||2011-2017|
|24. Todd Helton||$141.5 million||2003-2011|
|25. David Wright||$138 million||2013-2020|
The $200 million club has two phantom members, Jeter and Manny Ramirez, whose 2001 deals qualify them after inflation adjustment. Boston gave Ramirez $160 million over eight years, which would be worth $210.6 million today. In a fluid market, an adjusted $200 million club should have gained ever-increasing numbers of new members each year. But with an inflation calculator, I formed such a club (plus a Top 25 adjusted contracts for all time) and ended up with three players from 2001 and no new names until the Angels anted up $240 million for Albert Pujols in 2012.
Inflation-adjusted list of MLB's largest contracts:
|Name, (contract year)||2013 value, in millions|
|1. Alex Rodriguez (2001)||$332.2|
|2. Alex Rodriguez (2008)||$297.7|
|3. Derek Jeter (2001)||$248.8|
|4. Albert Pujols (2012)||$243.6|
|5. Robinson Cano (2014)||$240|
|6. Joey Votto (2014)||$225|
|7. Prince Fielder (2012)||$217.2|
|8. Clayton Kershaw (2014)||$215|
|9. Manny Ramirez (2001)||$210.6|
|10. Mark Teixeira (2009)||$195.5|
|11. Joe Mauer (2011)||$190.6|
|12. Justin Verlander (2013)||$180|
|13. Todd Helton 2003||$179.2|
|14. Felix Hernandez (2013)||$175|
|15. CC Sabathia (2009)||$174.9|
|16. Buster Posey (2013)||$167|
|17. Miguel Cabrera (2008)||$164.5|
|18. Matt Kemp (2012)||$162.4|
|19. Troy Tulowitzki (2011)||$160|
|x 20. Mike Hampton (2001)||$159.3 ($121)|
|x 21. Ken Griffey Jr. (2000)||$157.7 ($116.5)|
|x 22.Jason Giambi (2001)||$155.4 ($120)|
|23. Jacoby Ellsbury (2014)||$153|
|x 24. Alfonso Soriano (2007)||$152.8 ($136)|
|x 25. Johan Santana (2008)||$148.8 ($137.5)|
Note: The five players with x's next to their names do not appear on the accompanying list of the Top 25 contracts based on values unadjusted for inflation. The contract figures in parentheses represent the value of the deal at the time of signing, or nominal value.
During the intervening years, baseball's revenue growth outpaced inflation by a substantial margin. That should have pushed recent players' compensation higher than what their predecessors earned in real dollars. Among the very elite, however, that has not happened. In fact, inflation adjustment moves five deals from the last three years out of the Top 25 all-time and replaces them with deals struck in 2000 (Ken Griffey Jr.), 2001 (Mike Hampton), 2002 (Jason Giambi), 2007 (Alfonso Soriano) and 2008 (Johan Santana).
Possible explanations include:
• The 2002 labor agreement, which introduced the luxury tax, a deterrent to lavish contracts, and increased revenue sharing, which limited the richest teams in the free-agency market.
• The deals of Hampton and Soriano served as cautionary tales to other GMs.
• See the first bullet item again.
Since four of the top 25 inflation-adjusted contracts are from 2001, it's tempting to wonder there was an A-Rod effect. Jeter's contract may have been influenced by the Rangers' excesses. He didn't sign until two months after A-Rod did. Previous negotiations had failed in part because George Steinbrenner, hoping to fend off the luxury-tax proposal, did not want to antagonize his adversaries by handing out a record-breaking contract. Hicks and A-Rod gave him cover.
But Hampton signed before A-Rod, and Ramirez signed on the same day. There still could have been a ripple effect to A-Rod leaving Seattle and entering the market. He was a special athlete, and he appeared to be the face of a game that needed a face that could compete with Kobe Bryant's. Every general manager knew something big was coming. Even if they didn't want to pursue A-Rod, some may have felt pressure to make a bold gesture.
And here we are 13 years later, aware that he never had the potential to become a truly transformative figure in the game and still overwhelmed by the enormity of the deal he cut with the Rangers. A value of $332.2 million today. What would Hicks have offered if Texas had a state income tax?
We're getting into murky territory here because the inflation-adjusted contract number does not represent the buying power of A-Rod's old contract. (Since he did not receive it in a lump sum, the $252 million would presumably have lost value to inflation as it was disbursed over time.) The $332.2 million represents what a team owner today would have to pay to match Hicks' offer.
In the end, it's just a simple way to compare contracts from different time periods. As with most comparisons, this one leaves A-Rod in the lead, and all by himself.