When Miguel Cabrera signed a 10-year contract extension at the end of March with the Detroit Tigers, it pretty much guaranteed that he would be the highest-paid player in Major League Baseball following 2015 — at least for now. He’ll make around $30 million per year under his new contract, and only Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, whose contract extension similarly has yet to kick in, will be close.
But Cabrera and Kershaw — each dominant year in and year out thus far in their careers — have a few more seasons left on their current contracts. Although they earn in the low $20 millions per season now, they’re currently not atop the MLB’s highest-paid players — in fact, not even in the top 10 for 2014. There’s no doubt they both will be very soon, but until that time comes, other players get to share the title of highest-paid in the league.
Since there is no salary cap in baseball, the market for contracts has been steadily increasing over the past few years —we see this in middling players receiving multimillion dollar deals. ESPN released a list of the highest-paid athletes in the world for their respective sports a week ago that includes salary and endorsements. Alongside that, here are the six best-paid players (this season alone) in the MLB.
1. Zack Greinke, $28 million
To say that Greinke hit the free agency market at an ideal time would be like saying that if you bought Microsoft stock in the ’80s, you did so at an ideal time. Greinke signed a six-year deal that was worth $147 million prior to last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. His 2014 salary of $28 million easily puts him atop this list, but he won’t be for long after Kershaw and Cabrera’s new extensions kick in.
The factors that led to Greinke’s contract are unique — again, the market was the main factor behind the high number. First, elite starters were in high demand that offseason; that coincided with a low supply of elite starting pitching. In turn, just like any economy with low supply and high demand, the price rose and Greinke got a record contract. It also didn’t hurt his cause that the Dodgers had a “spend now, ask questions later” mentality and were going to spend as much as it took to get the best.
Now, Greinke’s contract wasn’t unwarranted … well, at least not completely. He won the American League Cy Young award in 2009 with the Kansas City Royals, and has finished four seasons with more than 15 wins in his 11 years as a professional. While his ERA and win-loss record hasn’t always been impeccable, he’s played for teams that neither gave him run support nor a strong defense. Sure, maybe Greinke isn’t worth $28 million when you consider some other elite pitchers and their current salaries, but he entered free agency at the right time while he was pitching his best, and he got rewarded for that.
2. Ryan Howard, $25 million [tie]
In 2010, the power-hitting Howard signed a contract extension with the Philadelphia Phillies that would keep him there until 2016 or even 2017. The extension was one of the richest of its kind — and justly so, too, since the first baseman had hit 40 or more home runs and 100 or more RBIs each of the four prior seasons. But Howard hasn’t been the same since — just another example of a long, rich contract gone bad.
After a string of injuries in 2012, Howard has been plagued ever since. Compared to the 455 games he played from 2009 to 2011, Howard has appeared in just 151 games these past two years. There’s no doubt that he has the ability to change a game or season if his bat can regain the power it once had, but he has to stay healthy first; that’s the catch. Currently, there’s no doubt that Philadelphia’s front office is regretting the contract.
2. Cliff Lee, $25 million [tie]
Lee is tied with Howard — his teammate in Philadelphia — for second on this list, and both signed their current contracts around the same time. Lee, who starting in 2004 put together a string of impressive seasons with the Cleveland Indians all the way until 2009, had everything an elite pitcher needed: He was a dominant lefty with a deep repertoire of pitches. After winning the Cy Young award in 2008 — most notably in a landslide, having went 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA — he was in high demand.
But he bounced around as trade bait for the next few seasons, only to settle down with Philadelphia in 2011. While he hasn’t put up amazing numbers (maybe not $25 million-per-year impressive, at least), Lee has been consistent, and that can be difficult to find in itself. Either way, the 35-year-old ace has proven he’s in this league to stay.
4. Robinson Cano, $24 million
In somewhat surprising fashion, Cano signed with the Seattle Mariners this offseason. When he hit free agency, there wasn’t any doubt that he was going to get a big contract. It was just that the source was somewhat surprising: Seattle hadn’t doled out that much money before. Sure, if the Yankees or Red Sox or Dodgers made that kind of signing, it’s just another day at the office. Needless to say, Cano is worth the money. He’s a power-hitting second baseman — a rare find. He’s won two Gold Gloves (2010 and 2012), is usually good for at least 20 home runs and around 100 RBIs, and only twice in his nine seasons has hit below .300. Cano’s the guy you want as your franchise’s second baseman for the long run while attempting to revitalize a franchise.
5. Prince Fielder, $24 million
Fielder’s a unique addition to this list. While his contract was signed with the Detroit Tigers, he currently is with the Texas Rangers in what appeared to be a money-saving move by Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski. No team is paying him the full $24 million per year; as part of the two teams’ deal, the Rangers took the brunt of the salary, but not all of it. That doesn’t mean Fielder is making any less, though — $24 million is $24 million, whoever’s paying the bills.
And he’s earned it, even if it’s just for his health. Going back to 2006, when Fielder was with the Brewers, he has missed a combined 13 games. That means that he has played in 1,283 during that stretch — an utterly impressive statistic. Though he’s a power hitter who doesn’t hit great for average (usually around .280, though sometimes higher), he’s always good for upwards of 25 home runs per season and 100 RBIs. Maybe he disappears in the playoffs — just ask Tigers fans — but his constant production for all 162 games puts him this high on the list.
6. Cole Hamels, $23.5 million
The third and final Phillies player on this list, Hamels and Lee make a very elite one-two punch. He’s a power pitcher with a high strikeout rate, and unlike Lee, Hamels is a homegrown product — he’s played all eight of his MLB seasons in Philadelphia. While Hamels is currently injured, he has been somewhat stable in that department for most of his career. Though he has yet to win a Cy Young award, he’s reached 10 wins six times and 200 strikeouts — not an easy feat — three times in his career. Prior to his new contract, in 2012, his stats were trending upwards, which was the likely cause of the Phillies doing everything in their power to keep him in town.