During the 2010 season, the average salary of a Major League Baseball player topped $3 million for the first time, according to the MLB Players Association. Of course, some players earned much more. With apologies to Carlos Lee, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Beltran, and the other 6 billion of us who missed the cut, here are the 10 highest paid players in Major League Baseball for the 2011 season.
10. Roy Halladay, Phillies ($20 million)
Much like writing by hand, navigating without GPS, and making two-dimensional movies, the complete game is a dying art. In 1999, Randy Johnson led the majors in complete games with 12 — a number that would’ve been pedestrian in the 1970s, subpar in the 1940s, and laughable in the 1910s. Yet no one has reached a dozen since. Only Halladay, with nine each of the last three seasons, seems to have even an outside shot. Not only are his 34 complete games since 2007 easily the most in baseball during that span (CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee are tied for second with 18), but only one other active pitcher (Livan Hernandez) has more than 34 career complete games.
Whether any of the salaries on this list are deserved is highly debatable, but Halladay might have the most compelling argument. He’s essentially a starting pitcher, a handful of middle relievers, and an emergency closer, all in one.
9. Ryan Howard, Phillies ($20 million)
A relic from the days before the Phillies decided to spend an absurd amount of money on pitching, Howard’s primary contribution is to hit an absurd amount of home runs. In 2007, Howard, having played only 325 games, set a major league record for fastest to reach 100 home runs, and has continued to break similar records at 50 home run intervals. The latest milestone was in September 2010, when he hit his 250th in his 855th game.
Of course, he’s also annually among the league leaders in strikeouts, but who cares? Dingers!
8. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers ($20 million)
Born in 1983, Cabrera is the second-youngest player in the top ten (losing out to Joe Mauer by one day). And like so many other promising young players, he was traded out of South Florida in a cost-cutting move by the Marlins.
Cabrera established high expectations during his time with the Marlins, but he’s been as good, if not better, with the Tigers. His on-field contributions last season put him in the top three in the majors in several newfangled statistical measures, including OPS, adjusted OPS, WPA, and VORP. As for his off-field contributions … let’s just move on.
7. Todd Helton, Rockies ($20.3 million)
This one comes with an asterisk. In 2010, Helton and the Rockies negotiated a two-year extension, and as part of the deal $13.1 million of Helton’s 2011 salary will be deferred until after his current contract expires in 2013, at which point a decade-long payment plan will kick in.
So, only a few years after they finally stopped paying Mike Hampton, the Rockies agreed to pay Todd Helton until 2023. By the way, Todd Helton will turn 50 in 2023.
6. Johan Santana, Mets ($21.6 million)
At the end of the 2007 season, Johan Santana had spent six full seasons in Minnesota establishing himself as a star, and it was time to cash in. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Santana would wind up with the Yankees or Red Sox, who were jockeying for the league lead in precedent-setting spending sprees. But then the Mets stepped up, determined to prove that they can recklessly throw money around with the best of them. They haven’t made the playoffs since.
5. Joe Mauer, Twins ($23 million)
Speaking of players who parlayed early success with the small-market Twins into a long-term, big-money offer from a team with some cash to throw around, Mauer is in the first year of an eight-year, $184 million contract. The difference is he didn’t have to leave the Twins, who’ve apparently made some money in the last few years.
More than anyone else in the top ten, Mauer benefits from scarcity, because where else are you going to find a catcher with a career OPS over .840? (Answer: Atlanta, but that’s about it.)
4. Mark Teixeira, Yankees ($23.1 million)Teixeira was involved in two consecutive midseason trades — from the Rangers to the Braves in 2007, then from the Braves to the Angels in 2008 — before he finally found a steady gig as one-fourth of the most expensive infield in baseball history. He’s also an excellent example of how a player can be both undeniably good and overvalued at the same time. According to Baseball-Reference.com, at this point in his career Teixeira is most similar to Carlos Delgado, Jeff Bagwell, and Fred McGriff — three players who practically define really-good-but-not-quite-great.
Here’s an interesting tidbit to put Teixeira’s salary and the Yankees’ huge payroll in perspective. At $23.1 million per year, Teixeira is the third-highest paid player on his team. That puts him in the company of Ben Zobrist (Rays, $4.5 million), Orlando Hudson (Padres, $4 million), and Kyle Davies (Royals, $3.2 million).
3. CC Sabathia, Yankees ($24.3 million)
In July of 2008, Sabathia was traded to the Brewers, and proceeded to spend three months pitching better than ever before in his life. He went 14-3 with a 1.65 ERA, a 5.12 K/BB ratio, and an unheard of (unless you’ve heard of Roy Halladay or any pitcher from the 20th century) seven complete games, including three shutouts.
When he signed a seven-year, $161 million contract in the ensuing offseason, Sabathia became the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history, and the Yankees proved they either don’t understand the concept of buying low and selling high, or just have too much money to care.
2. Vernon Wells, Angels ($26.2 million)
After the 2006 season, Vernon Wells signed one of the most baffling contracts in recent memory — a seven-year extension, beginning in 2008, worth $126 million. Wells had played five full seasons, earning two All-Star selections and a total of 87 MVP votes, the high water mark being his eighth-place finish in 2003. Basically, Wells was on track for a career reminiscent of the great Brian Jordan, who, it’s safe to say, even adjusting for inflation, was never offered $126 million.
Making things worse, the Blue Jays backloaded the contract. For the first few years, Wells’ salary was fairly reasonable, but in 2010 it shot up to $15.7 million, and will exceed $20 million every year from 2011 through 2014. The Blue Jays were in dire straits. They needed a miracle, and they got one from, naturally, the Angels, who not only traded for Wells, but agreed to take on almost all of the remaining obligations under the contract.
1. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees ($32 million)
Alex Rodriguez has accomplished a lot of incredible things. Three American League MVP awards. Thirteen all-star selections. He’s led the AL in runs scored six times, home runs five times, slugging percentage four times, and OPS twice. But perhaps the most impressive is this: For nine of the last 11 seasons, Rodriguez has led the majors in salary.
In 2000, Rodriguez signed a contract worth $252 million over ten years. At the time, it was the largest in sports history, and it would soon come to be seen as the proverbial opening of the floodgates. In successive years, dozens of players signed for dollar amounts that made whatever we would’ve considered exorbitant in the 1990s look modest by comparison. Yet somehow Rodriguez’s quarter-billion-dollar contract held on to the record until 2007, when it was finally topped by a 10-year contract worth a staggering $275 million … signed by Alex Rodriguez.