Alex Rodriguez stood alone as baseball’s only $200 million man for a decade, but now he has company. In the last six weeks, the fraternity has tripled with the addition of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. However, Arod still remains firmly planted atop baseball’s all-time salary totem pole.
10 Highest Paid Players in Baseball History, by Total Value and AAV
Note: Roger Clemens signed a pro-rated $28,000,022 deal with the Yankees in 2007, but he was only paid $17,400.000.
Source: Cots Contracts
If anyone was going to top Arod’s $27.5 million average annual salary, it seemed as if Albert Pujols would be the man. However, the new Angels’ first baseman “settled” on a contract that will pay him $24 million over the next 10 years, meaning he not only fell short of Arod’s current deal, but also failed to topple the contract Rodriguez signed with the Rangers in 2001. As a result, the Yankees’ third baseman seems to be a good bet to remain the highest paid player in baseball history for several more years.
Only two other players have had a longer reign as baseball’s all-time highest paid player. Babe Ruth remained atop the financial heap for 29 years, a period that began when he first joined the Yankees in 1920 and continued until 1949, when Ted Williams finally surpassed the $80,000 earned by the Bambino in 1930 and 1931. After the baton passed from the Babe to the Kid, Williams carried it for another 17 years until Willie Mays finally claimed the throne. Between that point and Arod’s mega-$252 million deal in 2001, the title of highest paid player repeatedly changed hands like a hot potato, with some players claiming the distinction for only days.
Yearly Progression of Baseball’s Highest Paid Player
Note: Records for the period before Babe Ruth are not as complete. Salaries represent average annual contract values with bonuses included. In some cases, actual contract values may have been higher or lower based on interest/inflation adjustments and performance incentives. The highest paid designation was awarded to the player with the top average annual salary before the start of each season.
Source: archival newspaper accounts
Because of Ruth’s immense talent, his salary almost became a defacto ceiling for future players’ demands. In addition, the depression and World War II played a role in keeping players’ ambitions in check, as did the imposition of salary limits by the government’s Wage Stabilization Board during the early-1950s. Although players like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio finally surpassed the Babe’s benchmark and broke the $100,000 plateau during this period, it wouldn’t be until the mid-1960s when salaries started rise again.
In 1966, Willie Mays became the highest paid player in baseball history with a salary of $133,000, and then the dominoes started to fall. In the 1970s, a new player became the top man in almost every season, but in 1975, Catfish Hunter put them all to shame. After the 1974 season, Hunter discovered that Athletics’ owner Charley Finley had failed to fund an annuity as stipulated by his contract, so he claimed a breach and was eventually awarded free agency by an arbitrator. Fresh off four consecutive 20-win seasons, Hunter became the subject of a bidding war that was eventually won by George M. Steinbrenner. Hunter’s average contract value of $750,000 (his salary was much lower because of annuity deferments and other consideration) set the stage for the era of free agency that came to a crescendo when Tom Hicks handed out a whopping $252 million contract to Alex Rodriguez 25 years later.
For how much longer will Arod remain baseball’s salary king? This winter, Pujols and Fielder took their best shot at claiming the throne, but came up short. And, with more and more young superstars opting to sign long-term extensions before reaching free agency, it could be awhile before someone surpasses Rodriguez’s average annual salary of $27.5 million (which could wind up being even higher if certain milestone bonuses are achieved). Then again, with baseball enjoying unprecedented economic growth, maybe a $300 million/$30 million man is not that far away?
The Rangers have a hard team to improve. They’re set at just about every position, and in many spots, for years to come. Three of their four infielders — plus DH/UT Michael Young — are under team control through at least 2013. Nelson Cruz and Cuban import Leonys Martin, 2/3 of the outfield, are locked in through then as well. The team’s projected 2012 starting rotation includes just one pitcher, Colby Lewis, who can leave before 2015. Only catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Josh Hamilton can become free agents after 2012, and the team has shown interest in locking up both players beyond that. While the Rangers would like to add a top-tier starting pitcher, they seem to be looking to do that in trade market rather than trying to sign Edwin Jackson, who–despite my case for him–isn’t seen as front-of-the-rotation material. The Rangers also have a good farm system that is particularly deep in pitching backing up the major league roster.
At first base, though, the team has Mitch Moreland splitting time with the veteran Young. Young is primarily a DH now, and his inexperience at first was a key part of the Rangers’ Game 6 loss in the World Series. Moreland is 26 and in a bit over a season’s worth of games has hit .258/.331/.427 in the majors, basically league-average performance. He recently underwent surgery on his right wrist that may limit his performance or availability at the start of 2012. Healthy, Moreland may be an average first baseman; he will never hit in the middle of the order for this team. He’s not someone who blocks Prince Fielder, who would make the Rangers three wins a year better, at minimum, over the next few years.
Meanwhile, the wait for Yu Darvish is on.