Another three $200-million contracts were added to MLB payrolls this offseason, so let’s break down how well the others have played out.
When it comes to professional sports contracts, MLB remains undefeated in terms of overall earning potential for its top stars.
MLB is the only league in the U.S. without a salary cap and offers limited restrictions on how much teams can spend besides a lenient luxury tax that many of the wealthiest teams have usually been willing to pay. There has never been a $200-million guaranteed contract in the NFL or NHL, and the NBA’s first $200-million deal was not signed until 2017. Of the 25 most lucrative contracts ever signed by a professional athlete, 21 were signed by an MLB star.
With the addition of Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon to the $200-million club this offseason, there have now been 18 players in MLB history to sign for more than $200 million, including Alex Rodriguez, who got to do it twice. Twelve of the 18 mega-deals have gone to position players, but Cole now has the record for highest annual salary.
Every single one of these megadeals stretches past the player’s prime production years, opening up plenty of risk to the teams. NBA contracts for the biggest stars are comparable in terms of average salary, but do not stretch past four or five seasons. MLB’s megacontracts are the riskiest agreements in professional sports, but the league also generates more revenue based on the sheer volume of games it plays each year.
It’s obviously too early to render judgement on Cole, Rendon and Strasburg’s contracts, but the remaining 15 are fair game. Let’s dive in and break down which of these huge MLB contracts have worked out for the team and which will be remembered as colossal busts.
15. Zack Greinke, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks and Houston Astros
The Terms: Six years, $206.5 million
There will come a time when the city of Phoenix is able to consistently support a professional sports team that consistently spends among the wealthiest teams in the league. It’s a rapidly-growing market, but is still a few years away from being in the upper, upper echelon of sports markets.
Can’t blame the Arizona Diamondbacks for trying, though. They came out of nowhere to sign Zack Greinke to a six-year deal for $206.5 million after the 2015 season. Greinke was coming off a 19-3 season with a 1.66 ERA. His deal set the record for highest annual salary at the time.
It was evident almost immediately that the Diamondbacks had bitten off more than they could chew with Greinke’s contract.
Despite the high price tag that crippled the franchise financially, there’s no argument to be made that Greinke didn’t live up to the deal. He was 55-29 with a 3.40 ERA in parts of four seasons with Arizona, made the All-Star Game three times and won three Gold Gloves before being traded to the Houston Astros at the deadline in 2019.
When it’s all said and done, it’s hard to find too much fault with Greinke’s contract. He remains on track to reach the Hall of Fame, helped the Diamondbacks to the playoffs in 2017 and ultimately netted them a handful of solid prospects. Arizona has been able to rebuild on the fly without ripping their roster apart entirely.
14. Max Scherzer, SP, Washington Nationals
The Terms: Seven years, $210 million
Max Scherzer was viewed with skepticism by the Old School Baseball Industrial Complex when he entered free agency after the 2014 season. Imagine being prepared to offer a starting pitcher with only one complete game in seven MLB seasons a massive contract. Just imagine!
Despite the concerns over Scherzer’s perceived lack of durability — and there should have been none given the fact that the right-hander had made at least 30 starts in all six of his full seasons in the big leagues — the Washington Nationals bit the bullet and signed Scherzer for seven years and $210 million, with $50 million in deferred money paid out over 14 years.
Scherzer is down to the final two years of his contract, and it’s hard to argue the Nationals haven’t already gotten their money’s worth.
Here’s a quick rundown of everything Scherzer has accomplished since signing his deal. He has gone 79-39 with a 2.74 ERA, 11.7 strikeouts per nine, 0.942 WHIP, generated 34.9 WAR, thrown nine complete games, two no-hitters, a 20-strikeout game, picked up his second and third Cy Young awards and has finished in the top five of the vote every year. Scherzer was 3-0 in the 2019 playoffs with a 2.40 ERA in 30 innings as the Nats won their first title.
Over the last five years, Scherzer is second in the big leagues in wins, first in innings pitched, second in strikeouts per nine among starters, first in WAR, first in strikeouts by over 100, second in WHIP and third in FIP.
Scherzer was paid to be the best pitcher in the National League, and he has more than lived up to it, also helping to create an intense culture of winning in Washington. He’s a future Hall of Famer and will go in wearing a Nationals hat on his plaque.
13. Prince Fielder, 1B/DH, Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers
The Terms: Nine years, $214 million
When Prince Fielder signed with the Detroit Tigers after the 2011 season, he was one of the brightest young sluggers in the game.
Fielder was set to enter his age-28 season, coming off seven years with the Milwaukee Brewers where he hit .282/.390/.540 with 200 doubles, 230 home runs, 656 RBI and 566 walks. He hit 50 home runs in 2007, led the major leagues in RBI in 2009 and had three top-five finishes in the NL MVP vote.
Fielder’s deal was one of the largest ever for a hitter when he signed it, but the Tigers felt confident in the big first baseman’s durability. Despite his body type, Fielder had averaged 160 games in his six full MLB seasons prior to hitting free agency. There was some risk in signing a 275-pound first baseman to a huge contract, but the Tigers felt he was destined to age somewhat gracefully.
Things got off to a great start for Fielder in Detroit. He hit .313/.412/.528 with 30 home runs and 108 RBI in his first season in the Motor City, helping propel the Tigers to the World Series.
Fielder delivered another 25 homers and 106 RBI in 2013, but saw his OPS drop by over 120 points. With their roster getting too pricey, the Tigers flipped Fielder to the Texas Rangers in November 2013, getting back Ian Kinsler and $30 million.
Unfortunately, Fielder’s career was derailed almost immediately in Texas. He played only 42 games in 2014, hitting just .247/.360/.360 with three home runs and 16 RBI. Fielder recovered from his neck surgery to hit 23 home runs and drive in 98 in 158 games in 2015, but his neck troubles returned in July of 2016.
Fielder was ultimately forced to retire at the age of 32 with 319 career home runs, 1,028 RBI and a .283/.382/.506 batting line. He hit only .283/.369/.453 with 89 home runs and 372 RBI in parts of five seasons of his nine-year contract.
12. Clayton Kershaw, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Terms: Seven years, $215 million
The Dodgers and left-hander Clayton Kershaw came to terms on a seven-year, $215-million contract extension in 2014. Kershaw and the Dodgers came back to the negotiating table in 2018 to hammer out a mini three-year, $93-million agreement.
The lefty could have opted out of his original deal after five years, but decided not to hold the Dodgers over the barrel and squeezed out only $28 million more. That’s not chump change, but it pales in comparison to Stephen Strasburg’s new contract.
The 31-year-old Kershaw is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career. He is 169-74 with a 2.44 ERA and has won three NL Cy Youngs, the pitching Triple Crown in 2011 and the 2014 NL MVP. Kershaw’s peak years ran from 2013 to 2016 when he posted a 65-23 record with a 1.88 ERA and a 300-strikeout season.
Kershaw is entering what may be the back end of his prime. He has failed to make 30 starts in four straight seasons and five of the last six. When healthy, he remains one of the best starters in the league, but no longer the undisputed top dog. Kershaw is 43-14 over the last three years with a 2.69 ERA, but is just a shade below his early-career levels of domination.
For Kershaw and the Dodgers, the contracts can’t be judged as anything but a fair deal for both sides. Kershaw was never paid top dollar in free agency, cutting the Dodgers a break. All that’s left to do now is conquer his playoff demons once and for all and bring the franchise its first World Series in over 30 years.
11. David Price, SP, Boston Red Sox
The Terms: Seven years, $217 million
The David Price Era in Boston got off to a smashing start, as the left-hander had a 5.11 ERA at the end of his first two months with the Red Sox. Price would go on to salvage the 2016 season, finishing on a 12-8 run with a 3.46 ERA over his last 27 starts and 182 innings. He led the major leagues with 35 starts and 230 innings pitched, his third season in a row with over 220 innings of work.
Turns out, all those innings may not have been the best thing for Price’s left elbow. By the age of 30, Price had already thrown 1671.2 regular-season innings. Being a workhorse is great when you’re young, but doesn’t bode so well for peak performance through your age-36 season. Price started the 2017 season on the injured list, before returning to throw only 74.2 innings in 16 games. His workload was rolled back to 176 innings in 2018, before he spent most of 2019 on the injured list and made only 22 starts.
Through his first four years with the Red Sox, Price is 46-24 with a 3.84 ERA and has averaged only 24 starts and 147 innings per season. He has not looked like an ace at any point, and did not exercise his opt-out clause after the first three years of his deal.
It’s not that Price has been terrible for the Red Sox — when healthy — but he has not lived up to his contract. The Red Sox were forced to cough up a massive contract for Chris Sale because they could not count on Price to carry a staff. Doing so has all but ruled out the possibility of finding a way to keep Mookie Betts when he hits free agency.
10. Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati Reds
The Terms: 10 years, $225 million
Six-time All-Star Joey Votto was happy to commit to Cincinnati instead of going out into the free-agent market. He agreed to a 10-year, $225-million extension in April 2012, two years before he would have been set to enter the open market.
The total value of the 12-year agreement came to $251.5 million, making Votto the highest-paid player in Reds history and the highest-paid athlete ever from Canada. The Reds also have a team option for the 2024 season at $20 million. If they decline the option, they will have to pay Votto an additional $7 million.
When Votto signed the contract in 2012, the Reds were in the midst of a stretch of contention. They won the NL Central in 2010 and 2012 and claimed the second Wild Card spot in 2013. That all came before Votto’s extension kicked in, and the team has not made the playoffs or had a winning record over the first six years of the deal.
The lack of winning isn’t Votto’s fault. He has hit .298/.424/.496 with 177 doubles, 127 home runs, 414 RBI and 616 walks. Votto has led the major leagues in walks twice and on-base percentage twice. He also finished second in the NL MVP vote in 2017 while hitting .320/.454/.578 with 36 home runs and 100 RBI.
Entering his age-36 season, however, Votto appears to be slowing down. He has hit just .272/.387/.415 over the past two years.
The Reds are approaching what they believe is the end of their rebuild. For as good as Votto has been his entire career, it’s possible a lengthy rebuild could have been avoided by not paying the first baseman. The Reds are not a team that can afford to spend on a supporting cast with their star on a $200-million contract.
9. Robinson Cano, 2B, Seattle Mariners and New York Mets
The Terms: 10 years, $240 million
When he left the New York Yankees to sign with the Seattle Mariners, it was clear Robinson Cano was only after the money. He was able to parlay Seattle’s desperation to sign a superstar into a contract that runs through his age-40 season.
Cano struck it big at just the right time, a year or two before teams got wise to the risks of handing out 10-year contracts to players entering their thirties.
Cano’s contract was destined for failure from the jump. He regretted leaving New York for rainy Seattle almost immediately and saw his power numbers drop off a cliff after leaving Yankee Stadium. Cano hit .314/.382/.454 with 14 home runs and 82 RBI in his first year in Seattle. The Mariners tried their best to surround Cano with the type of talent required to push themselves over the hump, but could never quite get there in one of the most difficult divisions in the league.
After settling in with Seattle, Cano hit .289/.341/.478 with 83 home runs and 279 RBI from 2015 to 2017. Those are respectable numbers, but hardly worth $24 million per year. Cano got off to a hot start in 2018, but was suspended 80 games after testing positive for PEDs in May. Seattle dumped the final half of Cano’s contract on the New York Mets before the 2019 season.
A return to New York City does not appear to have lit a fire under Cano. He played only 107 games in his first year with the Mets and hit just .256/.307/.428 with 13 home runs and 39 RBI and had his level of effort questioned on multiple occasions.
Cano still has a chance to go down as one of the best offensive second basemen ever, but his contract is a bust and his legacy will be tainted by his positive drug test.
8. Albert Pujols, 1B/DH, Los Angeles Angels
The Terms: 10 years, $240 million
When aging sluggers in future free-agent classes don’t find much interest in their services, they’ll have Hall of Famer Albert Pujols to thank. There’s no denying that Pujols is a future Hall of Famer, one who could retire with 3,000 hits and 700 home runs, but his contract with the Angels has been a colossal bust.
The Angels took the plunge on a 10-year deal with Pujols on the cusp of his age-32 season, guaranteeing him $240 million through his age-41 season. Eight years of the deal are done, and the Angels still owe Pujols $59 million and an extra $10 million over the next decade for a personal services contract. Pujols has been in sharp decline the entire length of the contract, but the Angels are stuck paying him because he isn’t going to retire now.
When the Angels signed Pujols, he was a three-time MVP with a .328/.420/.617 line and 445 home runs. Eight years later, he is a .300/.379/.549 hitter. Pujols has hit just .258/.314/.450 with the Angels and has made only one All-Star team. He has not hit over .300 in a season, but does have four 100-RBI seasons, which is more a function of hitting behind Mike Trout, who is always on base.
This contract is an unmitigated disaster for the Angels. The presence of Pujols, along with several other bad contracts, has forced ownership to limit its spending on a supporting cast for Trout, who has been to the playoffs just once.
There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but this will be remembered as one of the worst contracts in MLB history.
7. Miguel Cabrera, 1B/DH, Detroit Tigers
The Terms: Eight years, $248 million
After trading away Prince Fielder to save money, the Tigers threw it right back into aging first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Apparently they were not paying attention to the rapid declines of Fielder and Pujols. No one thinks their iconic, big-body first baseman is going to age poorly until it happens.
Cabrera’s huge extension kicked in after the 2015 season, paying him a record amount for a position player at the time. Including the final two years left on his original contract, the Tigers committed $292 million to Cabrera over ten years.
Cabrera had hit .326/.406/.574 in his first eight seasons in Detroit, with 270 home runs and 922 RBI, winning a Triple Crown, two MVP awards and four batting titles in the process. Cabrera hit .338/.440/.534 in 2015, but played only 119 games due to a calf injury.
The calf injury in 2015 marked the first time Cabrera had been on the injured list in his career, but it was a sign of things to come. He came back strong in 2016 to hit .316/.393/.563 with 38 home runs and 108 RBI. Cabrera has battled back, biceps and knee injuries over the last three years, playing just 304 games and hitting .270/.345/.404 with 31 home runs and 141 RBI.
The Tigers owe Cabrera $124 million over the next four years, and there is no sign that he will be able to perform even remotely close to replacement level. The contract is crippling the franchise and will hang over the rebuilding process. Detroit’s best hope is that Cabrera considers retiring shortly after reaching 3,000 hits and 500 home runs.
6. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies
The Terms: Eight years, $260 million
At a time when almost every mid-market team with a young star — and even some of the big-market franchises — is contemplating trading him away before free agency, it was refreshing to see the Rockies go all in on franchise cornerstone Nolan Arenado last year (even if now they seem to be wavering).
Arenado was a year away from free agency when he signed his $260-million extension. Along with Charlie Blackmon, the Rockies have committed over $300 million to keep their two biggest stars.
The Rockies are trying to build a consistent winner, something that has eluded the franchise since it joined the league in 1993. Colorado has had several spurts of winning, but none have lasted more than two or three seasons due to the challenges that come with trying to put together a pitching staff and lineup that can hold up at altitude and at sea level.
Arenado has become the heart and soul of baseball in Colorado, so it made sense to find the money to keep him. He is the best defensive third baseman in the league and has won the Gold Glove in all seven of his MLB seasons. Arenado has hit .295/.351/.546 with 227 home runs and 734 RBI. His home-road splits are not as severe as some past Coors Field warriors.
The ultimate success of this contract will depend on how much the Rockies are willing to spend on Arenado’s surrounding cast. After making the playoffs in 2017 and 2018, the team backslid to a 71-91 record in 2019, with nearly every one of their young starting pitchers struggling massively.
Arenado will continue to put up huge numbers as long as he plays for the Rockies, but he won’t be able to make up for a pitching staff that allows nearly six runs per game.
5. Alex Rodriguez, SS/3B, New York Yankees and Texas Rangers
The Terms: With Texas — 10 years, $252 million, With New York — 10 years, $275 million
Alex Rodriguez is the only player in MLB history to sign not one but two contracts worth more than $200 million.
He set the record for largest contract ever when he surprisingly picked the Rangers as a free agent in 2000. His $252-million deal was over $60 million more than the next-highest deal at the time and converts to over $360 million in today’s dollars when adjusting for inflation.
Rodriguez was even younger and even more polished than Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were when they entered free agency for the first time. Through his age-24 season, Rodriguez had hit .309/.374/.561 with 189 home runs, 595 RBI and 133 stolen bases. He hit free agency coming off three consecutive years with 40 home runs and 100 RBI and joined the 40-40 club in 1998. Rodriguez was the definition of a five-tool player.
Unfortunately for the Rangers, all the money they had spent on Rodriguez prevented them from filling out the rest of their roster around them. He led the major leagues in home runs for three straight years, but the Rangers never came close to sniffing the playoffs. In three years with the Rangers, A-Rod hit .309/.395/.615 with 156 home runs and 395 RBI.
The Rangers jumped on their chance to move Rodriguez’s massive contract after the 2003 season, when Yankees third baseman Aaron Boone suffered an injury playing pickup basketball. A-Rod agreed to move to third base even though he was the better defensive shortstop over Derek Jeter. Rodriguez hit .303/.403/.573 his first four seasons with the Yankees, winning two MVPs. He hit .314/.422/.645 with 56 home runs and 156 RBI in 2007, the best year of his career.
After the 2007 season, Rodriguez opted out of his original contract and signed a new deal with the Yankees for $275 million that would pay him through his age-42 season. He had courted controversy on several occasions in his career, but the worst was yet to come.
In 2009, Rodriguez admitted to using steroids from 2001 to 2003. His numbers also began to decline, and he hit just .273/.363/.479 from 2009 to 2013, battling multiple injuries. The biggest scandal of A-Rod’s career came at the end of 2013, when he was suspended through the end of the 2014 season for his role in the Biogenesis doping ring and subsequent coverup.
A-Rod served his entire suspension and returned to hit .250/.356/.486 in 2015 with 33 home runs and 86 RBI in 151 games. Injuries returned in 2016, and Rodriguez retired in August after hitting .200/.247/.351 in 65 games.
He retired with 3,115 hits, 696 home runs and 2,086 RBI. Rodriguez’s entire legacy is clouded by his two doping admissions. He only won one World Series title with the Yankees and failed repeatedly in the playoffs.
4. Manny Machado, SS, San Diego Padres
The Terms: 10 years, $300 million
San Diego is an emerging big market, but the Padres decided not to wait around for it to get there. They’ve signed Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado to nine-figure contracts over the last two winters and continue to stay aggressive.
Hosmer’s contract was not a huge surprise. Teams like the Padres have overpaid for flawed free agents in the past. Seeing Machado sign for $300 million, however, was a big surprise.
There’s a sense that Machado was happy to go to the highest bidder, regardless of who it was. The Padres don’t have a history of winning, but their young core is coming together quickly. The city of San Diego also sells itself pretty darn well. If the Padres made the best offer, then there’s no blaming Machado for taking it.
Machado’s first season with the Padres can only be classified as underwhelming. He hit just .256/.334/.462 with 21 doubles, 32 home runs and 85 RBI. He also led the major leagues by grounding into 24 doubles plays. After insisting in 2018 that he would play shortstop, Machado moved back to third base and played the majority of his games at his best position.
This was a risky deal for the Padres to sign. Despite his highlight reel potential, Machado does have several glaring weaknesses to his game. He is not one to draw a walk and his approach at the plate can break down when he gets homer happy. His maturity has also been questioned repeatedly.
If the Padres want this deal to work for them, they’ll have to keep coming up with more money to surround Machado with All-Star players.
3. Giancarlo Stanton, OF/DH, Miami Marlins and New York Yankees
The Terms: 13 years, $325 million
It should have been obvious to everyone that Giancarlo Stanton would never play out all 13 years of his $325-million contract with the Marlins, but it was something nice for the notoriously cheap franchise to point to in an effort to convince the taxpayers in Miami, who were footing the bill for the new monstrosity of a stadium, that the team was serious about winning.
Stanton’s deal was the longest and richest in professional sports history when he signed it.
Stanton’s contract included an opt-out clause after the sixth year, but he never made it that far.
The Marlins traded him to the Yankees after his 59-homer season in 2017, setting off a massive salary dump that saw them trade away Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and J.T. Realmuto over a two-year period. Stanton is the second player in MLB history to be traded on the heels of a 50-homer season. The Yankees agreed to pay almost all of Stanton’s remaining contract, and it is unlikely that he will exercise his opt-out clause after the 2020 season.
The first two years in New York for Stanton can only be considered a disappointment. He hit .266/.343/.509 with 38 home runs and 100 RBI in 2018 and played only 18 games in 2019 while dealing with various nagging injuries. Stanton struck out 211 times in 2018 and hit only .288/.403/.492 with three home runs and 13 RBI in his abbreviated 2019 campaign.
By the time his deal runs its course, Stanton will likely become one of the worst contracts in the league. Stanton has already had difficulty staying healthy and is signed through his age-38 season. He has also had a hard time handling the pressure and scrutiny that comes with having a massive contract in New York.
2. Bryce Harper, OF, Philadelphia Phillies
The Terms: 13 years, $330 million
Leading up to his free agency, there was widespread speculation that Bryce Harper would be the first player in MLB history to command a contract for more than $400 million.
That speculation began all the way back in 2015, when Harper was putting together an age-22 season for the ages, hitting .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs and 99 RBI for an underachieving Nationals squad. Harper won the MVP that year with numbers from a young player not seen since the days of Mickey Mantle, but an inconsistent next three seasons ended his chances at a $400-million deal.
In the season prior to free agency, Harper hit just .249/.393/.496 with 34 home runs and 100 RBI. The pressure of seeking a mega-deal seemed to weigh on him all year. In the three years after his MVP season, Harper hit .267/.391/.505 with a total of 7.4 WAR. Were it not for that MVP season, he would not have been able to come close to a contract this large.
There was not a robust market for Harper’s services in free agency, with most big-market teams sitting out the bidding.
The Phillies were going to sign either Harper or Manny Machado and went with the outfielder in the end. His first season in Philadelphia yielded mixed results. Harper hit .260/.372/.510 with 35 home runs and 114 RBI, but again appeared to be pressing at times. He picked it up in the second half to hit .270/.376/.564 with 19 home runs and 52 RBI over the final 67 games.
Harper’s first season with the Phillies will be remembered as a disappointment, for him and the franchise, but he has 12 more years to get it right. Ownership has given the green light to spend whatever it takes to win another World Series in Philadelphia, so the supporting cast around Harper will continue to improve.
1. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
The Terms: 12 years, $426.5 million
It’s hard to make the argument that any human being, let alone one whose job is to hit and catch a ball is worth close to half a billion dollars, but Mike Trout might make a compelling counterpoint over the next 12 years.
His $426.5-million extension is the biggest contract in professional sports history. By the time his career is over, Trout will have earned well over $500 million, not counting endorsements, and could join the billionaire athletes club. Considering the fact that he is on track to go down as the best baseball player ever, that seems fair.
With this contract, Trout will never see the open market, which was a crushing blow to Phillies fans who assumed he would be coming home to play with Bryce Harper.
Trout is a three-time MVP before the age of 29 and is somehow still getting better. He hit a career high 45 home runs in 2019 despite playing only 134 games. Trout is the active leader in slugging and OPS and has led the league in on-base percentage four years in a row and in OPS four of the last five years.
For his career, Trout is a .305/.419/.581 hitter with 1,324 hits, 251 doubles, 285 home runs, 752 RBI, 200 stolen bases and 803 walks. If he can continue this level of production into his late thirties, Trout should end his career with over 3,000 hits, 700 home runs and 1,800 walks. Staying power past the end of this contract would allow Trout a shot at the all-time home-run record.
With Anthony Rendon under contract, Trout will finally have a suitable running mate to offer protection in the lineup. His numbers will only continue to get better as he enters his prime, which could last another seven seasons. Trout hasn’t had the opportunity to showcase himself in the postseason, but the Angels are headed in the right direction.