One of the most wonderful aspects about professional sports is the idea that men can get paid to play the game they love. It’s certainly true that players need to possess unique skills in order to reach the pro level of any sport, but once they are receiving a paycheck for their play, it’s illogical to assume that their salary will rise (or fall) along with their performance.
In other words, the sporting world is not a meritocracy. Take Major League Baseball for example. If the top-performing players were also the ones getting paid the most, then the team with the biggest payroll (aka, the New York Yankees) would win the World Series every year. But as we see almost every year, that isn’t what happens.
It’s true that past performance plays a role in how well-compensated a given player is, but with all of the quirky rules regarding contracts and salary requirements in MLB, securing a juicy contract is often as much a matter of timing as it is performance. How many times have we seen a player put together a banner season, sign a fat contract, and never achieve that level of success again?
Sports purists believe that a true measure of a player’s worth is the extent to which he helps his team win – especially in the postseason. Under this model, baseball players who have helped their teams win the World Series would be better compensated than their title-less counterparts. But again, this logic fails on a variety of levels.
We could discuss the intricacies and details about why players who have hoisted MLB’s championship trophy aren’t the highest paid ones in the league, but that could take pages and pages of examples. Instead, we’ll just illustrate this phenomenon by listing the players who will earn the highest salaries in 2014 despite never having won a World Series in their career. All numbers were taken from baseballplayersalaries.com and are for their 2014 salaries.
T10. Justin Verlander – Pitcher, Detroit Tigers: $20 Million
There are some who feel that Justin Verlander is the greatest pitcher in Detroit Tigers history. Which may not be saying much for a franchise that has only won four championships, with the last one coming three decades ago. However, given that the righthander’s eight-year career has featured double-digit victories, 30 or more starts, and 200+ innings pitched each season, it’s tempting to place him above such Tigers greats as Jack Morris, Denny McClain, and Hooks Dauss. Verlander has a Cy Young Award and a 2011 MVP trophy to his credit, and he’s only 30 years old. Detroit has reached the playoffs the last three years – could Verlander finally help his club win the title in ’14?
T10. David Wright – Third Baseman, New York Mets: $20 Million
David Wright is the recipient of the largest contract in Mets history, inking an eight-year, $138 million deal in December of 2012. To his credit, he kept up his level of play last season by hitting .307 with an OPS of .904; although he only played 112 games due to a hamstring injury and back issues. But even casual baseball fans know that Wright’s biggest hurdle between him and a championship is the franchise for which he has played his entire career. The Mets haven’t reached the playoffs since 2006 and have finished at least 18 games out of first place in each of the past five seasons.
9. Carl Crawford – Left Fielder, Los Angeles Dodgers: $20.25 Million
Carl Crawford signed a seven-year, $142 million contract with Boston before the 2011 season. He then followed up with a miserable season for the Red Sox, striking out over 100 times, while batting just .255 with only 11 home runs. In 2012, he had surgery on his wrist prior to spring training, began the year on the disabled list, and then played only 30 games in July and August before having season-ending Tommy John surgery and getting traded to the Dodgers. His 2013 campaign began with a hamstring injury and ended with an underwhelming .283 average, 15 stolen bases, and six homers.
T6. Adrian Gonzalez – First Baseman, Los Angeles Dodgers: $21 Million
Adrian Gonzalez had stints with the Marlins, Rangers, and Padres before getting traded to the Red Sox, and then receiving a seven-year contract extension worth $154 million in April of 2011. He followed that signing with his best season ever, batting a whopping .338 with 213 hits and 117 RBIs, all career bests. Since being traded to the Dodgers in 2012 (see a pattern here?), he has posted solid batting numbers that are more in line with his career average of .294. It’s possible that he could anchor LA to its first World Series title since 1988 and break his own personal curse.
T6: Vernon Wells – Outfielder, Nobody: $21 Million
Yes, that’s not a misprint. Vernon Wells was released by the New York Yankees in January and is currently a free agent. However, since he signed a seven-year, $126 million extension when he was with the Toronto Blue Jays way back in December of 2006, he’s still got one more year remaining on that fat contract. And because he wasn’t claimed on waivers after his release, he’s still entitled to that money even if he never dons a uniform in 2014. Ironically, if he were to suit up for another team, he’d have to pay taxes on his salary in the states in which he plays. But since he lives in Texas (which has no state income tax), he won’t be subjected to any of those taxes. Over the last three years with the Yankees and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Wells has posted an embarrassing .226 batting average with a total of just 47 home runs.
T6: Matt Kemp – Center Fielder, Los Angeles Dodgers: $21 Million
At least Matt Kemp didn’t sign a mega-contract with the Red Sox before being traded to the Dodgers like Crawford and Gonzalez did. His $160-million, eight-year extension came after the 2011 season, his sixth in Dodger blue. After securing the deal, Kemp predicted that he would earn the honor of baseball’s first 50-50 player. Instead, he became the umpteenth player to faceplant after making a wild prediction. His home runs and stolen bases in ’12 and ’13 combined didn’t even add up to 50. He fought off injuries to his hamstring, shoulder, and ankle during those two years and appeared in only 73 games last season. The star power is there, if only his body could keep up.
5. Felix Hernandez – Pitcher, Seattle Mariners: $22.86 Million
When you saw the words “Seattle Mariners,” you started nodding your head as to why Felix Hernandez hasn’t won a World Series. Given that the M’s have never even been to a Series (and only have five postseason appearances) in their club’s 36-year history, it’s obvious as to why this 2010 Cy Young Award winner appears on this list. Not for a lack of trying; “King Felix” is the only pitcher (along with the aforementioned Verlander) to throw for over 200 innings and notch at least 200 strikeouts in each of the past five seasons. Hernandez signed his contract extension in February of 2013 for seven years and $175 million.
4. Joe Mauer – First Baseman/Catcher, Minnesota Twins: $23 Million
Joe Mauer has always been a solid player in his ten seasons for the Twins, but his tale marks an example of recording one monster year and cashing in. In 2009, Mauer became the first catcher ever to lead the league in batting average (.365), on-base percentage (.444), and slugging percentage (.587) in the same year – and the first player overall to accomplish that feat since George Brett did it in 1980. After signing his eight-year, $184 million extension in March of 2010, he fell back to his (still impressive) performance level of a .323 batting average. But it’s questionable as to whether Mauer deserves an annual salary equal to that of All-Star pitcher CC Sabathia.
3. Prince Fielder – First Baseman, Texas Rangers: $24 Million
The issues with Prince Fielder don’t lie with his career numbers (over 25 homers and 80 RBIs in each of his eight full seasons while missing a total of just 13 games). It’s his performance on baseball’s highest stage, the postseason. In 144 at-bats in the playoffs, Fielder has managed a measly .194 batting average, while striking out almost three times as much as he batted a runner in (32 SO, 11 RBIs). Despite his October struggles, the Texas Rangers traded for him in the off-season in exchange for second baseman Ian Kinsler of the Tigers. It was after the 2011 season when Fielder signed a nine-year, $214 million contract extension with Detroit.
2. Cliff Lee – Pitcher, Philadelphia Phillies: $25 Million
No, Cliff Lee wasn’t with the Phillies when they won the World Series in 2008. The lefthander wasn’t traded to Philly from Cleveland until the following July. And it’s hard to blame Lee’s lack of a title on him: in the ’09 World Series, Lee won both of his games against the New York Yankees, but the Yanks won every game that Lee didn’t start. After brief stops in Seattle and Texas, Lee returned home to the city of Brotherly Love in December of 2010 when he signed a five-year deal worth $120 million. Since then, he’s thrown over 200 strikeouts in 200+ innings in each of those seasons.
1. Zach Greinke – Pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers: $26 Million
That’s right – Zach Greinke makes the fourth Dodger player on this list who earns more than $20 million a season. The righthander signed a six-year, $147 million contract in December of 2012, and promptly suffered some bad luck (or karma?) by breaking his collarbone in a brawl after hitting San Diego’s Carlos Quentin with a pitch, resulting in Quentin charging the mound. Greinke did compile a 15-4 record and an ERA of 2.63 last season. But is that enough to make him $26 million in 2014?