Let’s say that you get a new job. Unless it’s a full commission sales position, chances are good that you won’t be paid considerably less or more than your peers inside the company – or at least your starting salary will be comparable to theirs. That’s because in the typical workplace, everyone in the same department or division has similar duties and responsibilities; and their value to the organization is comparable as well.
That’s not usually the case with team sports. With the notable exception of basketball (whose disparities among salaries vary largely by trends in styles of play), the position which you play matters greatly when it comes time to negotiate your salary. And the world generally accepts this axiom; which is why football quarterbacks tend to outearn centers, hockey goalies are paid more than defensemen, and soccer strikers are compensated better than left backs.
On the surface, you might think that baseball has more parity among salaries than the other sports (pitchers excepted) simply because how well a player bats has a lot to do with the size of his contract. That said, this hypothesis doesn’t hold up well when you look at the top position-playing earners of 2014: seven of the top eight players are first basemen (slash designated hitters).
But what about career earnings for active players? Well, a cursory glance at the list indicates that the number of positions represented at the top of the list tend to even out somewhat. That said, the actual total salaries are fairly skewed among the leaders at each position.
So if we were to field an “All-Star” team of active MLB players (leaving aside the DH, but including a relief pitcher and a starter) who have earned the most money over their careers, the total cash take of the squad would be over $1.6 billion not counting endorsements. Here’s what the list would look like by position:
10. Left field: Matt Holliday, St. Louis Cardinals – $97.016 million
This slot could have been filled by Alfonso Soriano, who played in left during his stints with the Nationals and Cubs. But since being traded to the Yankees last season, he has been listed in the DH spot on the roster. Matt Holliday had a solid year in 2005 with the Rockies, which he parlayed into $4.4 million in 2006. He then repeated this process in the next two years, bumping his annual salary up to $9.5 million and $13.5 million, respectively. Holliday is now in the middle of a seven-year, $120 million contract with the Cards. However, he’s off to a slow start in 2014, with batting average and OPS numbers that are the lowest in his career.
9. Center Field: – Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers – $44.336 million
As high-profile as this position is, you might be surprised to notice that Matt Kemp’s salary is the lowest on this list. But you can expect that to change in the coming seasons, as the 29-year old is not even halfway into his eight-year, $160 million contract with the Dodgers. He earned that deal after posting a 2011 season that saw him finish second to future PED confessor Ryan Braun in the NL Most Valuable Player voting. His biggest obstacle since then has been his health, with injuries to his shoulder, ankle, knee, and hamstring (multiple times). But Kemp seems to be healthy in 2014, and played in his 1,000th career game earlier this month. (Again, the higher-paid Josh Hamilton isn’t on this list because he’s now mostly a LF/DH for the Angels.)
8. Right field: – Carlos Beltran, New York Yankees – $180.3 million
You might be surprised that you waited this long to see a member of the money-laden Yankee squad on this list. Even though the 37-year old Puerto Rican native is tops in his position, he isn’t the top pinstripe-clad player on this honorary team. But Beltran has benefited from eight-figure salaries in each of the previous nine seasons. He’s starting a three-year $45 million contract with the Yanks after being in St. Louis for the past two seasons. Beltran turned down a $48 million contract offered by the Royals to return to New York. He actually was paid more per year while wearing a Met uniform when he earned $119 million in seven years with that team.
7. Third base: Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees – $445.963 million
Yep – despite sitting out the 2014 season and not being paid his expected salary, A-Rod is still the highest-paid active player in the major leagues. And the 38-year old will surpass the half-billion mark when his contract finishes after the 2017 season (assuming there are no more discipline-related hiccups that take a chunk out of his future earnings). It’s hard to recall those days back in 1997, when Rodriguez was a mere millionaire player with the Mariners. That was before the Rangers opened up their wallet to throw $252 million over ten years at A-Rod back in 2001, which was by far the richest contract in baseball history at that time. Not surprisingly, the Yankees exceeded that mark in 2007, inking him to another ten-year deal worth about $275 million. So you can expect at least three more years of stories and debates about A-Rod starting next year.
6. Shortstop: Derek Jeter, New York Yankees – $254.25 million
Oh, look – another Yankee! Derek Jeter has earned at least ten million dollars a season in every year that started with his jersey number. After being awarded $5 million in arbitration in 1999, the Yankees signed Jeter to a ten-year, $189 million contract prior to the 2001 season. Even that generous deal paled in comparison to Rodriguez‘s contract at the time (oh, how the Yankees wish they could use hindsight to correct that mistake), but it still made Jeter the “#2” highest-paid athlete in the world. His peak earnings season was 2010, when Jeter earned $22.6 million. He could become a free agent after this season if he chooses.
5. Second base: Rafael Furcal, Miami Marlins – $94.5 million
Technically, Furcal is behind Miguel Tejada in career earnings, but given that Tejada is serving a 64-game suspension in 2014 for (you guessed it!) violating MLB’s banned substance policy, there’s no guarantee that the 39-year old will ever play baseball again. Furcal is at least on his team’s roster, even if he hasn’t played at the major league level since 2012. The Dominican-born infielder underwent Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2013, and was undergoing a rehab assignment at AA Jacksonville this month until his groin muscle reportedly tightened up while running the bases. So even though there’s no timetable on his return to the majors, Furcal will earn $3.5 million this year. But it’s not out of the question that Furcal’s career earnings may fail to reach the $100 million mark. The 36-year old is a free agent after 2014, and no team may want to offer a contract to a man who hasn’t played in the majors in two years.
4. First base: Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – $164.96 million
True, the 34-year old slugger is DHing more than fielding this year, but he’s still listed as a first baseman on the Angels’ roster and has started several games there. Pujols is actually one of the few players on this list whose salary is slated to increase over the next several seasons. He earned a career-high $23 million in 2013, and his ten-year contract with the Angels pays him $1 million more each subsequent season until 2021. Pujols turned down offers to remain in St. Louis and to play for Miami when signing with the Halos, and his deal includes an additional ten-year, $10 million “personal services” contract with the franchise after his contract expires. But many of his numbers with the Angels have failed to match those he compiled in St. Louis.
3. Catcher: AJ Pierzynski, Boston Red Sox – $63.675 million
The Boston catcher was somewhat of a late bloomer in MLB terms, failing to earn a seven-figure salary until the age of 27. That was Pierzynski’s lone season in San Francisco, when he earned $3.5 million after being traded from Minnesota for three players (one of whom is next on this list). He then went on to play for the White Sox for the next eight years before signing back-to-back one-year contracts: a $7.5 million deal in 2013 with Texas and this year’s $8.25 million contract with the Red Sox. Even though he’s 37 years old, Pierzynski may still add to his career total in the future. He’s played in at least 70% of his team’s games since 2001, with a .300 postseason batting average and a career fielding percentage of .995.
2. Relief pitcher: Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers – $70.84 million
After the aforementioned Twins-Giants trade, Minnesota decided to make Nathan its closer despite him notching only a single save in six career attempts. The move paid off, as Nathan went on to record 260 saves in seven seasons in a Twins uniform. His top career contract was a four-year, $47 million deal that he signed in March of 2008. Nathan then inked a two-year deal with Texas worth $14 million before going to Detroit on a two-year, $20 million contract with a club option for 2016. He’s currently in the top ten save leaders in MLB history.
1. SP: A.J. Burnett, Philadelphia Phillies – $154.017 million
Burnett was a little like Pierzynski in that he wasn’t paid seven figures until he was 26 years old with Florida. And that year, he only had four starts before having to undergo Tommy John surgery. It didn’t help matters when Burnett was dismissed from the Marlins after making critical remarks about the organization. But at the winter meetings in 2005, Burnett signed a five-year, $55 million contract with Toronto. And three years later, he inked a five-year deal with the New York Yankees worth $82.5 million, though he would play the last two years of that contract in Pittsburgh. He’s currently under a one-year contract in Philly which pays him $15 million, and it’s unclear what will happen to him after 2014. But he has shown that he is durable; Burnett has started at least 30 games in each of the past six seasons, while notching 10 or more wins in eight seasons straight.