There is a perception held by some analysts and insiders that Major League Baseball players are, overall, the most overpaid athletes in North American professional sports. Since the league does not utilize a salary cap, owners who can afford to do so splash cash to lure big-name free agents to their clubs during offseasons.
Not only is that practice not always necessary, but it also sometimes blows up in the faces of front offices.
The best pitcher in the American League this past season made a little over $500,000 for his work on the field. No player hit more home runs than a man who made under $10 million. Teams from smaller markets are playing well on baseball’s biggest stage this fall, and that is a great thing for the league.
Here are the top 10 Major League Baseball bargain players of 2014.
Values from Spotrac
10. RF Nelson Cruz, Baltimore Orioles: $8 million in 2014
At $8 million for the 2014 campaign, Cruz does not crack into the Top 100 of Major League Baseball salaries. That, combined with his production, makes him unquestionably one of the best bargains of the year.
Cruz led all of Major League Baseball in regular season home runs with 40. He drove in 108 RBIs, good for fourth overall in that category. Cruz has, as of the posting of this piece, twice gone yard in postseason play.
While teams such as New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies spent poorly and didn’t make the playoffs, the Orioles built what may be the best overall team in the American League and maybe in all of baseball.
9. SP Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox: $3.515 million in 2014
Sale was not in the top-tier as it pertains to games won in 2014. The 25-year-old southpaw notched victories in 12 of his 26 starts. Those numbers alone don’t reflect how well he pitched in 2014.
Only two of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball – Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez – posted lower ERA values than Sale (2.17). Sale’s 0.97 WHIP was good for fourth-best in the league, and he was tenth overall in strikeouts.
The value of Sale’s contract goes up for every season up through at least 2017 starting next year. He will be on a $6 million for the 2015 campaign.
8. RF Giancarlo Stanton, Florida Marlins: $6.5 million in 2014
Stanton’s season ended early when he was horrifically hit in the face by a pitch on September 11. The former Most Valuable Player candidate suffered fractures in his face along with other injuries, and the hope moving forward will be that Stanton does not have to deal with lingering issues caused by that one unfortunate moment.
Reports are that the Marlins are keen on signing Stanton to a multi-year contract. It’s easy to understand why. Despite missing the final three weeks of the campaign, the 24-year-old still finished tied for second in the league in home runs (37). He drove home a career-high 105 RBI. His .555 slugging percentage was good for fourth in MLB.
7. SP Wily Peralta, Milwaukee Brewers: $515,000 in 2014
Peralta was a revelation for the Brewers in 2014. After going 11-15 in 2013, Peralta won 17 of 32 starts this past season. While neither his 3.53 ERA nor his 1.30 WHIP stand out as being stellar stats, they also don’t take away from the fact that Peralta was by far his team’s Most Valuable Pitcher.
The 25-year-old who led the Brewers in wins and strikeouts was not a perfect product in 2014. His numbers reflect that. That said, his average velocity was nearly 96 MPH. Peralta did well to shrug off bad outings, and his growth from a year ago offers indications that his future is very bright.
6. 3B Josh Harrison, Pittsburgh Pirates: $513,000 in 2014
Pittsburgh baseball fans have had plenty to cheer about over the past couple of years. The Pirates have emerged as playoff mainstays, and the club has a solid young core. While their 2014 season ended with a heartbreaking home blowout loss to the San Francisco Giants, there are reasons to believe that the Pirates could be on the cusp of something special.
Harrison could be one of the team’s key pieces down the road. The third-year pro was seventh in Major League Baseball in batting averages (.315). He added 13 homers and 52 RBI. Those who root for the Pirates will be hoping that Harrison is, in fact, “for real.”
5. SP Tanner Roark, Washington Nationals: $506,100 in 2014
The Nationals had, on paper, a rotation capable of winning the World Series at the start of the playoffs. While they may have been eliminated from the postseason by the San Francisco Giants, that does not eliminate how well Roark and others in the rotation pitched during the campaign.
Roark won 15 of his 31 starts. He pitched 198.2 innings, and he ended the regular season with a 2.85 ERA. Roark could be a No. 1 starter on several teams who don’t have the likes of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister on the roster.
4. SP Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers: $6,571,428 in 2014
Kershaw may not seem to be a financial bargain when compared with other players on this list. To say that he was worth more than the baseball money that he was paid in 2014 would be a grand understatement.
The Dodgers’ ace led all of baseball in wins with 21. His 1.77 ERA was league-best. Kershaw amazingly lost only thrice. He is far and away the best pitcher in the game, and the 26-year-old is not even in his physical prime.
2014 will be the last year Kershaw will be considered to be a “bargain.” His contract will be worth over $32 million per year through at least the end of the 2018 season.
3. SP Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants: $3.975 million in 2014
Bumgarner’s numbers speak to just how much of a bargain he is for the Giants. He posted a record of 18-10 in 2014. His WHIP was 1.09. Bumgarner struck out 219 batters during the regular season, and he fanned 10 in the one-game Wild Card victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
What’s noteworthy about the 25-year-old’s current contract is that Bumgarner could make the 2015 edition of this list. The value of his deal rises to only $6.975 million next season. Bumgarner remains years away from his prime, and he should only improve in time.
That’s a scary thought for opposing lineups.
2. DH Chris Carter, Houston Astros: $510,000 in 2014
The Astros were a disaster in 2014. They went 38-43 in home games. Only the Texas Rangers (67), Colorado Rockies (66) and Arizona Diamondbacks (64) had more losses this season than Houston (Houston and the Minnesota Twins lost 70 games in 2014).
Carter was not part of the problem. While he did finish with a .227 batting average, the 27-year-old slugger launched 37 home runs. Carter ended the campaign with 88 RBI. Grantland recently spotlighted how Carter had turned his season around, and it is a great read on how Carter progressed as a hitter over the summer.
1. SP Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians: $514,000 in 2014
Starting pitchers made for the highest-paid players in baseball in 2014. While Zack Greinke of the Los Angeles Dodgers earned his paydays, Philadelphia Phillies starter Cliff Lee, a former member of the Indians, is seemingly well past his prime. Elbow problems ended Lee’s season early, and it has been reported that the Phillies will part ways with the veteran this winter.
Lee made $25 million for this past season.
Kluber, meanwhile, was the best pitcher in the American League. Nobody in the AL won more games than Kluber (Kluber, Max Scherzer of the Detroit Tigers and LA Angels starter Jared Weaver all had 18 wins). The Cleveland ace finished second in MLB in strikeouts with 269. Kluber should win the Cy Young Award for his efforts, and he will eventually be rewarded financially by some franchise.