Isn't it nice to have baseball back in our lives? If you’re anything like me, you plan your evenings almost exclusively around ‘the game.’ The smell of pine tar and hot dogs on a spring night, the dirt on players’ jerseys, the crack of the bat – all of it so simple and comforting. But behind its warm shell, baseball is a cold hard business just like the rest. It’s a mega billion-dollar empire built upon massive television contracts, jersey sales, and $12 beers. Because of the growing nature of the sport and its lucrative television contracts, teams have shown the ability to easily throw around contracts, once thought unimaginable. In 2000, the Cincinnati Reds signed future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. to a 10-year, $112 million contract – marking the biggest contract in baseball history. 14 years later, we barely bat an eye at that kind of money in baseball. In fact, just this offseason Miguel Cabrera signed a 10-year deal with the Tigers worth an unprecedented $292 million.
Who knows what $292 million will buy in another 14 years, but the fact remains: baseball is growing, even if popularity it's isn't. To put it lightly, players probably aren't spending their down time cutting out coupons for sales on Cheerios at their local grocery stores. But while almost all of baseball’s established stars are making more money than they can spend in three lifetimes, many emerging talents and even a few of baseball’s perennial All-Stars aren't making nearly the same kind of coin – even if their play suggests otherwise. Flip through to see 10 players who are vastly underpaid for the services they provide – the names might surprise you.
10 3B Josh Donaldson, Oakland Athletics, 2014 salary: $500,000
It’s no secret the Oakland Athletics have made a habit of gathering inexpensive, albeit talented, players. Heck, even Hollywood jumped on the Oakland bandwagon, producing the hit film “Moneyball” about A’s general manager Billy Beane. While the hype of the “Moneyball” era has since faded, the philosophy remains the same in Oakland. Look no further than third baseman Josh Donaldson, who along with being the team’s best player, also claims record to the team’s third cheapest contract.
Donaldson, 27, had a breakout year in 2013, ripping 24 home runs, 93 RBIs and a .301 batting average, all while propelling his A’s to a second straight division title. Set to earn just $500,000 in 2014, Donaldson is one of the cheapest stars in the game. After all, money crunching is what Oakland does best.
9 SP Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals, 2014 salary: $510,000
Michael Wacha has more than just a cool last name going for him; he’s also pretty darn good at pitching. But while most teams are forced to pay up mega million dollar contracts for similar talent, the St. Louis Cardinals are sitting pretty in regards to their 22-year-old hurler.
Wacha will earn $510,000 in 2014 as the Cardinals No. 2 man behind Adam Wainwright, who, by the way, will earn $19.5 million in 2014. Coming off a stellar rookie season in which he tallied a 4-1 record and 2.64 ERA, while dominating in five playoff starts, Wacha enters 2014 as one of the most valuable young talents in the game. He’ll certainly get his money soon, but for now, the Cardinals are getting a bargain price for a star pitcher.
8 LF Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals, 2014 salary: $2,150,000
Bryce Harper is just 21-years-old, and yet he is a full-grown man. Harper entered the 2014 season looking more like a body-builder than a ball player, but rest assured, Harper is ready for a breakout year in 2014. After hitting a combined 42 home runs to go with a .272 average in his first two seasons, Harper is primed and ready to prove why he could be the best young player in the game.
Despite the hype, Harper is set to earn a surprisingly modest sum of $2,150,000 in 2014, and just $2,250,000 in 2015. Relatively speaking, that’s not a lot for someone likely to bring in 30 home runs and hit for average. Take Jayson Werth – his outfield counterpart in Washington – for example: in 2013, Werth boasted similar numbers to Harper, but will cost the Nationals more than $18 million more than Harper in 2014. Harper surely will be making Jayson Werth money soon, but for 2014 and 2015, he is a steal of a deal in Washington.
7 3B Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays, 2014 salary: $7,500,000
In the day and age of mega million-dollar contracts, it’s rare to see a superstar earning less than eight figures. It’s even harder to conceive a player of Evan Longoria’s caliber making $7.5 million. It seems like an oxymoron to call $7.5 million a cheap deal, but everything is relative when it comes to pro athletes. With that in mind, I implore you to find another 28-year-old slugger who can hit for 30-plus home runs and close to a .300 average ever year, while making less than $10 million. I’ll spare you the time – you can’t.
The Tampa Bay Rays got Longoria for a massive discount in 2012, when the team extended their slugger for 10 years and $100 million. Today, he’s one of the Top-15 players in baseball, and still entering the prime of his career; that’s great news for the Rays.
6 SP Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox, 2014 salary: $3,500,000
What’s better than having a Top-10 starting pitcher in baseball? Paying bottom-five money is what. Chris Sale, who finished with the seventh best ERA (3.07) in 2013 for the Chicago White Sox is one of the most effective, and cost-effective aces in baseball. Last year, Sale agreed to a five-year, $32.5 million contract with the Chicago White Sox, and he’s set to more than triple his 2014 earnings in a couple years. But for now, Sale is a highly talented, and highly under-paid ace. In 2014, he’s going to make $3.5 million. For reference, CC Sabathia – the 35th best pitcher last season in terms of ERA – will make more than six times Sale’s salary, raking in a staggering $23 million in 2014.
5 3B Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles, 2014 salary: $519,000
Manny Machado is really good. He’s also really affordable for the Baltimore Orioles. If my reasoning is correct, those two things are better than bad and expensive.
In all seriousness, Machado is a star in the making. Having made his major league debut in 2012, Machado enters his third MLB season at the ripe age of 21. In 2013, Machado made the All-Star game and earned a Gold Glove award, all while hitting .283 with 14 home runs and 51 doubles. He’ll start 2014 on the disabled list, still nursing a knee injury sustained last season, but when he returns, Machado will look to continue his torrent start.
4 CF Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates, 2014 salary: $7,458,333
Over his first five MLB seasons, Andrew McCutchen has blossomed into a bonafide superstar. It’s quite possible we haven’t seen a talent as versatile as McCutchen since the great Ken Griffey Jr. McCutchen, 27, has hit .296 over five seasons, already racking up 103 home runs. He took home 2013 NL MVP and has revived a wallowing Pittsburgh team, leading the Pirates to their first playoff appearance since 1992.
Andrew McCutchen is a Top-5 player in baseball, but his contract certainly doesn't look like that of a top-tier talent. In 2012, the Pirates landed perhaps the steal of the century, inking McCutchen to a six-year, $51.5 million contract. It’s certainly not chump change, but for one of the greatest talents in baseball, McCutchen is a steal.
3 RF Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers, 2014 salary: $3,714,285
Yasiel Puig seemingly came out of nowhere in 2013, taking the baseball world by storm and instantly becoming one of baseball’s best talents. The sample size was relatively small for the Cuban defect, but Puig’s numbers and raw athleticism were staggering nonetheless. In 104 games last season, Puig hit .319 with 21 doubles and 19 home runs for the Dodgers. Puig also showed off pure baseball talent in the field and on the base paths that just can’t be taught.
Entering his sophomore season, and his first full season in the big leagues, Puig will look to recapture that 2013 magic. But even if he drops off a little, Puig will still be an excellent value for the Dodgers in 2014. The 23-year-old will make $3,714,285 in 2014, far less than his star counterparts like Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, and Clayton Kershaw.
2 SP Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins, 2014 salary: $635,000
Jose Fernandez is good at pitching. No, seriously. He’s really, really good. You know what else? He’s also really, really affordable; or at least for now he is.
Fernandez defected from Cuba in 2008, narrowly missing bullets from Cuban officials during his escape. That experience alone explains a lot considering how unfazed he is on the mound. In his rookie season with Miami last year, Fernandez was electric. Fernandez finished his 28-game debut season with a stellar 2.19 ERA, a 12-6 record, and 187 strikeouts. Oh yeah, he also made the NL All-Star team and won Rookie of the Year honors. This year, the 21-year-old hurler became the youngest NL pitcher to start opening day since Doc Gooden in 1985. He didn't disappoint, either – fanning nine hitters and allowing one run over six innings for the win.
1 CF Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 2014 salary: $1,000,000
Mike Trout is 22 years old, and he’s already being touted as perhaps the greatest baseball player to ever live. Think about where you were, or want to be, at age 22. Were you considered the greatest ever at your craft? Probably not. Don’t be discouraged, it’s quite possible Mike Trout is some sort of Herculean God sent to Earth to rule the baseball world.
Kidding aside, Mike Trout is a sensational young player. Since 2011, the kid has already tallied more than 400 hits, 86 stolen bases, 63 home runs, and a collective batting average of .315. Oh yeah, he’s pretty good in the field too. He is, by all accounts, the best player in baseball. (Did I mention he’s just 22?) Despite his stellar play, Mike Trout is earning far less than what the best baseball player on the planet should be earning. The average player salary is $3.2 million. Mike Trout will make $1 million in 2014 with the Angels. Don’t worry, he’s going to get his money very soon, as Trout and the Angels just agreed on a six-year, $144.5 contract. Even at $144.5 million, Trout is a bargain, let alone $1 million. So kudos to the Angels because they own one of the greatest players in baseball, and he’s costing them less than one percent of their payroll in 2014.