Two hundred and ninety two million dollars. Of the U.S., not Monopoly, variety. With that kind of money flying around, you’d think we were talking about a tech company going public, or, gasp, a re-election campaign of a junior senator. To be sure, Miguel Cabrera’s new 10 year $292 million contract (technically a contract extension) with the Detroit Tigers has certainly made his piggy bank as fat as, well, a pig.
So is he worth it?
What does “worth it” even mean in professional baseball? The modern era of bloated contracts and, seemingly, zero consequences for massive overbuys, is still so new that we probably don’t know yet. Everyone knows that athlete compensation has ballooned in the modern era. Hell, I’ve gotten so used to it that I don’t even bat an eye at nine figure deals these days. But the colossal Miggy contract, which is the biggest in the history of professional sports, got me wondering about just how recent this phenomenon is, and whether baseball is as far ahead of the pack as it seems.
Let’s start here: the ten priciest sports contracts ever have all been in baseball. Amazingly, 23 of the 25 priciest sports contracts ever have been in baseball. The only exceptions have been champion boxer Floyd Mayweather and his ongoing deal with Showtime ($180+ million), and Formula One and World Rally Championship driver Kimi Raikkonen ($153 million from 2007-09). The rest are baseball players. That is amazing enough, but doesn’t alone come close to capturing the recent deluge of cheddar spewing forth from MLB checkbooks. People have griped about the salaries of sports stars for generations now, but the real explosion has been more recent than most people think, and the degree to which baseball has dominated this domain, particularly at the high end of the spectrum, is sure to surprise some folks.
The story of the mega-deal really begins in 2001, which was a landmark year in explosive contracts. Sticking with the top 25 contracts ever, A-Rod, Derek Jeter ($189 million), and Todd Helton ($151.5 million) each signed 10 year deals in 2001, while Manny Ramirez ($160 million) signed on for 8 productive years with the Red Sox. That was also the year of the ill-fated Mike Hampton signing by the Rockies (8 years, $121 million). After a few years of relative quiet, the drumbeat began in 2008 and has only intensified since. Looking now at only the 32 biggest contracts ever, we see:
Johan Santana ($137.5 million, 6 years)
Miggy Cabrera ($152.3 million, 8 years)
A-Rod ($275 million, 10 years)
C.C. Sabathia ($161 million, 7 years)
Mark Teixeira ($180 million, 8 years)
Carl Crawford ($142 million, 7 years)
Troy Tulowitzki ($157.75 million, 10 years)
Joe Mauer ($184 million, 8 years)
Adrian Gonzalez ($154 million, 7 years)
Matt Kemp ($160 million, 8 years)
Prince Fielder ($214 million, 9 years)
Albert Pujols ($240 million, 10 years)
David Wright ($138 million, 8 years)
Cole Hamels ($144 million, 6 years)
Zack Greinke ($147 million, 6 years)
Buster Posey ($167 million, 9 years)
Felix Hernandez ($175 million, 7 years)
Justin Verlander ($180 million, 7 years)
2014 (through March 27 only):
Jacoby Ellsbury ($153 million, 7 years)
Masahiro Tanaka ($155 million, 7 years)
Clayton Kershaw ($215 million, 7 years)
Joey Votto ($225 million, 10 years)
Robinson Cano ($240 million, 10 years)
Miguel Cabrera ($292 million, 10 years)
Hot damn! At this pace, we’ll have 24 contracts of $150+ million in baseball this year alone. Quick, invite your nearest baseball owner to your Etsy page!
As you can see, there have been eight contracts in baseball history that were to pay out $200 million or more. All eight have been since 2001. All six that did not involve Alex Rodriguez have been since 2012. A-Rod’s two deals, first in 2001 for $252 million with the Rangers, then in 2008 for $275 million with the Yankees, were widely notable for their sheer scale and impact. They were the Titanic and Avatar of the sports contract world, each one shattering the previous record to an alarming degree. In the past three years, Robby Cano, a past-his-prime Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Clayton Kershaw, and Prince Fielder all joined the $200 million club.
We’ve been talking strictly about total contract value, but the average $ per year list looks pretty similar, with the notable exception being Mayweather, Raikkonen, and retired Formula One legend Michael Schumacher at the top of the list rather than being mixed in below. Overall, though, the vast majority of the top contracts are from baseball in the past seven years.
The original question was, is Miggy worth it? The man is a beast — a Triple Crown winner, 3 time batting champion, and future Hall of Famer. Baseball mastermind Joe Posnanski ranks him as the 86th greatest player of all time already, and argues that Cabrera is entering (or has entered) the “greatest right handed hitter of all time” discussion. He is clearly in his prime, unlike A-Rod with his 2008 deal or Pujols more recently. He helps sell tickets and merchandise, and he seems to be doing his part to make the Tigers a contender each year.
But most important of all, he is playing baseball in 2014. My conclusion is that baseball contracts, due to economic processes as well as public familiarity, are basically a living, breathing, growing organism. Whether Miggy is “worth it” is meaningless — the past few years show that the contract was going to happen anyway, so why concern oneself with such trivialities.