Nine-Figure MLB Contracts that Turned Out All Right


When word hit that the Seattle Mariners were offering Felix Hernandez a 7-year, $175 million extension, a number of usual suspects came out of the woodworks to claim that it was too much money.  Many people are under the assumption that high-dollar contracts never work out, as they tend to be paying players for what they have done in the past as opposed to the future. 

However, this is not necessarily true.  In fact, there are several nine-figure deals that have worked out just fine for all parties: 

9.  Cliff Lee, Phillies

5 years, $120 million from 2011-15

Don’t let the won-loss record fool you:  Cliff Lee was one of the NL’s best pitchers last season. 

Lee’s followed up a Cy Young-caliber 2011 season by leading the league in K/BB rate, and his 3.16 ERA, 207 strikeouts, and 4.2 WAR all ranked among the top ten.  His paltry 6-9 record was the direct result of poor run support, as the Phillies could muster only 3.5 runs per game every time he took the hill.

The only reason Lee is not higher on this list is because he is only two years into the deal, meaning there is still plenty of time for things to go wrong.  But Lee has made 28 or more starts in each of the last five seasons and looks like a fairly safe bet to stay healthy.

8.  CC Sabathia, Yankees

8 years, $182 million from 2009-16

Lee’s former teammate in Cleveland and one of MLB’s true workhorses, CC Sabathia has made 28 or more starts in each of his 12 years in the Big Leagues and is the most logical candidate to become MLB’s next 300-game winner.

Sabathia originally signed for 7 years and $161 million, but he was able to add a year to the deal after exorcising an opt-out clause at the end of last year.

His time with the Yankees has gone about as expected, though it is somewhat worrying that Sabathia had two separate stints on the disabled list last season and wound up with his lowest innings total since 2006.  He also had offseason surgery on his elbow, though he is expected to be ready for Opening Day.

Like Lee, there is still plenty of time for things to go very wrong with this contract.  But it’s hard for the Yankees to complain about the production they have received so far. 

7.  Todd Helton, Rockies

9 years, $141.5 million from 2003-11

Part of the initial cluster of nine-figure deals, Todd Helton signed a contract extension following his monster 2000 season that would not kick in until three years later.  Helton was then one of the top five hitters in baseball for much of the next decade. 

Helton started to tail off toward the end of his deal, but there is little argument that he is the best player in franchise history.

The only reason I have this one so low is that it is not particularly difficult to find a first baseman who can hit at Coors Field.  Helton also never quite matched his 2000 production, though he did perform at a similar level during the first couple of seasons of the contract.

6.  Carlos Beltran, Mets

7 years, $119 million from 2005-11

An oft-forgotten member of the $100 million club, Carlos Beltran needed a season to get acclimated to New York but settled in as one of the NL’s finest all-around centerfielders.  Beltran combined 40-homer power with solid defense in centerfield, and his 86.7% success rate at stealing bases is the highest of any player in MLB history with more than 300 thefts. 

The only knock on Beltran is that he is somewhat injury-prone, missing 1.5 seasons’ worth of games during the life of his contract and sitting out significant parts of both 2009 and 2010.  Still, Beltran was productive enough that the Mets were able to flip him to the Giants for prospects at the end of his deal.

5.  Miguel Cabrera, Tigers

8 years, $152.3 million from 2008-15

Normally, I would be hesitant to put a contract with three years remaining so high on this list. 

But Miguel Cabrera has been the best all-around hitter in the American League from the moment he put on a Tigers uniform.  How good has Cabrera been?  He was named MVP after winning the first Triple Crown in 45 seasons… and it was not even his best season in Detroit. 

Cabrera will never be a defensive standout, but he does deserve credit for being a team player.  After all, he voluntarily moved to third base when the Tigers signed Prince Fielder prior to last season.

By the time this deal is done, I fully expect Cabrera’s nine-figure deal to be either the best or second-best in the history of baseball.

4.  Manny Ramirez, Red Sox

8 years, $160 million from 2001-08

Nowadays, Manny Ramirez is regarded as a washed-up, enigmatic clubhouse presence who resorted to PED usage in an effort to maintain his previous level of play.

However, there is little arguing with the fact that he was the best righthanded hitter in the American League for the better part of a decade, averaging a .313/.412/.594 line during in his first seven years with the Red Sox before getting traded to the Dodgers and becoming the Toast of Mannywood in the final year of his contract.

Manny was always a mediocre defensive player, and his exit from Beantown could generously be described as ugly.  But players who hit as well as he did for as long as he did tend to get plenty of leeway in other aspects of their game.

3.  Alex Rodriguez, Rangers

10 years, $252 million from 2001-10

To be clear, we are talking about the original contract he signed with the Rangers, not the $275 million albatross he inked with the Yankees following the 2007 season.

Other than Lebron James, no athlete has gone from likable prodigy to despised egomaniac quite like Alex Rodriguez, who revealed his true colors in the eyes of many the moment he signed his monster deal with Texas and has done very little to rehabilitate his image over the years.

At the same time, it’s hard to make the case that he did not do everything he possibly could (legal and otherwise) to earn that contract.  A-Rod earned seven All-Star appearances and three MVPs over the seven years he played under this deal, and the Gold Glove-winning shortstop voluntarily moved to third base in order to play for a contender in New York.

The argument can be made that this contract crippled the Rangers for years to come, but that isn’t actually the case.  A-Rod was not responsible for Texas handing out ridiculous deals to the likes of Chan Ho Park and Carl Everett, among others. 

There are plenty of reasons for people to dislike A-Rod.  This contract is not one of them.

2.  Derek Jeter, Yankees

10 years, $189 million from 2001-10

Out of all the contracts on this list, it’s a good bet that this one is the least objectionable by all parties. 

Derek Jeter has been a Yankee mainstay for his entire 18-year career, and his production has been so consistent that he led the league in hits 13 years apart – and neither of those years happened under his megadeal. 

And while his work with the glove has been wildly overrated over the years, it’s still hard to argue with the production he has provided at shortstop with his bat.

One of the most respected players in baseball history, Jeter earned every penny of that contract.

1.  Albert Pujols, Cardinals

7 years, $100 million from 2004-10, plus a $16 million option for 2011

This was the easiest call on the list, as Albert Pujols was the best all-around hitter in baseball by any measure and also provided a steady glove at first base during the seven years of this deal.  At the same time, there was only one season during the life of that contract was Pujols among the ten highest-paid players in the National League.

How did the Cardinals wind up with such a deal?

MLB’s labor agreement dictates that all players are under team control for the first six years of their careers.  During the first three years, players are paid close to the minimum; during the last three, the player and team each make offers, and an independent arbitrator decides on the salary.  While these salaries tend to be considerably higher than the minimum, they are still much lower than what the player would get on the open market.

The Cardinals, however, opted to offer a contract that bought out all of Pujols’ arbitration years, netting him a higher salary during his arbitration years in exchange for four (later five) years at below-market value.

As a result, Albert Pujols is the one player on this list who may have actually been underpaid. 


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