Thirteen years ago this week, Texas owner Tom Hicks changed baseball salaries forever when he signed free-agent shortstop Alex Rodriguez to a ten-year, $252 million contract. At $25.2 million per year, A-Rod rocketed past Carlos Delgado (whose $17 million/year contract was less than two months old) to become the highest-paid player in baseball history, as measured by Annual Average Value.
Thirteen years later, he remains atop the list.
In the meantime, more than 50 players have signed contracts worth more annually than Delgado's once-record deal -- thirty of them have even passed the $20 million AAV mark! And each contract has been, at least subconsciously, compared to the A-Rod deal. It's become almost a tradition: when someone signs a big deal over the winter, we automatically compare it to the Rodriguez signing (or his subsequent raise in 2007) and say "Still not higher than A-Rod? Ho hum."
But thirteen years of using an extreme outlier as our go-to comparison is starting to warp our view on player contracts. Compared to A-Rod, for example, Jacoby Ellsbury's $21 million-a-year contract looks just as small today as it would have 6 years ago. The difference is that, today, Ellsbury has the 18th largest active contract, while six years ago it would have been the second largest, behind only Rodriguez himself. (In the same vein, Robinson Cano's $24 million-a-year contract is eighth today, but would have been third even two years ago.)
To fully understand today's rising salaries, we need to get away from the outlier that is Alex Rodriguez's contract and look at other salaries around the league. With that in mind, I've decided to do something a lot of you would love to do: Pretend like A-Rod never existed! It is time to answer the question, "Who would have held the title of highest-paid player in baseball if Alex Rodriguez wasn't in the league?"
Let's see what we find!
October 20, 2000 - Carlos Delgado, Toronto Blue Jays, $17 million (AAV) for four years
The full list of top contracts between 1980 and 2000 can be found here. Delgado signed his contract barely two months before Alex Rodriguez usurped the crown for the next decade-and-a-half. Even in this world without A-Rod, Delgado's record doesn't last for very long...
December 19, 2000 - Manny Ramirez, Boston Red Sox, $20 million AAV for eight years
Because the Red Sox had mad eyes for Manny. Not without good reason, as his track record over the next six-plus years showed. (Two months later, Derek Jeter signed the second-largest contract in history with his ten-year, $189 million extension. The $18.9 million-a-year was enough to push Delgado further down the list, but not enough to beat out Manny.)
May 31, 2006 - Roger Clemens, Houston Astros, $22 million AAV for one* year
May 6, 2007 - Roger Clemens, New York Yankees, $28 million AAV for one* year
Roger Clemens never made $28 million in a year. He did, however, get $17 million for two-thirds of a season with the Yankees. That prorates to $28 million for a full season, but it hardly seems fair to count it. I'm including the two contracts here only as an acknowledgement of their odd nature.
February 2, 2008 - Johan Santana, New York Mets, $22.9 million AAV for six years
Aside from the Clemens funny business, Manny wore the crown for a very long time. It wasn't until two-time Cy Young winner and free-agent-to-be Santana was traded to the Mets that the $20 million-a-year barrier was finally surpassed. Miguel Cabrera, in a similar deal with the Tigers, would come the closest, but even his $19 million-a-year contract was only agreed to after Santana broke the bank.
December 20, 2008 - CC Sabathia, New York Yankees, $23 million AAV for seven years
The big lefty made short work of Santana's contract when he joined the Yankees following a short stint with the Brewers in 2008.
March 21, 2010 - Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins, $23 million AAV for eight years
Minnesota golden boy Joe Mauer didn't beat Sabathia's mark when he signed an eight-year extension following his 2009 MVP season, but he did join him atop the list.
April 27, 2010 - Ryan Howard, Philadelphia Phillies, $25 million AAV for five years
How do you count a contract extension that's still two years away in a list like this? The $25 million-a-year extension catapulted Howard to the top of this list, but not until the 2012 season. Would someone in 2010 have said that Howard was then the highest-paid player? Or would they have waited until the extension actually began?
December 15, 2010 - Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies, $24 million AAV for five years
Let's keep things interesting and assume that Howard's extension doesn't count on our list until 2012. That makes Lee the next player to hold the crown with this $24 million-a-year contract. Remember, this is the contract that people were trying to claim Lee "took less money on" after spurning the Rangers.
November 1, 2011 - CC Sabathia, New York Yankees, $24.4 million AAV for five years
Utilizing a clause in his contract that gave him the power to opt out after three seasons, Sabathia was able to renegotiate his salary with the Yankees in 2011. The $24.4 million-a-year average annual value edges Lee for the top spot, but just briefly.
April 27, 2010* - Ryan Howard, Philadelphia Phillies, $25 million AAV for five years
Is there where Ryan Howard goes? Who knows.
December 15, 2012 - Josh Hamilton, Los Angeles Angels, $25 million AAV for five years
A year after signing Albert Pujols to the largest contract by total value in baseball history (non-Alex Rodriguez Division), the Angels again splurged on a free agent. Hamilton's $25 million made him the first player to match the Ryan Howard contract extension from more than two years before.
February 12, 2013 - Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners, $25 million AAV for seven years
King Felix became the second when the Mariners opened their checkbook for the future Hall of Famer. Still less than the average annual salary Alex Rodriguez agreed to in December 2000.
March 29, 2013 - Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers, $25.7 million AAV for seven years
Finally! After more than 12 years (and a ten-percent pay increase in 2007), someone finally signed a contract worth more than the $25.2 million-a-year A-Rod agreed to as a 25-year-old. It only took winning the MVP and Cy Young Awards in one season! Of course, it wasn't enough for No. 1, because of A-Rod's new deal with the Yankees in 2007.
So who will be the next to find himself atop the list of highest paid non-Alex Rodriguez players in baseball? The safe bet is probably Clayton Kershaw. He's younger and better than every other pitcher on this list was at the time they signed their contracts, and he happens to play for one of the league's richest teams. And there's a distinct possibility that Kershaw will actually top A-Rod's deal. What would a few million extra matter to the Dodgers?