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Peterson: The bloated contracts of the MLB

Last week, ESPN released a list of the 25 highest-paid athletes in the world. Out of the 25 highest-paid athletes, 10 were baseball players.

This fact wasn’t surprising, as baseball continues to hand out some of the biggest contracts in the world. However, in examining the production of the baseball players on the list, the dearth of excellence was striking.

Most of the athletes who made the list and are not baseball players continue to dominate their respective sports. The top four highest-paid athletes—Floyd Mayweather Jr., Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Aaron Rodgers—are all decorated with titles and awards. It’s hard to find one in the top 25 that doesn’t produce at the highest of levels—maybe other than Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan.

But when looking at the baseball players, it’s a whole different story. Out of the 10 baseball players who made the list, only four were All-Stars in 2013 — Robinson Cano, Prince Fielder, Joe Mauer and Cliff Lee.

When you average the statistics of the four pitchers on the list (Lee, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels and CC Sabathia) in 2013, you get a solid 51-39 record and a 3.50 ERA. While these are definitely respectable numbers, they’re certainly not numbers you would expect from the four highest-paid pitchers, considering that the 2013 league ERA was 3.86.

The numbers for the highest-paid hitters tell a similar tale. If you average the statistics for the six hitters on the list (Mauer, Cano, Fielder, Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard and Mark Teixeira) for the last season in which they had more than 250 at-bats, you get a batting average of .285 with 19 home runs, 75 RBIs and 62 runs scored. In comparison, the Detroit Tigers hit .283 as a team last season. It’s easy to make an argument that only one of the 10 highest-paid baseball players (Cano) is actually among the top 10 players in baseball.

The question arises, why does baseball have such moderately above-average production from what should be the cream of its crop?

The simplest answer has to stem from the exorbitant contracts that are handed out to players already past their primes. For a sport that generally sees players peak between ages 25-29, the average age of the 10 highest-paid players is 32.1. Fielder, Pujols, Greinke, Mauer, Cano and Hamels all have at least five years remaining on their contracts including this season that will keep them among the highest-paid players until they are anywhere from ages 35 to 42.

The bloated contracts result largely from the after-effects of the steroid era. In the early 2000s, it became common to see an older player still produce at a high level. Barry Bonds hit his record 73 home runs at age 36, Mark McGwire hit 65 home runs at age 35 and Sammy Sosa hit 40 home runs at age 34. However, these players were the exception and have all been connected to steroid use in one way or another.

Even a decade later, some teams still think that players can play the same at age 35 as they did at 25. As we have seen with the quick decline of guys like Pujols, Fielder, Howard and Teixeira, this is not the case. But the Angels signed Pujols to play until he’s 41 years old. The Tigers just signed Miguel Cabrera to play until he’s 39.

The lack of contract limits and safeguards continues to hurt the MLB. There is no way that Pujols should make 30 million dollars at age 41 and the Angels know that now, but what can they do about it? Nothing.

The NFL only guarantees some of the money in most contracts and has a salary cap. The NBA limits the length and size of contracts. Each of these leagues, at least partially, allows the team some protection against potential contracts gone wrong. It’s becoming ridiculous that severely underwhelming players can be signed for many years into the future — and the MLB is the prime example.

Players should certainly reap the reward for the hard work they put in and the draw they bring to the league. They need guaranteed money in order to guard against risk of injury and provide incentives to work hard. However, I’m finding it more and more difficult to accept the fact that baseball teams choose to offer ludicrous contracts and then suffer the consequences on their payrolls for years to come.

The Angels and other high-spending teams have made risky decisions that, looking back, should never have been made. Teams only have themselves to blame for these weighty contracts.

With the way the league is trending though, the bloated contract problem is only expanding. The MLB may want to consider a new contract structure that will guard teams against these contracts, like the NFL and NBA.

Michael Peterson is currently requesting a 10-year, $350 million contract with The Daily that would make him the highest-paid columnist in professional sports. Tell him to think more realistically at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu and Tweet him @mpetes93.

About Michael Peterson

Michael Peterson is the football editor at The Stanford Daily. He has served as a beat reporter for football, baseball and men’s soccer and also does play-by-play broadcasting of baseball and men’s soccer for KZSU. Michael is a sophomore from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. majoring in computer science. To contact him, please email him at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.