Odds for 15 Top Players Becoming MLB's First $30 Million-Per-Year Man

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 13, 2012

Odds for 15 Top Players Becoming MLB's First $30 Million-Per-Year Man

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    Many moons ago, the idea of a ballplayer making $1 million per year was ridiculous. The idea of a ballplayer making as much as $20 million per year probably didn't even cross anybody's mind.

    The times have a-changed. The average salary for a Major League Baseball player is up to $3.2 million, and numerous players are making as much as $20 million per year.

    With salaries still on the rise and due to rise even more with all the TV money now being pumped into the league, it's just a matter of time before MLB gets its first $30 million-per-year man.

    But who's it going to be? Which players in baseball are worth that kind of cash, and which of them is most likely to land such a deal before all the others?

    Here's a few educated guesses.

    Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Salary and payroll information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

15. Josh Hamilton

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    If there's a player out there right now who could become baseball's first $30 million man, it's slugging outfielder Josh Hamilton.

    It's highly unlikely that he will, mind you, but it's possible.

    In early November, John Perrotto of USA Today reported that Hamilton was on the lookout for a seven-year contract worth an average of $25 million per year. 

    The market has since determined that Hamilton is certainly not going to get a seven-year deal. Bob Nightengale and Jorge L. Ortiz have put Hamilton's value at more like $100-125 million over four or five years.

    He may not even get that, as there's been talk of teams like the Seattle Mariners only willing to offer Hamilton a three-year deal, according to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com.

    But things could get interesting if—for whatever reason—it turns out that a three-year deal is the best Hamilton will be able to do in this market. Such a short deal may not scare off rich teams like the Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies or New York Yankees, and they could find themselves in a fierce bidding war for the 2010 AL MVP.

    In the end, it could come to three years and $90 million. The justification would be that if Hamilton were to improve his plate discipline and produce three more 40-homer seasons, he'd be worth it in the not-so-long run.

    It's not likely, but you never know.

    Odds: 27:1

14. Stephen Strasburg

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    When Zack Greinke agreed to a six-year deal worth $147 million with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Stephen Strasburg was presumably one of many pitchers who took notice.

    The question on their minds: If Greinke is worth $24.5 million per year, I wonder how much I could make when my time comes?

    Strasburg could make a killing when his time comes. He may be the filthiest pitcher in baseball when he has everything working, and he still has youth working for him with his 25th birthday still months away.

    Though the Nationals didn't let Strasburg see things through to the end, he did prove in 2012 that he has the potential to be a Cy Young winner. In 28 starts, he compiled a 3.16 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP, and his 11.1 K/9 would have been the best in baseball had he finished with enough innings to qualify.

    If Strasburg continues to grow as a pitcher and proves that he has it in him to be durable, his stock is going to soar. And with pitcher price tags sure to rise around him, he could very well be in line to earn a $30 million-per-year deal down the road.

    But not so fast. Strasburg's mission to prove his durability is no easy task, as he's already had one Tommy John surgery and the Nationals are sure to continue watching his workload like a hawk.

    Plus, Strasburg isn't even arbitration eligible until 2014, and he doesn't hit free agency until 2017. By the time he's ready to be rewarded handsomely with either an extension or a free-agent contract, there could already be a $30 million-per-year player out there.

    Odds: 25:1

13. Bryce Harper

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    Somehow, some way, Bryce Harper managed to live up to the hype in his rookie season.

    Even despite a major slump immediately following the All-Star break, Harper managed to post an .817 OPS and slug 22 home runs in 139 games. He also proved himself as a more than capable defensive outfielder and a difference maker on the basepaths.

    So naturally, Harper had a pretty high WAR in his rookie year—historically high, in fact, as Baseball-Reference.com calculated Harper's WAR at 5.0, the highest ever for a 19-year-old ballplayer.

    He should only get better. Any player who can hold his own against major league pitching at the age of 19 clearly has a bright future ahead of him, and there's still tons of untapped power in Harper's bat. Before long, he could develop into a 50-homer-per-year slugger.

    I have no doubt that Harper will make $30 million per year at some point. The best of the best in baseball are set to make more and more money in the years to come, and Harper may be the best of the best of the best eventually.

    But like with Strasburg, it's hard to imagine Harper becoming the first player to make $30 million per year. He's more likely than Strasburg to land such a contract because of his status as a position player and clear injury history, but he's not even eligible for arbitration until 2016. 

    The Nationals should feel in no hurry to extend Harper. And even if they don't, he won't hit free agency until 2019.

    Odds: 24:1

12. Mike Trout

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    Mike Trout had one of the great seasons in the history of baseball in 2012, posting a .326/.399/.564 slash line with 30 home runs and 49 stolen bases, all while playing tremendous defense in the outfield.

    Trout compiled a WAR of 10.7, tied for 20th best in baseball history and ninth best since 1950.

    Nobody should expect Trout to be as good as he was in 2012 again, nor is it fair to expect such greatness from him. He came back down to earth ever so slightly as the season wound down, and it goes without saying that teams are going to make containing him a priority for the rest of his career.

    But this is not to say that Trout isn't going to be a very, very good player. He surely will be. And as with Harper, there's not a doubt in my mind that he's eventually going to land a contract worth $30 million per year somewhere down the line.

    He has a better chance than Harper of landing such a contract sooner, as Trout is due to hit arbitration eligibility a year earlier. The Angels are thus going to have to worry about extending Trout sooner than the Nationals are going to have to worry about extending Harper.

    But even by the time the Angels are ready to extend Trout, their hands may be too tied by Albert Pujols' back-loaded contract to give him a pact worth $30 million per year. He may have to wait until free agency in 2018 to get one.

    By then, there could be more than one player with a $30 million-per-year deal.

    Odds: 23:1

11. Buster Posey

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    Buster Posey's career is going alright so far. In three seasons, he's won a Rookie of the Year, a Comeback Player of the Year, an MVP, a batting title and two World Series.

    And he's still only 25 years old. If the beginning of his career is any indication, Posey is going to be a very good player for a long time still.

    As such, this report from John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle makes sense:

    "We are open to the idea," Sabean said of a long-term Posey deal.

    — John Shea (@JohnSheaHey) November 30, 2012

    Extension time for Posey is going to be here a lot sooner than it will be for Strasburg, Harper or Trout. Posey is eligible for arbitration for the first time this year, and free agency is looming just a couple years away after the 2016 season.

    When Posey and the Giants do sit down to talk, Posey will no doubt open the proceedings by asking the Giants if they've heard of the contract that Joe Mauer signed with the Minnesota Twins a couple years ago. Eight years and $184 million, an average of $23 million per year, will be the starting point.

    Of course, going from $23 million per year to $30 million per year is no small leap. The Giants will have little incentive to make it in mere extension talks, as there won't be any other bidders. Posey thus has a much better chance of landing a $30 million-per-year deal in free agency.

    And that's still a couple years away. Between now and then, there are a few players who could beat him to it.

    Odds: 21:1

10. Miguel Cabrera

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    Miguel Cabrera has already struck it rich, as he inked an eight-year contract several years ago worth $152 million.

    That deal is looking like an absolute steal right now. Over the past four seasons, Cabrera has compiled an absurd .331/.414/.589 slash line and slugged 146 home runs. His 1.003 OPS over the last four seasons is highest among all hitters.

    It's not quite time for Detroit fans to be worried about losing Cabrera...but that time is getting close. Cabrera only has three years left on his deal, as he's due to become a free agent after the 2015 season.

    The Tigers could lock him up before that happens, but they may find it hard to do so with Prince Fielder's contract already on hand. Plus, they'll soon have to decide on extensions for Austin Jackson and Justin Verlander as well (more on them in a moment).

    It's unlikely that the Tigers will be able to keep all three in the long run. Even if they want to keep two of them, it's hard to imagine them doing so if one of the contracts is worth $30 million per year.

    Cabrera has a better chance of getting a contract like that on the open market in 2016. The only trouble is that he'll be on the wrong side of 30, so he'll have to have three more elite years between now and free agency to convince anyone that he's worth such a huge investment.

    Given how poorly hitters age once they turn 30, I wouldn't count on it.

    ...But I know better than to completely rule it out.

    Odds: 19:1

9. Jason Heyward

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    Jason Heyward's sophomore season in 2011 was a massive disappointment. He managed just a .708 OPS and 14 home runs, and was limited to 128 games.

    In 2012, he bounced back to make drooling fanboys of sabermetricians everywhere.

    Heyward had a much stronger year at the plate, posting a .269/.335/.479 slash line with 27 home runs. He also rated as an elite defender and baserunner, accumulating a WAR that FanGraphs calculated at 6.6.

    That made him one of the top 10 most valuable players in the league. And since he's still only 23 years old, Heyward's future is clearly bright.

    Better yet, free agency is looming for Heyward. He's eligible for arbitration for the first time this year and will become a free agent after 2015 if the Braves fail to extend him between now and then.

    If Heyward continues to develop as a star player, it's going to be hard for the eternally cash-strapped Braves to give him fair market value. There's a good chance that he will end up hitting free agency, and he's still going to be well short of the big 3-0 when he does.

    The bidding for Heyward could easily spiral out of control, as it's just not every day that you come across right fielders who excel in all three phases of the game.

    However, he won't be alone on the market. There's one right fielder out there who could land a $30 million-per-year deal before Heyward does.

    Odds: 18:1

8. Justin Upton

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    After posting an .898 OPS and hitting 31 home runs with 21 stolen bases in 2011, Justin Upton took a tumble back to earth in 2012. He managed just a .785 OPS and hit only 17 home runs with 18 steals.

    But don't even think about giving up on Upton just yet. He's too young and too talented to be a lost cause, and there are legit questions about how healthy he was in 2012. It's fair to expect a bounce back in 2013.

    It wouldn't be the first time Upton will have bounced back from a disappointing season, as he had an excellent season in 2009 before disappointing in 2010. And even despite the fact he's been inconsistent so far, any player who can compile an .832 OPS and 108 home runs by the age of 25 is pretty good.

    Because Upton has already signed a nice contract, he doesn't have to worry about boosting his chances for a nice payday in arbitration. He just has to worry about hitting free agency in 2016 with a track record of a superstar, in which case he'll be in line for a huge contract.

    Upton will be older than Heyward if/when the two of them hit free agency in 2016, but he'll have a better chance of earning a $30 million-per-year contract because his track record of success is going to be longer than Heyward's.

    Beyond that, Upton's career numbers now suggest that he has a higher likelihood of posting better offensive numbers, and those tend to attract zeroes better than defense and baserunning numbers.

    Odds: 17:1

7. Austin Jackson

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    Austin Jackson hasn't acquired the label of a superstar player yet, but he's certainly headed in that direction.

    Jackson was one of the best-kept secrets in baseball in 2012. He cut down on his strikeouts, worked more walks, hit for more power and ultimately posted a .300/.377/.479 slash line.

    Jackson is also one of the game's best defensive center fielders. Per FanGraphs, only three center fielders have higher UZRs than Jackson since 2010, and only one has more defensive runs saved.

    If Jackson continues his progression, he could be a 30-30-type player with a couple of Gold Gloves in his trophy collection in a few years. Such players are rare, and they tend to be valued pretty highly.

    Jackson just so happens to be due to hit free agency the same year as Cabrera, Heyward and Upton, so he won't be the only player looking for a fat contract if no extensions are worked out between now and 2016 (which is admittedly unlikely).

    I'm ranking Jackson ahead of Cabrera on this list because he's younger and a far more well-rounded player. Most notably, he provides excellent defense at a premium position.

    That's an advantage he'll have on Heyward and Upton as well, as it's more important for teams to have an elite center fielder than it is for them to have elite corner outfielders.

    All Jackson has to do is continue to improve. If he does, he stands to make a ton of money.

    Odds: 15:1

6. Jacoby Ellsbury

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    Austin Jackson will have an even better chance to land a monstrous $30 million-per-year contract if Jacoby Ellsbury beats him to it next winter.

    And there's a fair chance that's going to happen. All Ellsbury will have to do to put himself in line for a huge payday is do exactly in 2013 what he did in 2011.

    You remember. Ellsbury exploded to post a slash line of .321/.376/.552 with 32 homers and 39 stolen bases. He also won a well-deserved Gold Glove and led all major league players in FanGraphs' version of WAR.

    Right now, Ellsbury's 2011 season looks like an obvious outlier. He was little more than a speedster in 2008 and 2009, and he played in only 92 combined games in 2010 and 2012 due to injuries. His track record suggests that he's far more likely to come up short of his 2011 numbers than he is to repeat them.

    But you never know. Ellsbury knows that he stands to make a killing in free agency if he enjoys a monster year, especially with Scott Boras as his agent.

    Boras has set the bar pretty high for Ellsbury, suggesting to WEEI this year that his client should be able to do better than Matt Kemp's eight-year, $120 million deal in free agency next winter.

    And since he's likely to have both the Red Sox and the New York Yankees circling him if he turns the clock back to 2011, he'll probably do a lot better than eight years and $120 million.

    Odds: 13:1

5. David Price

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    It was a close call, but David Price managed to beat out Justin Verlander to win his first Cy Young award in 2012. He earned it by going 20-5 with a league-best 2.56 ERA.

    There's plenty more where that came from. Price nearly won the Cy Young back in 2010, and sabermetric stats like FIP, xFIP and SIERA (see FanGraphs) all suggest that he's getting a little better every year.

    The clock is ticking for the Rays to sign Price to an extension, as he's eligible for arbitration this year and due to hit free agency in 2016. Given the kind of money that Price will likely command on the open market a couple years from now, Andrew Friedman had better work his magic in the near future.

    He may not be able to, as ESPN's Buster Olney reported recently that Price is "not close" to signing a long-term deal with the Rays. He seems to be intent on hitting the open market a couple years from now, and before then he's likely to be traded.

    If Price does hit the open market in 2016, he's going to be right at the age of 30. That may limit his capacity to demand a long contract, but teams are probably going to be more than willing to fork over the money Price will be demanding.

    The starting point won't even be Greinke's deal with the Dodgers. It's likely to be higher than that, as the going rate for ace pitchers is likely to climb significantly between now and 2016.

    As such, Price should get a $30 million-per-year deal. It's just not likely that he'll be the first to get one thanks to the guys immediately ahead of him on this list.

    Odds: 12:1

4. Justin Verlander

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    If the Tigers are going to strike a long-term deal with one of their non-Prince Fielder stars, it should be Justin Verlander. There is no pitcher better than him.

    Since 2009, Verlander ranks among the top 10 in starting pitchers in wins, innings pitched, ERA and K/BB ratio. According to FanGraphs, no pitcher has accumulated a higher WAR. 

    The Tigers will soon have to sit down at the negotiating table with their ace right-hander, as he's due to hit free agency after the 2014 season. When they do, Verlander will surely point to Greinke's contract and tell the Tigers that they're going to have to add a few zeroes to it if they want to keep him.

    It wouldn't be a shock if he got an extension worth $30 million per year. And if the Tigers aren't willing to offer him one, he'll have every excuse not to settle and to wait for free agency to come in 2015. 

    The one disadvantage Verlander is going to have if he hits free agency after the 2014 season is that he'll be on the wrong side of 30. That's not likely to keep him from getting what he wants, though, as all the evidence says that he's a freak of nature with a robotic right arm. He'll be worth a long-term deal, and as much money as he can get to boot.

    However, there are a couple guys who stand a better chance of scoring a $30 million-per-year contract before he does.

    Odds: 10:1

3. Felix Hernandez

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    The 2015 free-agent class could be the mother of all free-agent classes for pitchers. Verlander could hit the open market, and so could Felix Hernandez.

    Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported recently that the Mariners were looking to make Hernandez a "Mariner for life," but their talks didn't get far. Ken Davidoff of Newsday reported late last week that an extension for Hernandez this winter is "extremely unlikely."

    The Mariners had the right idea in pursuing an extension sooner rather than later, but it's not a shock that they didn't get far. Hernandez and his people can see how high Zack Greinke just set the bar for ace right-handers, and King Felix has plenty of leverage to demand even more money in an extension.

    Hernandez is right up there with Verlander when it comes to ace righties. He leads all pitchers in innings since 2009, and only Clayton Kershaw has compiled a better ERA over the last four seasons. 

    The Mariners have a shot to keep Hernandez even if he doesn't offer them a hometown discount—which he may actually be willing to do given his character. They have a cheap cast of characters around Hernandez now and no major long-term commitments, so they could take their share of the national TV money and commit the bulk of it to their ace.

    If they do, Hernandez's deal might just be worth $30 million per year. If they don't, he'll surely be able to get a deal like that if he hits free agency after 2014. If both he and Verlander are free agents, King Felix is likely to be the more desirable of the two because of his age.

    The Yankees will surely be after him after having reset their luxury tax status, and the Red Sox could be in on him as well. If so, Hernandez is going to end up with more wealth than Scrooge McDuck.

    Odds: 8:1

2. Robinson Cano

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    Robinson Cano could pull off the rarest of feats: Becoming too expensive for the New York Yankees.

    Cano is going to be a free agent at the end of the 2013 season, and it's going to cost a ton of money for the Yankees to keep him. Joel Sherman of the New York Post has set the parameters of a new contract for Cano at 10 years and $200 million, and the Yankees already have a deal like that on their payroll (and it's not going so well).

    “I don’t think he’ll be with the Yankees beyond next season,” a source told the New York Daily News recently. “He’s not giving them a hometown discount, and they seem to be more interested in keeping their payroll down than winning.”

    Cano certainly has the talent to demand a huge contract. He's the best hitting second baseman in the league, and he may be the best fielding second baseman in the league as well. Since 2009, he leads all everyday second basemen in WAR by a mile, according to FanGraphs.

    Granted, Cano will be 31 by the time next offseason rolls around, so he won't exactly be a spring chicken. However, that may not stop him from getting a 10-year deal, as how Albert Pujols was 31 when he signed his 10-year contract with the Angels last season. 

    All Cano has to do is have another huge year in 2013 and then go looking for the right buyer. If he finds the perfect buyer, he could very well make as much as $30 million per year in a new deal.

    I'm just going to throw this out there: The Dodgers will be in the market for a second baseman next winter if they decline Mark Ellis' option.

    And if Cano is out there, they will.

    Odds: 6:1

1. Clayton Kershaw

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    Oh, to be young, an ace left-hander and a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    Clayton Kershaw has it made. And before long, he's going to be making more money per year than any other player in baseball.

    The Dodgers just handed $24.5 million per year to a guy who's going to back up Kershaw in their rotation, so it's only logical that they'll have to give Kershaw a significant raise in the very near future.

    It's either that, or risk losing him to free agency after the 2014 season, which...well, probably isn't going to happen.

    The word from Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times is that the Dodgers are already pondering an extension for Kershaw, and some baseball executives are whispering about a possible $30 million-per-year payday. 

    Would he be worth it?

    Let's see. He won a Cy Young in 2011 and nearly won another in 2012. He has the best ERA of any pitcher in baseball over the last two seasons and more strikeouts than any other left-hander. And he's still only 24 years old.

    Shoot, how about $35 million per year?

    Odds: 3:1

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