Ranking Every MLB Player Making over $25M in 2021
In the two decades since Alex Rodriguez became the first player to sign a contract worth $25 million per year, that figure has more or less become the going rate for superstar talent in Major League Baseball.
So with only one exception, we ranked the 20 players who are earning at least $25 million in 2021.
There are some true legends among this group, yet we opted not to order them according to their career-spanning achievements. Rather, this was about sizing up how good these guys are right now based on their recent track records and performances early in the '21 season.
We'll start with an honorable mention and then count down the rest from No. 19 to No. 1.
Honorable Mention: SP Justin Verlander, Houston Astros
2021 Salary: $33 Million
Because he's going to miss all of 2021 after having Tommy John surgery last September, Justin Verlander should be exempt from the "What have you done for me lately?" scrutiny that we're applying to his peers.
Instead, he simply gets a tip of the ol' cap.
Because he ranks fourth in innings pitched, second in strikeouts and first in rWAR since the turn of the century, Verlander has a strong case as the greatest pitcher of his era. He was a 200-inning machine between 2007 and 2019, and likewise a near-annual bet for 200 strikeouts.
As for how he did it, it pretty much says it all that Verlander threw 2,020 more 95-plus mph fastballs than any other pitcher between 2008 and 2019. Over time, he also refined his slider into one of baseball's best out pitches.
Whether he returns to the Houston Astros or signs elsewhere in free agency ahead of the 2022 season, Verlander may yet keep adding to a resume that's already worthy of Cooperstown.
19. 1B/DH Albert Pujols
2021 Salary: $30 Million
Age will do that to a player, even one so great as Pujols. He simply hasn't been the ultra-disciplined hitter that he was with the St. Louis Cardinals between 2001 and 2011. Likewise, the Cardinals got all of his best power-hitting seasons.
The opposition has also had a hand in steepening Pujols' descent from superstardom. Judging from both his overall plate appearances and production, no hitter has suffered more from defensive shifts than he has over the last eight seasons.
18. DH Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
2021 Salary: $30 Million
Like Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer whose prime years nonetheless feel like ancient history.
Cabrera debuted in 2003 as a 20-year-old for a Miami Marlins squad that went on to win the World Series. He then entrenched himself as one of baseball's elite hitters in 2004, beginning a 13-year run in which he topped 500 plate appearances and a 130 OPS+ annually.
Since 2017, though, the Detroit Tigers have gotten just a 99 OPS+ out of Cabrera. Injuries held him back in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and he's already landed on the injured list this year with a strained biceps. He's otherwise been inflicted by too many ground balls and a diminished ability to hit breaking pitches.
In other words, pitchers will still have to proceed with caution when the two-time MVP gets back in the box.
17. SP Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
2021 Salary: $32 Million
The Washington Nationals have gotten everything they could have hoped for from Stephen Strasburg since tabbing him with the No. 1 pick of the 2009 draft.
Though he had Tommy John surgery not long after his historic debut in June of 2010, he settled in as one of the National League's strikeout artists even as he averaged just 168 innings between 2012 and 2019.
Yet it wasn't until October of 2019 that Strasburg enjoyed his finest hour. He ripped off a 1.98 ERA and was the World Series MVP as the Nationals won their first championship.
Things haven't exactly gone well for Strasburg since then. Problems with his right hand limited him to just two outings in 2020, and he didn't even hit 95 mph in his first two starts of 2021. The latter also saw him give up eight runs (seven earned) in four innings.
Perhaps uncoincidentally, the veteran ace went on the injured list with shoulder inflammation on Sunday. No matter how long that keeps him out, he's going to have much to prove once he comes back.
16. LHP David Price, Los Angeles Dodgers
2021 Salary: $32 Million
Just three years after the Tampa Bay Rays selected David Price with the No. 1 pick of the 2007 draft, he was the runner-up in the American League Cy Young Award voting.
The hard-throwing southpaw won the award two years later, and he also picked up the first of two ERA titles during a nine-year run as one of the AL's five best hurlers. And come 2018, he finally pitched like an ace in October to help the Boston Red Sox win the World Series.
After that, Price slipped in 2019 to finish with a modest 114 ERA+ over 107.1 innings. He then opted out of what would have been his first season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2020 and is now pitching out of their bullpen in 2021.
But to his credit, he's taking to his new role well.
He's shown mid-90s velocity as he's struck out eight batters over four scoreless innings in his three most recent outings. He even picked up a save last Thursday, hinting at a possible future as a closer.
15. DH/OF Giancarlo Stanton, New York Yankees
2021 Salary: $29 Million
Giancarlo Stanton was only with the Miami Marlins for eight seasons between 2010 and 2017, yet that was enough for him to plant his flag as the best player in franchise history.
Moreover, Stanton was on pace to become one of baseball's all-time sluggers in those days. After cranking 59 long balls in his MVP-winning campaign in 2017, he owned the eighth-most home runs ever for a player through his age-27 season.
Stanton's four years with the New York Yankees have been...well, not as good. He's hit just 48 home runs, 38 of which came in his first year in pinstripes back in 2018. He promptly missed 181 of 222 possible games in 2019 and 2020 with injuries.
Still, write Stanton off at your own peril.
With this season's hardest-hit ball already among his inventory, his reign as MLB's exit velocity king is ongoing even if he's only hitting .176/.236/.373 so far. And contrary to previous years, pitchers are actually challenging him in the zone in 2021. It's likely just a matter of time before that backfires.
14. 1B Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
2021 Salary: $25 Million
Even if Joey Votto were to drop everything and retire this instant, he would still belong in the Hall of Fame in five years' time.
The 2010 National League MVP is tied for 14th in on-base percentage among hitters with at least 7,000 plate appearances. Likewise, he's one of only 19 such hitters with a career .300/.400/.500 slash line.
Of course, Votto hasn't quite been the same hitter for the Cincinnati Reds in recent seasons. He managed only 12 homers to go with his .417 OBP in 2018. He's gotten on base at just a .351 clip since then, and it's frankly jarring to see him with just four walks through 64 plate appearances in 2021.
Yet according to Votto himself, it's not by accident that he's swinging more aggressively. And while he only has a .267/.313/.467 line to show for it, it bodes well that he's struck out only nine times and that he's working on a career-best mark for average exit velocity at 92.6 mph.
So, stay tuned. Votto may yet live up to his established reputation in 2021.
13. 2B Jose Altuve, Houston Astros
2021 Salary: $29 Million
Between 2014 and 2018, Jose Altuve was as steady a presence among baseball's best players as he was in the Houston Astros lineup.
Though his AL MVP-winning turn in 2017 was the obvious standout, Altuve was indeed so good in those five seasons that only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts churned out more rWAR. His batting average during that span was .331, a full 20 percentage points better than the next-best hitter.
Then came the 2019 and 2020 seasons, which humbled Altuve to the tune of a .276/.334/.493 line. By way of hamstring and knee injuries, it didn't help that half of his 5'6", 166-pound frame was banged up.
On the plus side, Altuve looked more like himself as he hit .375/.500/.729 in last year's playoffs. Up until he landed on Houston's COVID-19 injured list, he was back on that track in 2021.
He was 14-for-44 with four extra-base hits in his first 11 games, and he was showing improvements with his strikeout rate, exit velocity and hard-hit rate. He was clearly not only in good shape physically, but liking his return to his roots as the Astros' leadoff guy.
12. SP Zack Greinke, Houston Astros
2021 Salary: $29.9 Million
If Zack Greinke hangs up his spikes when his contract expires at the end of the year, the next time anyone hears from him might be when he's making his Hall of Fame speech.
The 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner ranks third among pitchers in rWAR for the 21st century. He's likewise one of only five pitchers since 2000 with as many as six seasons of at least 200 innings and a 125 ERA+.
Whereas he could touch 100 mph in his younger years, Greinke has developed a sort of Maddux-ian craftiness as his stuff has faded over time. This has meant living on the edges of the zone and constantly showing hitters different looks, even if it means throwing 51 mph eephus pitches.
So far in 2021, Greinke has had just one bad start as he's racked up a 2.81 ERA in four outings. His fastball velocity is actually up a tick from last season. And while it's somewhat alarming that he's only struck out 16 batters, what contact he is giving up is averaging a career-low 85.5 mph off the bat.
In short, Zack Greinke remains very good at pitching.
11. 1B Paul Goldschmidt, St. Louis Cardinals
2021 Salary: $25.3 Million
It wasn't long ago that one could argue for Paul Goldschmidt as the National League's best player.
He indeed led the Senior Circuit in rWAR as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks between 2013 and 2018. He was a .301/.406/.541 hitter with averages of 30 home runs and 17 stolen bases during those years, not to mention a three-time Gold Glover at first base.
At least offensively, the Cardinals are still waiting for that version of Goldschmidt to show up in St. Louis. Though he hit 34 home runs in 2019, his OBP was a mere .346. He then flipped the script in 2020, posting a .417 OBP but with only six homers. He's now cold with a .237/.286/.322 slash line at the outset of 2021.
Or maybe he's simply been unlucky?
Despite an uptick in his swing rate, Goldschmidt is working on his third-lowest strikeout rate and easily his best exit velocity and hard-hit rate of the Statcast era. If he keeps this up, 2021 may yet prove to be his finest season as a Cardinal.
10. SP Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
2021 Salary: $34.5 Million
Even though he didn't really come into his own until his sixth season in the majors in 2013, Max Scherzer is on a path to Cooperstown.
Scherzer is one of only 10 pitchers to win as many as three Cy Young Awards. And because he has the highest strikeouts-per-nine rate of any hurler with at least 2,000 innings, he has a case as the sport's best-ever strikeout artist.
However, more recent seasons have revealed Scherzer to be unexempt from the normal effects of age.
Back in 2019, he fell short of 30 starts and 200 innings in the regular season and then had some injury scares in the playoffs. A modest 118 ERA+ followed in 2020, and he's now pitching with diminished fastball velocity and heightened exit velocity.
And yet Scherzer is currently in good health and still capable of eating innings and racking up strikeouts. Out of all hurlers who've made 15 starts since last season, he ranks sixth with a rate of 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
9. SP Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
2021 Salary: $31 Million
Clayton Kershaw might just be the greatest pitcher of all time.
Oh, sure. There are all sorts of arguments one can make to the contrary. But since the three-time Cy Young Award winner is the all-time leader in ERA+ among pitchers with at least 2,000 innings, there's at least one valid argument in favor of him being the GOAT.
Of course, Kershaw isn't quite the pitcher he used to be. He's crossed the 30-start and 200-inning plateaus just once since 2013, and he's barely struck out more than a batter per inning as his average fastball has settled in the low 90s over the last four seasons.
So far this season, Kershaw is teasing yet another evolution by throwing a higher rate of fastballs on the edges of the zone. Though he flopped at Coors Field on Opening Day, he's started seeing results as he's allowed only one run with 22 strikeouts in 19 innings since then.
8. SP Trevor Bauer, Los Angeles Dodgers
2021 Salary: $31.3 Million
There wasn't a whole lot to say about Trevor Bauer during his first six seasons in the majors between 2012 and 2017. At least, no more than there was to say about any other pitcher with a sub-100 ERA+.
Then he became the only pitcher in baseball to do better than a 190 ERA+ twice between 2018 and 2020.
Though both seasons were a case of him fully tapping into the potential of his electric stuff, the latter was surely his magnum opus. Aided by gigantic increases in spin rate and vertical rise on his four-seam fastball, he won the NL Cy Young on the strength of an NL-low 1.73 ERA and MLB-low 2.13 xERA.
Because his fastball's spin rate has increased yet again in 2021, it wasn't the biggest surprise to hear that Bauer is now the subject of an MLB investigation as part of its crackdown on ball doctoring. But for now, he's innocent until proved guilty.
Bully for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are benefiting from Bauer's fastball and other nasty pitches in the form of a 2.42 ERA and 36-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio through four outings.
7. RF Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies
2021 Salary: $27.5 Million
Since going to the Washington Nationals with the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, Bryce Harper has been a Rookie of the Year, an MVP and a six-time All-Star. So yeah, he's lived up to the hype.
To boot, he hasn't exactly had it easy. The injury bug took bites out of him in 2013, 2014 and 2017. And among active players, only Pablo Sandoval has seen a smaller rate of pitches in the strike zone since 2012.
Weirdly enough, that hasn't been the case as Harper is seeing his highest ever rate of pitches in the zone in 2021. This is either a small-sample-size fluke or a sign that pitches are more comfortable challenging him.
From our perspective, the former makes a lot more sense.
After all, Harper put up a 159 OPS+ and 13 homers in 2020 even though he was one of the unluckiest hitters in baseball. Because his expected performance has actually improved early in 2021, even his sturdy .289/.439/.556 batting line doesn't quite get at his substantial potential for this season.
6. 3B Anthony Rendon, Los Angeles Angels
2021 Salary: $28.1 Million
In spite of a stellar 2014 season that netted him a top-five finish in the National League MVP voting, Anthony Rendon was in Bryce Harper's shadow during his early years with the Washington Nationals.
Yet Rendon established himself as a superstar in his own right in 2017 and 2018, and he didn't wilt after Harper left for Philadelphia ahead of the 2019 season. Quite the contrary, as that year saw him make his first All-Star squad and ultimately help spearhead Washington's championship run.
Following yet another brilliant season with the Los Angeles Angels in 2020, Rendon was sitting on a four-year run marked by a .307/.399/.550 batting line and the sixth-most rWAR of any position player.
Dare we say that Rendon still doesn't get his due as one of MLB's best pure hitters? He had the fifth-best walk-to-strikeout ratio between 2017 and 2020, plus the ninth-most batted balls of at least 95 mph.
As far as this season is concerned, Rendon didn't do much of note before he landed on the injured list with a strained groin. But provided he recovers well, another excellent season should be in the cards for him.
5. 3B Manny Machado, San Diego Padres
2021 Salary: $34 Million
Manny Machado hasn't always had it good since he debuted for the Baltimore Orioles in 2012. He's had surgery on both knees, and he's had down years as recently as 2017 and 2019.
On the whole, though, there isn't much question about his standing as one of the game's brightest stars.
An average season for Machado between 2015 and 2019 included a 125 OPS+ and 35 home runs. And while his best defensive years at the hot corner are in the past at this point, he's still plenty smooth and plenty good in the field.
More recently, Machado put together a season worthy of a top-three finish in the NL MVP voting last year. He was a .304/.370/.580 hitter with 16 home runs as he played in all 60 of the San Diego Padres' games.
Machado isn't yet back on that track in 2021, but give him time. His steadily improving zone discipline has allowed him to match his 13 strikeouts with 13 walks, and he's working on personal bests for exit velocity and hard-hit rate. Such things should eventually point his way to another MVP-caliber season.
4. 3B Nolan Arenado, St. Louis Cardinals
2021 Salary: $35 Million
At the outset of his career with the Colorado Rockies in 2013 and 2014, Nolan Arenado was a spectacular defensive third baseman but a good-not-great hitter.
That reputation quickly went out the window as he averaged a 129 OPS+ and 40 home runs per year between 2015 and 2019. In tandem with his ongoing excellence at the hot corner, he was worth more rWAR than any other National Leaguer for those five seasons.
And yet there were some questions looming over Arenado after the St. Louis Cardinals traded for him in February. For one, was the shoulder injury that wrecked his 2020 season fully healed? For two, was his bat ready for life after Coors Field?
If his .271/.328/.525 line through 15 games is any indication, the answers are yes and yes.
The Coors Field question, specifically, is going up in flames. Pitchers are trying to expose Arenado by feeding him an increased diet of off-speed and breaking pitches, yet all he's doing is hitting .407 with a .704 slugging percentage against them.
3. SP Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees
2021 Salary: $36 Million
Remember when Gerrit Cole was a talented yet frustratingly inconsistent pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates?
Though that was only four years ago, it surely feels like another lifetime.
Upon arriving in Houston ahead of the 2018 season, the Astros convinced him to scrap his sinker and play up his four-seamer in combination with his slider and curveball. Fast forward to now, and that very four-seamer is responsible for nearly half of the MLB-high 735 strikeouts that Cole has since 2018.
Cole is otherwise fourth in both rWAR and ERA+ dating back to 2018, and he's pitching about as well now as he has at any point in his career. Including the postseason, he owns a 1.80 ERA and 103 strikeouts over 70 innings in 11 starts since last September.
Even though it's sitting at an overpowering average of 97.1 mph, Cole is thus far throwing his fastball just 45.9 percent of the time thus far in 2021. That's in part because he's throwing more changeups, which is rapidly transforming from a mere show-me offering to yet another deadly weapon.
2. SP Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
2021 Salary: $28.1 Million
Even though he was already 26 as a rookie in 2014 and is now only weeks away from turning 33 on June 19, Jacob deGrom is thinking big about where he might end up.
The New York Mets ace told ESPN's Jeff Passan that he not only wants to pitch into his 40s, but that he has his eyes on becoming an "inner-circle Hall of Famer."
This would be a tall order if deGrom wasn't rising so fast. He's already a former NL Rookie of the Year and a two-time Cy Young Award winner, and he's only been getting better as he's raced ahead of his peers in ERA+ and rWAR since the 2018 season.
Notably, it isn't much secret that deGrom is now baseball's foremost velocity merchant. He's topped 98 mph on more than three-quarters of his fastballs since last year, and only five percent of all his pitches have been clocked at under 90 mph.
Considering that deGrom also excels at sequencing and locating his pitches, the 0.45 ERA and 35 strikeouts that he owns through three starts this season have only cemented him as the Best Pitcher in Baseball.
1. CF Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
2021 Salary: $37.1 Million
Even though Mike Trout is the highest-paid player in Major League Baseball, what the Los Angeles Angels are paying the three-time MVP arguably still isn't enough.
When the 2019 season wrapped, Trout was the all-time leader in rWAR for position players through their age-27 season. He was also firmly established as the best hitter in baseball, as his four most recent seasons had seen him hit .307/.445/.610 while leading the majors in OPS+ each year.
Though Trout managed "only" a 164 OPS+ in 2020, he actually underperformed peripheral metrics that included new personal highs for exit velocity and hard-hit rate. He's now making still further strides in those departments thus far in 2021, which is to say that his .386/.526/.750 line qualifies as "believable."
A careful eye should also be kept on Trout's defense this season. It's become something resembling a flaw as his metrics have wildly fluctuated in recent years. But so far in 2021, he's making early strides with his route efficiency.
If he keeps that up, this season could end up being the future Hall of Famer's best yet.