Baseball team owners handed out a series of blockbuster playing contracts in recent years, including a half-dozen $300 million-plus deals since the start of 2019. Three-time MVP Mike Trout landed the biggest at $426.5 million, while 22-year-old shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. just sealed a $340 million deal in February. (Early Thursday, the Mets were on the verge of locking up shortstop Francisco Lindor in a deal reportedly worth $341 million.)
Yet not everyone’s paycheck is soaring within America’s Pastime. The average 2020 salary of $3.9 million—assuming a 162-game season and not the prorated deals paid out for the actual 60-game sprint—was lower than 2015 and just a tick above 2014, despite the record-breaking contracts and MLB revenues climbing more than $2 billion before a 2020 pandemic-fueled decline.
The stars are getting paid more than ever, with 16 set to earn at least $26 million in salary this season, versus none in 2014, but MLB rosters are increasingly filled out with minimum salaried players in their first three years in the majors. Teams like the Miami Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates regularly feature rosters where more than half the players are earning less than $650,000.
Quant-heavy front offices do the math on the incremental value of a cheap youngster compared to a veteran carrying a mid-seven-figure salary. The mid-level guys are getting squeezed out. It is one of the many labor issues facing owners and players as their collective bargaining agreement is set to expire Dec. 1.
“I’ve been very public about creating a system in which younger players who are producing more value should be fairly compensated for it,” Tony Clark, the union’s executive director, told Sportico in a recent interview.
Baseball’s highest-paid player in 2021 is Trout at $39 million, including an estimated $3.5 million from endorsements, licensing, memorabilia and appearances. The eight-time All-Star is the rare MLB player with his own signature line of cleats—the seventh iteration of his Nike shoe is out this year; others are Bryce Harper (Under Armour) and Francisco Lindor (New Balance).
Trout also has endorsements with BodyArmor, Rawlings, J&J Snack Foods, MLB 9 Innings, Lizard Skins and Old Hickory bats, while the action on his memorabilia is heating up. Goldin Auctions sold a Trout rookie card in August for a then-record $3.9 million (a January sale of a 1952 Mickey Mantle card topped it at $5.2 million). Topps wasn’t going to risk letting Trout slip away and locked up the outfielder this year to a lucrative lifetime deal.
Pitcher Trevor Bauer will set a record this season with the highest salary in the history of the sport at $38 million, which includes a $10 million signing bonus paid in two parts. Sportico estimates his total earnings at $38.4 million, including partnerships with Nike and Lids, as well as his merchandise business.
Bauer’s new Los Angeles Dodgers playing contract is one of the most unusual in the history of the sport. The balance of his $38 million salary will be paid in a lump sum on Nov. 1. The 2020 Cy Young Award winner can opt out of his contract after the season and would receive a $2 million buyout, but it would trigger $20 million of his 2021 salary being deferred into the next decade without interest.
Baseball’s 10 highest-paid players will cumulatively earn $341 million in 2021, but just $14 million of the tally is off the field. It is a far cry from the NBA where massive shoe deals will propel at least 10 basketball players to generate more than $14 million in earnings off the court individually this year.
National brand campaigns have dried up for many MLB players as baseball increasingly becomes a regional sport. Gatorade signed Tatis to a national endorsement deal at the end of 2020, but he marks just the third MLB player—after Harper and Derek Jeter—to be used by the brand for marketing across the U.S. over the past two decades.
Below is a breakdown of baseball’s highest-paid players in 2021, including baseball-related off-field income. The estimates are based on cash earnings expected to be paid out in 2021.
1. Mike Trout
Total earnings: $39 million
Salary: $35.5 million
Endorsements: $3.5 million
Twenty-one teams passed on Trout in the 2009 MLB Draft before the Los Angeles Angels struck gold. His career earnings are on pace to top $600 million, including endorsements.
2. Trevor Bauer
Total earnings: $38.4 million
Salary: $38 million
Bauer has built a loyal following on social media, including his YouTube channel with 175,000 subscribers. He is the first MLB player brand ambassador for Lids in the retailer’s 25-year history.
3. Gerrit Cole
Total earnings: $36.5 million
Salary: $36 million
Cole has an opt-out after season five in the nine-year, $324 million free-agent contract he signed with the Yankees in December 2019, but the Bronx Bombers can void the opt-out by adding a 10th year to the deal for an additional $36 million.
4. Justin Verlander
Total earnings: $34 million
Salary: $33 million
Endorsements: $1 million
The right-hander will likely miss the entire 2021 season recovering from Tommy John surgery but remains on the endorsement roster of Nike, Rawlings and Ford Motor. He is part of the “Athlete Advisory Council” for a new special purpose acquisition company, Disruptive Acquisition Corp. I, launched last month.
5. Stephen Strasburg
Total earnings: $34 million
Salary: $33.6 million
Strasburg is collecting $10 million in deferred salary this year as part of his previous contract with the Washington Nationals. His current seven-year, $245 million deal includes $80 million in deferred money payable starting in 2027.
6. David Price
Total earnings: $32.5 million
Salary: $32 million
Price opted out of playing the 2020 season with the Dodgers, citing his and his family’s health during the pandemic. It cost him $11.9 million in salary while his team won the World Series. Next season is the final one on Price’s seven-year, $217 million deal, which he originally signed with Boston.
7. George Springer
Total earnings: $32.3 million
Salary: $32 million
The 2017 World Series MVP signed baseball’s biggest free-agent contract this winter. The Toronto Blue Jays locked up Springer for the next six years at a total cost of $150 million.
8. Clayton Kershaw
Total earnings: $32.2 million
Salary: $31 million
Endorsements: $1.2 million
The three-time Cy Young Award winner can earn an additional $1 million bonus if he makes 24 starts and another seven figures each time he hits 26, 28 and 30 starts. His endorsement roster includes Skechers, Hankook Tire, Wilson, UCLA Health, MasterCard and Security Benefit. Two new additions this year: Visible Wireless and Ball Park Buns.
9. Bryce Harper
Total earnings: $31 million
Salary: $26 million
Endorsements: $5 million
Harper is one of the biggest endorsement stars in the sport through deals with Under Armour, Rawlings, Gatorade, Topps, Warrior Black and more. His 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies was the longest deal in the sport before Tatis signed his 14-year pact.
10. Miguel Cabrera
Total earnings: $30.8 million
Salary: $30 million
The 2012 Triple Crown winner should see an uptick in his off-field income this year if he hits a couple of career milestone marks. He’s 134 hits shy of 3,000 and needs 13 home runs for 500, and either one will boost demand for his memorabilia.