Baseball's Next $250 Million Man?

On January 26th, 2001 history took place in the world of major league baseball.  Alex Rodriguez, a free agent at the time, was ready to cash in.  A-Rod had just come off his third straight 40+ homer season with the Seattle Mariners as he hit .316/.420/.606 in with 41 home runs in 554 AB's.  His VORP of 102.2 runs was the best figure in the major leagues that season and as he entered his age 25 season it was reasonable to believe Rodriguez would produce for many years to come.

Enter the Texas Rangers.  After a disappointing 71-91 season, club owner Tom Hicks felt a major splash was needed.  With serious World Series aspirations on hand, Hicks gave then Rangers general manager Doug Melvin the green light to negotiate with Rodriguez and his agent Scott Boras.  On January 26th, 2001, the Rangers officially signed Rodriguez to the richest deal in the history of professional sports; a 10-year contract worth roughly $252 million.

Since the historic deal, baseball hasn't seen any free agent awarded a contract as prestigious as the deal A-Rod signed, yet the market for free agents has exploded over the past couple of winters.  

Four players (Alfonso Soriano, Barry Zito, Carlos Lee and Vernon Wells) each signed contracts worth more than $100 million last winter, and there aren't any signs pointing to the end of this economic "madness."

It's the market explosion that leads me to this question:  Will we ever see another player sign for a quarter of a billion dollars?  Can any players perform at such high standards and be rewarded with a similar deal Alex Rodriguez signed in the 2000 offseason?

Certainly a player to receive such a tremendous contract would have to be considered among baseball's elite.  Let's take a look:

Miguel Cabrera, Florida Marlins

At the age of 24 years old, Cabrera already has nearly four years of major league experience under his belt and will test the market following the 2009 season in which he enters his age 27 season. Over the last three full seasons, Cabrera has been worth 25 wins above the replacement level player and has showed versatility playing both corner outfield spots and third base during that span. PECOTA's MORP system values Cabrera's 2010 projected performance (the first year of what will likely be a new contract) at slightly over $29 million.  Cabrera is, without a doubt, one of baseball's finest young talents.  If there is any major league player I believe has a legitimate shot of eventually signing a deal close to $250M, it is Cabrera.

Johan Santana, Minnesota Twins:

The major league's most productive starter has been worth 30.2 wins above the replacement player over the last three seasons:  Santana has been worth nearly ten wins to the Twins in each of their last three seasons.  Like the Marlins, the Twins simply do not have the financial flexibility to extend their star and Santana will likely find a new team next winter as he tests the market.  Santana's next season will be his age 29 season; if there is anything preventing a ten-year contract it's that he isn't necessarily that young anymore.  Still, the market for all players, particularly pitchers, is almost out of control.  A pitcher with the track record Santana presents will almost certainly sign a deal larger than the contract Barry Zito agreed to with the Giants.  I personally don't think $250M is a plateau Santana will reach in free agency next season, but predicting a deal worth around $200M isn't at all preposterous thinking.

Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs:

It originally looked like the Cubs were going to hammer out an extension with Zambrano, but the latest from Ken Rosenthal indicates the Cubs aren't real close to extending their ace.  If Zambrano tests the open market next winter, it's tough to imagine even the big market Cubs retaining him; he will probably find a new team elsewhere.  I've gone into Zambrano's rather pessimistic PECOTA valuation at length, and while I believe there is cause for concern regarding his future, measures can be taken to protect his young arm.  If Zambrano busts out of his April struggles and turns in another productive season, he's due to receive a huge deal next winter.  The one factor Zambrano has working for him over Santana is his age. Zambrano will begin the first year of his new deal in his age 27 season, meaning a ten-year deal seems unlikely but isn't out of the question.

Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners:

It's very difficult to project a pitcher for the next five seasons; Hernandez will test the market following the 2011 season, but everything is in place for King Felix to become one of baseball's most dominating and productive starters.  Hernandez does a lot of things well:  He strikes hitters out, keeps the ball on the ground and he has good control, and at a mere 21 years of age it isn't ludicrous to believe Hernandez will improve and make adjustments into his mid-twenties.  PECOTA's five-year valuation of Hernandez is a bit workload pessimistic, but if he can stay healthy, top-tier production is expected.  Like Zambrano, Hernandez has his young age working with him in terms of predicting a lengthy contract; he will begin his new deal during his age 26 season meaning a long-term deal is very possible barring any significant injuries.  It'll be interesting to see what the market is like four years from now, but given Hernandez' ability and track record, he could be the top free agent following the 2011 season.

Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals:

I know I'm pushing it with this last one, but Zimmerman will test the market following the 2011 season and has age working on his side; the first year of what will likely be his new deal will be in his age 27 season.  More importantly, PECOTA likes Zimmerman quite a bit as his 37.8 projected 5-year WARP is very comparable to the projections of both David Wright and Miguel Cabrera.  RFK Stadium may deflate his home run production a bit, but Zimmerman appears to be a star in the making. Nobody knows what the market will be like in the winter of 2011, but Zimmerman could very well be a top free agent at that time along with Hernandez.

While it seems ridiculous to ever pay an athlete a quarter of a billion dollars, it has already happened once and in today's baseball market, it could happen again.  None of these men are locks for that type of cash, but each are quality major league players, some which are superstars, some on the verge of becoming superstars.  Projecting performance is difficult; projecting free agent contracts for big name players can sometimes be tougher.  But each of these ballplayers could cash in on big deals at least one time during their respective major league careers.  Who knows, maybe one of them will make history.

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