Jayson Werth will make two and a half times the guaranteed money of New England Patriots QB Tom Brady. Cliff Lee will have enough money to buy 14 private jets, by the end of the first year of his contract. If that hasn't convinced you Major League Baseball teams have gone wild in free agency, first baseman Carlos Pena, who hit under .200, will make enough next year to pay for one fourth of the Atlanta Thrashers' salaries.
Oh, how things have changed since Barry Bonds lost in arbitration before the 1991 season. Bonds requested $3.25 million, he was awarded $2.3 million. That season Bonds led the National League with a .970 OPS and hit 33 home runs. To put that in perspective, the $126 million dollar Jayson Werth rocked an OPS of .921.
How did we get to Jayson Werth and Cliff Lee making $100-plus million? Is it that their performances stood above that of their predecessors and peers? Or are they beneficiaries of circumstance? Looking at semi-stars from the 1990s and how they stack up, you may lean toward the latter.
This type of spending has been a trend over the past 10 years in Major League Baseball. Maury Brown, founder of Biz of Baseball, wrote that the final payrolls of all teams have grown nearly $1.5 billion since 1999. It should come as no surprise that baseball has also set attendance records within that time period.
We’ll start with the newest member of the Nationals…
Werth's inflated contract with the Washington Nationals is based entirely on his success over the past three years (he had 33 career home runs before 2008) for the Philadelphia Phillies. Over that span, he had an OPS+ of 131 in 1,810 plate appearances. The National League’s best OPS+ over the past three years is Albert Pujols who averaged 184. OPS+ is meant to indicate how far above or below average a player is compared to his competition as well as factor in the size of his home ballpark. A stats expert defined OPS+ this way: “OPS+ uses on-base percentage and slugging percentage to estimate how far above or below average a player is compared to his competition, building in adjustments for ballpark and league levels, since it's easier to put up good numbers in a hitter-friendly park or during a high-offensse era. A 130 OPS+ is a player who's 30 percent more productive than average, a 70 OPS+ a player who's 30 percent less productive than average.”
I also found this really cool inflation calculator to tell us how big the players' biggest contract of their careers would be worth in today's money (man, the internet has everything).
Here's some Grunge Era power hitting outfielders who had OPS+’s around 131 during a three-year run (with more than 1,500 plate appearances):
- Danny Tartabull (1991-93, OPS+152) - Career earnings: $32,995,000 - Biggest contract: 1992 - $5.3 million ($8 million adjusted for inflation)
- Rusty Greer (1997-99, 127) - Career earnings: $20,225,666 – Biggest contract: 2004 - $7.4 million ($8.3 million)
- Jay Buhner (1995-97, 131) Career earnings: $37,162,801 – Biggest contract: 1996 - $5.64 million ($7.6 million)
- Ray Lankford (1997-99, 140) Career earnings: $47,795,001 – Biggest contract: 2002 - $8.1 million ($9.6 million)
- Paul O'Neil (1995-97, 132) Career earnings: $51,652,500 - Biggest contract: 2001 -$7.25 million ($8.6 million)
- Bobby Bonilla (1993-95, 137) Career earnings: $52,350,000 – Biggest contract: 1994 - $6.3 million ($9 million)
You're telling me Rusty Greer would have gotten paid $126 million had he hit the open market in 2010? Nah, he would have made more. When ole Rusty posted those numbers, he was younger than Werth (age 27) and hit more doubles in the three-year span with around the same number of homers. Sadly for Greer, Werth will be making more at age 38 than the long-time Ranger made in his entire career. As for Buhner, Lankford, O'Neil and Bonilla, well, all their power numbers were significantly higher than Werth's and had similar or better defensive numbers.
It is to be noted that the National League's total ERA was 4.33 in 2010, while in the AL in 1999 was 5.18. There was also something funky in the water for some players that may have increased their power numbers, but nothing we can prove among those players. Even with inflation added in, not a single player with the same stats will earn half what Jayson Werth is set to make at age 38.
Players with similar power numbers to Werth are players considered to be and paid like they were second tier stars. If I told you a Seattle Mariners outfielder from the 90s had similar numbers to a guy who received a $126 million dollar contract, I bet you wouldn't say Jay Buhner.
And, while all these players had good three-year runs, none of them were hitting bombs at age 38, in fact, most of them weren't playing by age 38. Maybe the Nationals are banking on Werth not playing at 38 either.
Cliff Lee is somewhat similar to Werth in that his contract is based on the last three years. It certainly isn't based on the 2007 season where he went 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA. From 2008-10, Lee's ERA is 2.98. His ERA+ is 143 in that time and 130.5 over the past two years. ERA+ is meant to adjust to the league's ERA and account for the ballpark. Here's some 90s pitchers who had similar three-year ERA+'s (with more than 500 innings pitched) to Lee's:
- Pat Hentgen: (1994-96, ERA+ 130) Career earnings: $37,838,377 – Biggest contract: 1999 - $8.6 million ($10.9 million)
- Ken Hill: (1992-94, 130) Career earnings: $34,947,500 – Biggest contract: 2000 -$5.6 million ($6.9 million)
- Denny Neagle: (1995-97, 131) Career earnings: $53,320,000 Biggest contract: 2003 - $9 million ($10.4 million)
- Jose Rijo: (1991-93, 152) Career earnings: $33,762,499 Biggest contract: 1997 - $6.15 million ($8.2 million)
- David Cone: (1993-95, 147) Career earnings: $66,947,501 Biggest contract: 2000 - $12 million ($14.8 million)
So, after their best three years in Major League Baseball, ones that equaled Lee's best three years, none of these players were paid anywhere near what Clifton Phifer will average over the next five.
Lee earned a great deal of his dime with outstanding playoff performances. However, it is unrealistic, in fact borderline mad to think he'll continue to have a 0.375 WHIP in ALCS play or an ERA of 1.12 in division series starts. Not to mention that Lee's two World Series starts included two losses and 10 runs in 11.2 innings pitched.
Lee is considered a superstar pitcher, but he actually may be the beneficiary of good timing. The next best free agent pitchers after Lee are Andy Pettitte, Carl Pavano and, uh, Aaron Miles?
There's a chance Lee bombs and turns into Barry Zito, there's also a chance he excels Curt Schilling style and makes a case for himself for the Hall of Fame. Werth could turn out to be Vernon Wells or make the Nationals into a legitimate contender for years to come. The statistics may indicate that either both players were given obscene money based on a small window of success-and one that has been shared by other recent mediocre stars- as well as a poor free agent class and panic to compete and win or that baseball’s economic growth has simply been passed down to the players.
Matthew Coller is a senior staff member of the Business of Sports Network, and is a freelance writer. He can be followed on Twitter
Follow The Biz of Baseball on Twitter
Follow the Business of Sports Network on Facebook