Freddie Freeman and a brief history of $100 million ballplayers

Kevin C. Cox

Freddie Freeman got the 28th-largest contract in baseball history, even though he's arguably had one great season. Does anyone else compare to that kind of production/money ratio?

Freddie Freeman has had exactly one big season in his career. Freddie Freeman is one of the richest players in baseball history.

Those two sentences are more than a little incongruous. Marc Normandin argues here that the Braves acted rationally and in their best interests. It's hard to argue with any of the specific points he brings up. There's a dearth of good, young first basemen; the Braves don't have a lot of position-player help close to the majors. Just as relevant, the Braves aren't in position to spend like a big-market team. They couldn't afford to wait and see if Freeman became a star. If he reached free agency as a star, he would have been gone.

Still, Freeman's 2013 was the first great season of his career. Somehow, he's also one of the richest players in baseball history.

Presenting those two sentences without context is deceptive. And kind of fun! It's like a half-truth you'd see in a political attack ad. We're not here to debate the relative merits of the deal, though. We're here to see if any other of the $100 million players have been minted so quickly. Is Freeman the only player to get nine figures after just one big season?

Some points of order: Nine figures in the era of MLB.tv and Foxnet Westnorth Sportsnet money isn't the same as a nine-figure deal in 1999. These are raw, unadjusted dollars. Also, we're using five wins above replacement as the cutoff for a "big" season because there has to be a cutoff. Might as well use the one on every player's Baseball-Reference.com page. And we'll round up, counting 4.5-win seasons as an All-Star-caliber season.

With data from Cot's Contracts, here's a list of the nine-figure contracts in baseball history, along with the number of five-win seasons before the start of each:

Player Total Contract First year of new deal Number of five-win seasons
prior to start of deal
Age in first year of deal
1. Alex Rodriguez $275M 2008 9 32
2. Alex Rodriguez $252M 2001 5 25
3. Albert Pujols $240M 2012 11 32
. . . Robinson Cano $240M 2014 5 31
5. Joey Votto $225M 2014 4 30
6. Clayton Kershaw $215M 2014 4 26
7. Prince Fielder $214M 2012 2 28
8. Derek Jeter $189M 2001 4 27
9. Joe Mauer $184M 2011 4 28
10. Mark Teixeira $180M 2009 3 29
. . . Justin Verlander $180M 2013 4 30
12. Felix Hernandez $175M 2013 3 27
13. Buster Posey $167M 2013 1 26
14. CC Sabathia $161M 2009 3 28
15. Manny Ramirez $160M 2001 4 29
. . . Matt Kemp $160M 2012 2 27
17. Troy Tulowitzki $157M 2011 3 26
18. Adrian Gonzalez $154M 2012 1 30
19. Jacoby Ellsbury $153M 2014 2 30
20. Miguel Cabrera $152M 2008 2 25
21. Zack Greinke $147M 2013 2 29
22. Cole Hamels $144M 2013 3 29
23. Carl Crawford $142M 2011 4 29
24. Todd Helton $141M 2003 3 29
25. David Wright $138M 2013 4 30
26. Johan Santana $137M 2008 4 29
27. Alfonso Soriano $136M 2007 3 31
28. Freddie Freeman $135M 2014 1 24
29. Shin-Shoo Choo $130M 2014 2 31
28. Matt Cain $127M 2012 4 27
29. Barry Zito $126M 2007 3 29
. . . Vernon Wells $126M 2008 3 29
. . . Jayson Werth $126M 2011 2 32
34. Ryan Howard $125M 2012 1 32
. . . Josh Hamilton $125M 2013 2 32
36. CC Sabathia $122M 2012 6 31
37. Mike Hampton $121M 2001 2 28
38. Jason Giambi $120M 2002 3 31
. . . Matt Holliday $120M 2010 3 30
. . . Cliff Lee $120M 2011 2 32
. . . Elvis Andrus $120M 2015 0* 26
42. Carlos Beltran $119M 2005 4 28
43. Ken Griffey Jr. $116M 2000 9 30
44. Dustin Pedroia $110M 2014 4 30
45. Jose Reyes $106M 2012 4 29
46. Kevin Brown $105M 1999 4 34
. . . Ryan Braun $105M 2015 4* 31
48. Albert Pujols $100M 2004 3 24
. . . Carlos Lee $100M 2007 1 31
. . . Ryan Zimmerman $100M 2014 3 29
. . . Evan Longoria $100M 2017 4* 31
* deal hasn't started yet

There is another nine-figure contract that came without a history of All-Star-caliber seasons. Elvis Andrus is still waiting for his first five-win season, although he has another year before his eight-year deal starts. But if Freeman's $100+ million deal has a lot to do with his speculative value, Andrus's was the first to break that barrier.

Some notes:

  • WAR was not a believer in Adrian Gonzalez when he was with the Padres, partially because of poor defensive numbers. This leads us to the obvious conclusion: Those numbers are filthy liars and the entire field of sabermetrics is one giant lie.

  • Of the players with one big season, most of them are lumbering first basemen with poor defense, and while the Prince Fielder contract isn't even in its second act, it's hard to see that ending well.

  • Age is certainly a huge component of the Freeman deal, just like it was with Andrus. The Braves and Rangers aren't necessarily expecting both players to improve and improve and improve, upward and starward, until they reach a brilliant Hall of Fame peak around age 27. In both cases, the player doesn't need to improve a lick to be worth the contract. They can keep doin' their thing for eight years and give the teams solid value, even before accounting for inflation.

  • Still, even Vernon Wells had more star-level seasons before his big deal than either Freeman or Andrus. Not sayin'/just sayin'.

  • Buster Posey has just one star-level season before his deal, but that's a little deceptive because his first season was a partial season because he was in the minors, and his second was truncated because of ankle-related unpleasantness.

The most important point: The Freeman deal is something of an outlier, and it's probably going to be something of a trendsetter. It's all nine-figure deals and ball bearings these days, and teams are going to speculate a little more with the $100 million deals, especially with the under-25 set, because they want to avoid the $200 million deals. When Freeman's deal is over, he'll be 31. I would take the bet that he'll still be valuable then. The Braves have already placed the bet.

What we don't know is what a $22 million player will look like in 2020. Apart from the biomechanical implants and hovercleats, at least. The Miguel Cabrera deal looked massive six years ago; now it looks quaint. Focusing on the dollar amount for Freeman and comparing it to other nine-figure deals is interesting enough, but it largely misses the point. Other than Andrus, there's never been a leap of faith quite like this for a player this young. But the leap of faith isn't that Freeman will get better, rather that he'll stay productive for a long time.

Most big contracts are a mistake because the team is paying money for what players did in the past. It's kind of refreshing to see a forward-looking deal, even if it is most certainly a leap of faith like few before it.

More from SB Nation MLB:

Braves sign Freddie Freeman for 8 years, $135 million

Why a Freddie Freeman extension, and why now?

Matt Stairs has a beefcake calendar (but with animals)

Topps' new baseball cards go to WAR, but decline continues

Photo: No more "Big" Papi, David Ortiz loses weight

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