Without a doubt, Cuban sensations Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu have provided instantaneous impact since entering the major leagues. Both players started their first full seasons in the MLB this year, with Puig entering the majors midway through 2013. Abreu has won both MLB Rookie and Player of the Month Awards multiple times in 2014, as he finished with a .1099 OPS in July. Puig currently has a .940 OPS this season and has shown tremendous value in all parts of his game, as he plays a premium defensive position in center field. Puig, 23, and Abreu, 27, still have many more highly productive years ahead of them.
Both of these Cuban players, like Cespedes in 2012, received fair contracts in 2013. Puig received a $42 million total contract, while Abreu inked a $68 million contract last October. Both players lit up the Cuban League before defecting the country and receiving an opportunity to play in the United States. Puig’s 4.6 WAR and Abreu’s 4.0 WAR with over 50 games still remaining in the 2014 season show these contracts have turned out as major bargains. Even though they received the highest MLB contracts for Hispanic rookies at the time of signing, they have exceeded their values.
However, teams must pay a premium, often totally valued at nine figures, to land Japanese superstars. Quality Japanese players can earn a lifetime’s paycheck without having even played an inning of Major League Baseball. Including transfer fees, this trend has occurred for the better part of the century, starting with Ichiro Suzuki’s $14 million contract in 2001 to Kei Igawa’s $46 million contract in 2006 to Daisuke Matsuzaka’s $105 million contract in 2007 to Yu Darvish’s $108 million contract in 2012 to Masahiro Tanaka’s $155 million contract in 2014. The value of Japanese rookies has exponentially increased and most importantly, the money is fully guaranteed in baseball.
American baseball players must go through a rigorous road just to reach the major leagues, let alone get paid. Teams go through a 40-round MLB draft in additional to an array of compensatory picks. Out of the over 1200 players drafted, only a fraction of them sign, and each player must play well in all ranks of the minor leagues before reaching the majors. Otherwise, like top overall picks Matt Bush in 2004 and Tim Beckham in 2008, some of them do not even reach the major leagues (though Beckham played 5 games with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013).
Even to those who reach the majors and succeed, they must wait far too long to achieve anything approaching their actual worth. With the exception of a few “Super Two” free agents, who can qualify for arbitration after only two full seasons if they accrue enough service time (top 22% of all 2-year players), players must wait at least three full seasons before making seven figures. For instance, Desmond Jennings has produced nearly 12 wins for the Rays since 2012; in his third full season, he currently earns $517,000. In the open market, he would command at least 15 times that amount annually.
Tim Lincecum had his two Cy Young seasons in 2008 and 2009, his first two full seasons in the major leagues. Combined, his salary equaled $1 million those two seasons, even though he galvanized the entire San Francisco fan base, sold millions of items for the ball club, and helped the club reach its ongoing consecutive sellout streak at over 300 games. The Giants paid Lincecum an eight-figure salary only after 2012, when his best full seasons were behind him.
Mike Trout, arguably the best player in all of baseball, only earns one million, after earning $500,000 in each of the past two seasons. He might eclipse 10 wins above replacement for a third straight season, which directly compares to many of the great Hall of Fame players. Though he has signed his lucrative extension worth $144 million, why did he have to wait so long to receive his long overdue payday?
While international players, any many of them justifiably so, receive ridiculous paydays prior to even playing a pitch in the major leagues, American baseball players have to wait too long to make any kind of money. Pitchers typically have their best years early in their careers when their arms are fresh, before they succumb to wear and tear. Why can’t American players earn money when many have reached their physical peak? Why punish exceptional talents like Lincecum and Trout when people like Puig and Tanaka can get lucrative deals at relatively the same age?
Baseball needs to alter their rookie wage scale to accommodate this. Yes, they want competitive balance and an opportunity to provide smaller market teams to compete at the highest level. However, they have a revenue-sharing system that allows all teams to receive adequate funding, and teams with the lowest payrolls like Houston and the Chicago Cubs posted incredible revenue numbers in 2014. Teams certainly have the money to pay all kinds of players, especially with local and national TV rights deals rising by the second.
The biggest issue is the ridiculous hypocrisy displayed by the league. They want to grow the game domestically and to people with lower-income backgrounds, yet they allow foreign players to make millions before playing in the MLB while forcing Americans to gut it out before making anything. With the returns on some of these recent international investments, foreign rookies should continue to earn their market value. Why can’t American studs make anywhere near that money at an early age?