The Next Crop of $100 Million Players

Ben Nicholson-Smith is a staff member of MLBTradeRumors.com. This is the second in a series of guests posts he will be writing for FanGraphs, which will appear on Mondays.

It won’t surprise anyone if Albert Pujols and Adrian Gonzalez join baseball’s $100 million club within the next two months. If and when the two first basemen sign extensions, it will become harder to predict which players will be the next to sign nine-figure contracts.

This much is certain: team owners will continue making baseball’s best players wealthy. As a group, owners have averaged two $100 million contracts per year since Kevin Brown signed baseball’s first $100 million deal in 1998. Six of the total 26 nine-figure contracts in baseball history were finalized in the last calendar year, so owners are still willing to spend.

Last month, Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg signed Adrian Beltre to a deal that could be worth $96 million. The next player to benefit from Texas’ aggressive new ownership could be the reigning AL MVP Josh Hamilton, who is arbitration eligible for the second time, and could sign a deal that buys out his two remaining arbitration years and some of his free agent seasons.

Hamilton’s far from the only player with a world of talent and an up-and-down career path who could be in line for a nine-figure deal. Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista and, possibly, Grady Sizemore could all ask for $100 million contracts as free agents after the season.

Reyes, who will be 28 when he hits free agency, could set himself up for a massive payday if he returns to form in 2011. He missed time with thyroid, knee and oblique issues in 2009-10, but averaged 62 extra base hits and 64 stolen bases per season from 2005-08. A complete turnaround would position Reyes for a substantial raise, since premium free agent shortstops don’t often hit free agency in their prime.

Bautista, who started the 2010 season as the Blue Jays’ leadoff hitter, erupted for 54 home runs last year. History says Bautista’s chances of going deep as frequently this year are slim. The only players to hit as many as 54 homers in more than one season are among the greatest sluggers in baseball history (Alex RodriguezKen Griffey Jr.Mark McGwireSammy Sosa and Babe Ruth all have at least 583 career homers).

As improbable as it would have seemed a year ago, another strong campaign from Bautista could push the 30-year-old’s asking price over $100 million. Teams would not necessarily meet those demands, but we’ve seen it happen before. Jayson Werth, another late blooming corner outfielder, turned three seasons as an elite player into a $126 million guarantee this winter.

Three things have to happen for Sizemore to sign a $100 million contract next offseason. Like Reyes, he’d have to recover from knee problems and become the power-speed threat he was a few seasons ago. Secondly, the Indians would have to trade Sizemore for his 2012 option to become a player option and, finally, Sizemore would have to opt out and hit the open market. A $100 million contract is not at all likely, but it’s thinkable.

Jered Weaver and Tim Lincecum, who are on track to hit free agency after 2012 and 2013, respectively, could sign nine-figure extensions in the relatively near future, but they aren’t the most interesting pitchers on the list of players who could sign $100 million deals soon.

Though CC Sabathia signed the most lucrative contract a pitcher has ever obtained, he could choose to opt out after the season. Sabathia has suggested he won’t opt out, but if he has another standout season in 2011, it might be hard not to. He could turn down the $92 million on his contract from 2012-15 and force the Yankees to add years and dollars or risk losing their ace to free agency (a possibility that probably makes Yankees fans queasy after this winter’s failed pursuit of Cliff Lee).

If Sabathia doesn’t opt out, there won’t be much elite starting pitching on the free agent market after the season. Yu Darvish, a 24-year-old Japanese right-hander, could tempt teams looking for a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Even Daisuke Matsuzaka, who arrived in the majors with incredible hype, signed for just $52 million, so it isn’t easy to picture Darvish signing for nine figures. It sounds as though he may make the leap to the majors, but there’s no guarantee that will happen.

Realistically it’s Prince Fielder who has the best shot at a $100 million deal next offseason. Fielder, who will presumably be looking for Mark Teixeira money and then some when he hits free agency next winter, will sign a nine figure deal as long as he turns in a typically productive season in 2011. He’ll open the season with the Brewers, but unless Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin and agent Scott Boras suddenly see eye-to-eye on Fielder’s value, it seems likely that the hefty vegetarian will be pocketing his paychecks elsewhere in 2012.

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Telo

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