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$292M For Baseball's Miguel Cabrera? Let's Dig Into That Number

He's got 290 million reasons to smile: The Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera.
C.J. Gunther
He's got 290 million reasons to smile: The Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera.

The numbers are eye-popping:

MLB.com and other news sites are reporting that Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera is getting an eight-year contract extension from the team that means he's guaranteed to earn $292 million over the next 10 years if he keeps playing.

He'll have the new record — "surpassing the 10-year, $275 million deal signed by Alex Rodriguez after the 2007 season," as MLB says.

We had some questions and set off for some answers:

Q: Is he really guaranteed to get this money?

A: The basic answer is yes. When a major leaguer signs a contract for a set number of years at a set annual salary, the team is committed to pay him. That's part of the players' deal with Major League Baseball.

Q: It's not that way in all pro sports, is it?

A: No. As ESPN has written, "only a small portion of [National Football League] contracts are guaranteed at signing, mostly for the star players, and many of those long-term deals can be modified in the outer years, and players can be cut." For most NFL players, signing a three- or five-year contract only gives them the confidence that they'll be paid for the next season or so. One thing that should be noted: "Signing bonuses" can significantly increase the money going to the sport's best players.

The National Hockey League's most recent collective bargaining agreement "does not guarantee newly signed contracts," The Hockey Writers website notes.

Q: But NBA players enjoy roughly the same rights as those in Major League Baseball, don't they?

A: Yes. ESPN points out that in the National Basketball Association:

"About 90% of all ... contracts are fully guaranteed for payment on the day that they are signed by the player. That player simply needs to show up for work and he'll get paid. He can lose his skill, be out of shape or for whatever reason perform poorly, yet his contract is secure."

Q: What if Cabrera retires?

A: Then he would lose however many millions of dollars remained on his contract. That does happen. Kansas City Royals pitcher Gil Meche, for instance, retired before the 2011 baseball season. If he had tried to play, he would have been owed $12 million. But Meche was injured and felt he wouldn't be earning his pay if he tried to hang on.

Q: What if Cabrera is injured while training or playing?

A: He's still owed his money.

Q: What if a player dies before his contract is finished?

A: Teams purchase insurance to offset the amounts they still owe. There are also, though, provisions in players' contracts that bar them from pursuing certain dangerous activities and could relieve a team of its responsibility to pay if a player dies doing one of those things.

Q: What if a player is suspended?

A: Then his pay can be docked. The Yankees' Rodriguez, the previous record holder for most-paid, has to sit out the entire 2014 season because of allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs. He's losing about $25 million this year.

Q: How much more will Cabrera be paid than the average major leaguer?

A: Lots. The minimum salary for this season is $500,000.

The website Sports Interaction has crunched related numbers. The average major leaguer earns $3.2 million a year and stays in "the bigs" for 5.6 years, it reports. That makes the average career earnings about $17.9 million.

Q: How does the average baseball player's salary compare with those in the other major American sports?

A: According to Sports Interaction:

-- The average NBA player earns $5.2 million a season.

-- The average NHL player earns $2.4 million a season.

-- The average NFL player earns $1.9 million a season.

-- The average Major League Soccer player earns $160,000 a season.

Q: But how long do those athletes play?

A: According to Sports Interaction:

-- An NBA player's career lasts 4.8 years on average. Career earnings: $24.7 million.

-- An NHL player's career lasts 5.5 years on average. Career earnings: $13.2 million.

-- An NFL player's career lasts 3.5 years on average. Career earnings: $6.7 million.

-- An MLS player's career lasts 3.2 years on average. Career earnings: $500,000.

Q: Do American teams pay the highest salaries in the world?

A: No. In 2013 the football (soccer) players on the English Premier League's Manchester City club were paid an average $8.1 million — the most by any professional sports team in the world, according to ESPN. Baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers came in at No. 2, with an average salary of $7.5 million.

Two soccer stars who play in Spain — Lionel Messi of Barcelona FC and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid — each earn more than $40 million a year.

And it's worth noting that Royal Challengers Bangalore will pay cricketeer Yuvraj Singh about $2 million to play for six weeks this season in the Indian Premier League.

Q: So, to get back to where we started, is Cabrera worth it?

A: On the one hand, he's about to turn 31 years old — meaning he might not have 10 more productive years. But as The Detroit Free Press says:

"In his six years in Detroit, Cabrera has gone from being an excellent young hitter to inarguably the best hitter in the game. He also has shown that he could enter the conversation to be among the best hitters ever. Over the past three seasons, he has become the first right-handed hitter to win three straight batting titles since Rogers Hornsby, widely regarded as the best right-handed hitter ever, won six straight in 1920-25."

Plus, the newspaper adds, "the designated hitter rule means that Cabrera can remain a daily threat in the lineup even if he reaches a point where he no longer plays every day in the field."

Q: Can his value be quantified?

A: Let's look at how he rates by one statistic that many fans swear by — wins above replacement. "Over the past three seasons, Cabrera has totaled a major league-best 22.1 WAR," according to ESPN.

In other words, Cabrera's statistics indicate that the Tigers won 22.1 more games over the course of those three seasons than they would have with the typical player who might replace him.

According to Fox Sports, each win is said to be worth between $6 million and $8 million to a team because of what it means to revenue, marketing and other factors.

So, if Cabrera is responsible for an average seven or so additional wins per season, that's worth roughly $42 million to $56 million to the Tigers — which means that if he continues to produce, paying him $30 million or so a year may be a "bargain."

But the gamble is that Cabrera will continue to perform at or near the level of his recent years. And there are many examples of players who signed big contracts and then saw their careers go downhill. Grantland has its roundup of "baseball's worst contracts" here.

Q: So it's a bit of a crapshoot?

A: Yes. But for the sake of NPR's Don Gonyea and other Tigers fans, we hope this all works out well for Cabrera and his team.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.