The Top Ten Most Underpaid Players in MLB in 2021
Won't Someone Give These Guys a Raise?
We all know baseball’s pay structure is wonky. Cody Bellinger earned $605,000 the season he won the National League MVP in 2019. The Angels paid Albert Pujols $240 million to collect dust as a past-his-prime Hall of Fame statue in the field for ten years. Big money is skewed toward players in their thirties, who almost always produce less than their counterparts in their twenties. And look, I know that nobody feels bad for a twenty-three year old dude who *only* makes $600,000 a year to play baseball for a living.
But you probably should, because somewhere, some owner is making hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket and television revenue on the backs of these underpaid young stars. Owners have started to get wise to the bad idea of paying veteran (read: more likely to get injured) players a ton of money, and this is just one of the issues that could cause a work stoppage in 2022. Because if you aren’t going to pay young players the big bucks, and you aren’t going to play old players the big bucks, who exactly is going to get those big bucks? The ten players listed here are making way, way less than they’re worth.
10. Dylan Cease, White Sox SP: 3.6 fWAR*. 2021 salary: $600,000 Age: 25
*editor’s note: A lot of different sites use WAR (wins above replacement) as a framework for how good a player is relative to a replacement level player. I’m using Fangraphs WAR or fWAR in this article because it’s my newsletter and I like it best.
I have this guy on one of my fantasy teams and it’s quite a ride. He seems to strike out 10 batters every time he takes the ball, which is great! But he has this tendency to throw seven scoreless innings one night, then come out and give up 7 runs in 2 1/3 the next. Fangraphs loves Cease because of his strikeout rates. (His 12.01 K/9 is 4th best in MLB behind Corbin Burnes, Gerrit Cole, and Max Scherzer). His command of the strike zone should improve as he matures, and he’s probably on his way to becoming one of the finest pitchers in the land. Did you know the Cubs drafted Cease and then traded him (and Eloy Jimenez!) in a package for Jose Quintana in 2017? Cripes. Do the Cubs deserve rights??
9. Sandy Alcántara, Marlins SP: 3.8 fWAR. 2021 salary: $630,000. Age: 26
Have you heard of Sandy Alcántara? One of the biggest monsters to come out of Miami since the South Beach diet, all this guy does is take the ball every five games and shove it down everyone’s throat. Remember when the Marlins shocked everyone last season by forcing their way into the playoffs and then stealing an opening round win over the Cubs? Alcántara pitched into the seventh in playoff start and allowed just one run. It’s a good thing for the rest of the league that Miami is nowhere near a playoff spot this year because I would not want to face him in a sudden death game. Here’s hoping Derek Jeter and Kim Ng and company open the franchise’s wallet and sign Alcántara to a long-term deal. They have not had a dominant ace like him since Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident in 2016. The Marlins could offer him a nice contract to buy out his arbitration years this offseason. Such a deal would make sense for the player and the team, and Alcántara would start to earn closer to what he is worth.
8. Tyler O’Neill, Cardinals LF: 4.1 fWAR. 2021 salary: $594,000. Age: 26.
This one threw me a bit. I did not know what a tremendous season O’Neill is putting together until I began researching this piece. The twenty-six-year-old left fielder has 26 home runs, 12 steals, and a .350 on-base percentage in his first full season in the big leagues. On Tuesday night, he whacked a fastball from Jeurys Familia over the fence to give the Cardinals a dramatic come from behind win over the Mets. The Cardinals and the Blue Jays are playing like the only two teams who want to snatch a wild card berth from the jaws of mediocrity. And no one should want to face St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright in a sudden-death game right now (or ever, for that matter). If the Cardinals do make the postseason, it will be in large part thanks to O’Neill, who has been criminally underpaid this season.
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7. Jake Cronenworth Padres IF: 4.3 fWAR. 2021 salary: $584,000. Age:
Cronenworth could have checked in at number six on this list, but he fractured his ring finger last week. Who knows how long he’ll be out or how effective he’ll be once he returns, since his playing again this year hinges mainly on his tolerance for pain as there is not enough time for a finger fracture to fully heal before the regular season ends. It’s a shame Cronenworth is hurt down the stretch because the Padres need him badly if they want to hold on to the second wild card spot amidst an epic collapse. Also? Cronenworth’s emergence has been one of the better storylines of the year. He was drafted by the Rays in the seventh round in 2015 before Tampa traded him and Tommy Pham to San Diego in a deal that got them Hunter Renfroe. The Rays are not used to being on the losing side of trades, but this swap qualifies. (Unlike the Cubs, the Rays still deserve rights because they went to the World Series last year and will win the AL East again this season). It’s crazy to imagine the Rays letting a guy go who can play a competent first, second, and third base, hit for power (20 HR) and get on base (.348 OBP) but here we are.
6. Kyle Tucker, Astros OF: 4.1 fWAR. 2021 salary: $624,000. Age: 24
The Astros took Tucker with their #4 overall pick in 2015 when he was just 18 years old. It has worked out! Like O’Neill, Tucker is playing in his first full season in the big leagues. And like O’Neill, he is thriving. In 123 games so far, Tucker has clubbed 26 home runs, 32 doubles, and he’s stolen 13 bases. He’s not great defensively, but the metrics love him because he only strikes out 15.7% of the time. (The league average is 24%). The Astros needed and outfielder to step up after George Springer decamped for the Blue Jays, and Tucker has more than done the job. If Houston goes deep into the playoffs this year--as many experts think they will-- expect Tucker to be right in the middle of the team’s success.
5. Bryan Reynolds, Pirates OF: 4.4 fWAR, 2021 salary: $601,000. Age 26
In researching this piece, I remembered that the Giants took Reynolds in the second round of the 2016 draft then traded him to the Pirates for one year of Andrew McCutchen before the start of the 2018 season. Here’s guessing they want that one back. In 2019, Reynolds hit .314 and finished fourth in the rookie of the year voting. This season he heads into the final three weeks with 23 home runs, a .385 on-base percentage, and a .901 OPS. He’s a #stud by any metric, and, even though the Pirates are the worst team in the National League, Reynolds would start for every team in MLB. He should get a fat raise soon, which means the always rebuilding Pirates are that much closer to trading him away for prospects who will never be as good.
4. Cedric Mullins Orioles CF: 5.4 fWAR. 2021 salary: $577,000. Age: 26
If you take away anything at all from this piece, it’s that you need to be watching this guy play baseball whenever you can. The Orioles will not be playing in October. They are one of the worst teams I’ve ever seen. So you only have three weeks left to catch this dude in action. What will you see? Probably a dinger. Perhaps a stolen base. This guy has 29 homers and 28 steals. He is Trea Turner in orange, with a bit more pop in his bat. He’s being wasted in Baltimore, but I doubt that lasts his whole career. Like the Pirates, the Orioles will probably have no choice but to eventually trade Mullins for as many prospects as they can fit into their minor league system. Regardless, he deserves a handsome raise and he should get it soon.
3. Shohei Ohtani Angels SP/DH: 7.3 fWAR. 2021 salary: $4.25 million.
Do not adjust your screens or scream TYPO! at me: Ohtani is only making $4.25 million this year when he should be making $42.5 million. Ohtani is the only player on this list making more than a million dollars. There were other worthy players who are underpaid but still making seven figures who I almost included (Walker Buehler and Julio Urias, for instance). But in the end I felt that in order to be among the most underpaid players in baseball a guy had to be elite AND make six figures. Ohtani is the exception. I don’t know how the Angels keep staying irrelevant while fielding the best players on the planet (see: Mike Trout) but it’s a real skill. Ohtani is putting together the kind of season we have never seen and will never see again (unless he does it, of course). There is no way to assign value to a guy who is one of MLB’s best pitchers and also hits 50 home runs in a season. None. Ohtani will be a free agent in 2023, at which point he should command $40 million a year. If he stays healthy, that number will be a bargain.
2. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays, 1B: 6.5 fWAR. 2021 salary: $605,000. Age: 22
Good Lord. Vladdy Jr. is just 22 years old and he’s leading the American League in hits, runs, runs created, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and total bases. He is seven RBI away from winning a triple crown. His father was one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen and his son is somehow better. How is this even possible? Making matters even better for the Blue Jays, he lost weight this past offseason and turned himself into a totally decent first baseman. His 6.5 fWAR means he’s given the Blue Jays almost seven wins just by himself. His $605,000 salary means each of those wins have effectively cost the Jays less than $100,000. This is insane. He is insane. The only thing stopping him from being one of the greatest hitters who ever lived is his own health. He’s too young to be due for a raise any time soon, but he’s going to be one of the few players who gets a nine-figure deal for sure.
1. Corbin Burnes Brewers SP: 7.1 fWAR. 2021 salary: $608,000. Age: 26.
Did you know that Fangraphs lists Corbin Burnes as the MLB leader in WAR at 7.1? Did you know he is making $608,000 this year? No wonder the Brewers look like the best team in the National League right now. My friend and colleague Joe Posnanski wrote a treatise on Burnes’ greatness this morning that is well worth your time. Burnes is leading the majors in strikeouts per nine (12.43). He’s also giving up the fewest home runs per fly ball (just 4.8%). When you have a guy who strikes out the most batters and is the stingiest with the home runs, it’s no wonder he is Fangraphs’ MVP. Corbin is arbitration eligible next season, and he should see a hefty raise. But whatever he gets, it won’t be enough.