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How Bad Is Alex Rodriguez's Contract Really?

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The offseason came early this year as the Yankees failed to advance past the LDS, and lacking any on-field news to discuss, many Yankee fans and writers have moved on to their favorite pinstriped whipping boy - Alex Rodriguez. 

You've probably heard of the fellow.  He made $31 million this season and only played in 99 games, all while putting up a subpar (for him) season at the plate.  Oh, and he's signed through 2017 for about $150 million total.  Many fans are ready to write off the final 6 years of this deal and lump A-Rod in with Barry Zito, Vernon Wells, and Alfonso Soriano.  I think this is a mistake.   

Let me be clear:  A-Rod is no longer the .300/.400/.600 hitter that he was in his prime, and he's probably never going to play 150 games or hit 40 home runs in a season again.   Even in his prime, he never, ever had a prayer of living up to the ridiculous expectations that came with playing in New York and earning this much money, so it doesn't make much sense to think he'll suddenly become superman in his decline phase.

Putting that aside, Rodriguez is still clearly an above-average hitter who can capably play third base, and although he's struggled with injuries the past few years, nobody would confuse him with Nick Johnson, which means the Yankees have a reasonably productive, albeit overpaid, player on their hands. They also have two things working in their favor:

1.) They front-loaded A-Rod's deal and

2.) Baseball player salaries almost always go up over time

Within the context of operating a baseball team, it doesn't really matter how much ballplayers make in absolute terms, but rather what they make relative to each other.  Remember, it wasn't that long ago that a $10 million salary was record-breaking and newsworthy.  Not so today.   

Rodriguez's salary is scheduled to decrease each season going forward, down to $20 million for 2016 and 2017. Nine players are currently under contract for that season and that much, and Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes, and (most likely) CC Sabathia should join them this winter. 

Next year, Cole Hamels, Zach Greinke, and Matt Kemp all probably will too.  Jacoby Elsbury, Ian Kinsler, Joey Votto, Robinson Cano, Josh Hamilton, and Tim Lincecum, all free agents after 2013, and Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, and Jon Lester, free agents after 2014, will probably join the list as well.

Are you noticing a trend?

A $20 million salary is becoming less noteworthy as more and more players begin earning that much, and by 2016 it seems pretty likely that A-Rod could be "only" the 20th highest-paid player in baseball.  That doesn't mean he'll be good value, nor does it retroactively vindicate the Yankees for signing him to this ridiculous contract, but it does reduce the relative burden of his salary and the urgency of the questions regarding how effective he may or may not be at that stage of his career.