By Daniel Trotta
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Alex Rodriguez and the New York Yankees normally incur the wrath of fans bothered by baseball's enormous salaries. This year he has more company among players with very large, very long deals worth tens of millions of dollars.
Superstar Albert Pujols arrived at Yankee Stadium on Friday for his first game here as a member of the Los Angeles Angels, who signed him to a 10-year, $240 million contract this offseason.
That was followed by megadeals signed by two other first basemen. Prince Fielder and the Detroit Tigers agreed to a 9-year, $214 million contract shortly after Pujols signed his. Then the Cincinnati Reds gave Joey Votto a 10-year, $225 million extension earlier this month when he still had two more seasons to go on his current contract.
"They've been doing a lot of that lately," Rodriguez said, smiling at the idea he might no longer be the symbol of the overpaid ballplayer. "Baseball's in a good place. ... I kind of enjoy lying in the weeds and letting other players get the attention. It's a new role."
Team owners are finding business rationale for such salaries, and advanced methods devised to value players have found the overall team revenue the stars generate often shows these multi-millionaires earn their pay.
Rodriguez still reigns as the highest paid player, now in the fifth year of a 10-year, $275 million contract that could earn him up to $30 million more in bonuses if he breaks Barry Bonds' career home run record of 762. (Rodriguez hit his 630th career homer on Friday.)
The Angels could afford Pujols in part because they are bringing in $150 million a year in their 20-year television rights agreement with Fox Sports, and the Los Angeles Dodgers are expected to bring in even more with their next TV deal, a factor in the recent $2 billion sale price for the team.
INFLUENCE OF TELEVISION MONEY
"It's really all about these local TV contracts," said J.C. Bradbury, an economist and baseball analyst. "That's really what drove the sale price on the Dodgers. This continues baseball's healthy growth that really has been going on for the past decade, even in a recession."
Splashy as the deals are when first signed, they carry huge risks for the teams. Rodriguez, Pujols and Votto will all be past their 40th birthdays - beyond the age when players' prowess begins to decline - when their contracts expire.
They also add pressure to small-market teams to draft and develop their own impact players, whose pay can be controlled until they reach player free agency after six years in the Major Leagues.
Certainly Rodriguez's contract looks worse today than when he signed it in 2007, when he was coming off career bests in on-base and slugging percentages. But his injuries increased and his production declined the last three seasons - at ages 33, 34 and 35.
Still, team owners and general managers take a chance on elite players, who tend to decline more gradually than average players, Bradbury said. He predicted the Angels will end up satisfied with their Pujols deal.
Some eye-popping deals have turned out well for the clubs, such as Derek Jeter's 10-year, $189 million contract with the Yankees that expired in 2010.
Rodriguez ended up providing good value for the record- setting 10-year, $252 million deal originally signed with the Texas Rangers, who nonetheless could not afford it and traded him to the Yankees. Rodriguez opted out of the final three years, re-signing a new megadeal with the Yankees.
"I remember being 18 years old in a cab with Derek down in Florida, and we were thinking ... wouldn't it be great if we could make a million dollars one day?" Rodriguez said.
Players love to see their colleagues sign huge contracts as they tend to push up the prices for future free agents.
"He deserves everything he gets," Jeter said of Pujols. "He's arguably the best hitter in the game."
"If one of my fellow players gets a long-term contract, I'm going to be excited for him," said Angels outfielder Torii Hunter. "If it falls off the last two or three years and you've got $20 million left a year, hey, that's what they're giving out."
(Editing by Philip Barbara)