In 1996, 1998 and 1999, the Texas Rangers won the American League West, but went 1-9 in three divisional round playoff series. In 2000, the team slipped to fourth place and a 71-91 record, its worst finish since 1992. Home attendance was about 66.4 percent of capacity, an average 31,956 fans per game, fifth in the American League.
That winter the Rangers signed 25-year-old Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252-million contract. Although Texas stayed ranked fifth in attendance, the club sold 34,525 tickets per game en route to a 73-89 record. In 2002 Texas won 72 games and 71 in 2003 as attendance dipped below 30,000 fans per game each season, landing at just 25,857 per game, or 53.8 percent of capacity. The Rangers traded Rodriguez to the Yankees before the 2004 season.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim went to the playoffs six times between 2002 and 2009, winning the World Series once and twice falling in the American League Championship Series. The team finished second in attendance every season from 2004 through 2010, but in 2011 dipped below 40,000 fans per game, but a still impressive 86 percent full.
After third- and second-place AL West finishes in 2010 and 2011, the team signed Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million contract. Average attendance has never exceeded the pre-Pujols era, with the best mark being an average of 38,221 in 2014, when the Angels went 98-64, won the West and then got swept out of the playoffs.
In 2013 the Seattle Mariners completed a fourth straight season finishing fourth in the West, drawing just 21,747 fans per game in a park designed to hold 47,715. A far cray from drawing more than 3.5 million in 2001 and 2002, the Mariners sold just 1,761,546 tickets in 2013 — and that represented a slight uptick from the prior season.
Before the 2014 season Seattle inked Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million contract. The Mariners improved from 71-91 in 2013 to 87-65 in 2014, and Safeco Field drew more than 2 million for the first time since 2010. Payroll spiked from almost $78.9 million in 2013 to a peak of $172.4 million in 2017, although the team never finished better than second in 2016 (a better winning percentage in 2018 unfortunately resulted in a third-place finish).
Those three contracts are the largest in MLB history for a player switching teams. (The largest ever free agent deal technically is A-Rod’s 10-year, $275-million offer he signed with the Yankees after he exercised an opt-out clause following 2007, his fourth year in the Bronx.) Attendance and team records are just two of countless factors that go into guessing where marquee players might sign, and these are small samples, but the distinctions between those three players and their new franchises are worth considering as we await news on the future home of the game’s next group of elite talent.
Both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado have the youth, skills and potential to rank higher on the list than A-Rod, Pujols and Cano, but they’re also making their decisions in a slightly different labor market. Second-tier superstars are having a harder time landing big deals, the free-agent pool is deeper than usual, and broadcast rights and fees are evolving at breakneck speed, all while the possibility of labor strife simmers.
Without reciting the recent records and turnstile totals for every team thought to be in the running for Machado or Harper, suffice it to say the Rodriguez and Cano stories are proof positive that a team’s ability to add zeroes to a contract is probably its biggest asset in trying to attract a top name. The Angels had a good run of success before signing Pujols — not to mention Mike Trout — but if Pujols cared chiefly about winning and adoring fans, he never would’ve left St. Louis.
Count me among those who — even as a Cubs fan — would love to see the White Sox land Machado or Harper. It would only increase the excitement for baseball in Chicago, would send droves to an underappreciated (if stupidly named) South Side ballpark and would seriously shake up a puzzling AL Central.
For now, anything is possible.