1. Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners, 2001
Ichiro Suzuki may have tormented Japanese pitchers for the greater part of a decade (once hitting .387 in Japan), but in 2001 he had never faced a Major League pitcher. The Mariners were taking somewhat of a risk by signing Ichiro to a 3-year deal worth $27 million, as no everyday player had ever made it in the big leagues. That was about to change.
Ichiro became an instant sensation playing in Seattle, hitting .350 with 242 hits in his first year and leading his team to the American League Championship Series. He won both AL Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards that year, shocked the game with his base-running skills, and proved to be the a bona fide force in the outfield. He followed it up with two more seasons averaging 210 hits, batting .317 overall.
While $9 million per year would be more than justified for those three years, the vagaries of Japanese contracts make it a far more valuable investment. Included in the $27 million was the $13 million posting fee the Mariners paid Ichiro’s team for the right to negotiate. That means Ichiro made $14 million for those three brilliant seasons. He’d probably earn over $70 million for the same performance on today’s market.