Jonah Keri, author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, wonders if the Cardinals should invest another seven, eight, or nine years in superstar first baseman Albert Pujols. In his evaluation, he looks for guidance from the long-term contracts handed to the Yankees corner infielders.
Mark Teixeira offers one possible comp. After the 2008 season, the Yankees gave him an eight-year, $180 million contract. Teixeira was three years younger then than Pujols is now. On the other hand, Mark Teixeira is no Albert Pujols. Not even close.
At the high end, there’s Alex Rodriguez. Four years ago, the Yankees handed him the richest contract in the sport’s history, 10 years and $275 million. On one hand, A-Rod was a year and a half older than Pujols when he signed. On the other, Rodriguez is one of the very few players in baseball history who can claim a more impressive career than Pujols, while also having delivered slightly more value to his teams by the age of 31.
And here’s the thing: A-Rod’s contract doesn’t look too hot right now. He missed an average of 29 games a season in the first three years of the deal. This season he’s played in just 84 games. The past two seasons have been the worst two of his career. He has six years and $153 million left on his deal.
So what should Pujols expect to make in free agency? That question depends on your perspective. We can ask what the market will bear, what it ought to bear, or what Pujols can reasonably expect the market to offer.
To evaluate what the market ought to bear, let’s turn to baseball researcher Tom Tango. Using Wins Above Replacement, and the going rate for players at any given time, Tango plugs in factors such as track record, age, defense, and positional adjustment to arrive at a projected number. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs ran the numbers, looking at what seven-year, eight-year, nine-year, and 10-year offers might look like for Pujols, assuming he’s a six-win player now who’ll lose 0.5 WAR per season every year as he ages, and the present free-agent cost of every win above replacement is $5 million. This is what he got:
Seven years: $173.9 million
Eight years: $194 million
Nine years: $211.6 million
Ten years: $223.2 million
Here’s the thing, though: There will be many factors that determine Pujols’ next contract that go way beyond his on-field value, which will help decide what the market will bear. First, there’s the concept of the Winner’s Curse, which holds that in any auction in which the bidding parties don’t have all the key information, the winner is pretty much guaranteed to overpay. In the case of Pujols, the unknowns include which teams are likely to bid (Yankees and Red Sox are set at first base . . . but maybe the Cubs? The Mets and Dodgers if they get their financial houses in order? Other mystery teams?) and, as previously mentioned, how old Pujols actually is.
That’s not all. Over the next few years, he could reach several major milestones, including 500, 600, maybe even 700 homers. He’s got a shot at 2,000 runs scored and 2,000 RBIs, too. You can debate the meaning of round numbers all day — but they sure as hell are marketable. The Cardinals already rank among the league leaders in attendance, drawing nearly 38,000 fans a game this year (6th in MLB) after bringing in nearly 41,000 a game last year (4th), more than 41,000 in 2009 (4th), more than 42,000 in 2008 (4th), nearly 44,000 in 2007 (4th), and so on. While it’s tough to quantify the drawing power of any one player, there’s no question that Pujols helps bring the boys (and girls) to the yard, both by helping his team win more and through the sheer force of his stardom. Though the Cardinals have drawn close to capacity crowds in the past few years, they could completely pack the place as Pujols approaches key milestones. They could also make money through sponsorships, media deals, and other avenues. There are strong incentives, both visceral and financial, to re-sign him.
“More than any other team, [the Cardinals] could get creative with him,” said Derrick Goold, a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who’s covered the team since 2004. “They’ve talked about offering him some ownership, which strangely is not against baseball rules. There’s some elasticity here.”
There’s also some major opportunity cost here. Despite a rabid fan base that packs the stadium and solid revenue sources elsewhere, the Cardinals are most definitely not the Yankees. In its 2011 reckoning of every team’s financials, Forbes ranked the Cardinals just 11th in MLB in franchise value, with revenue of $207 million also ranking 11th. This season marked the first time the Cards ever reached triple digits for major league payroll. Add all the tangibles and intangibles that go beyond Pujols’ expected production, and something like a 10-year, $300 million contract can’t be ruled out. The Cardinals have always been a top-heavy club, relying on Pujols, a few lesser stars, and a lot of cheap role players. But there’s a strong argument to be made for not spending 25 percent to 30 percent of your payroll on one player. You can only rely on the Jon Jays and Daniel Descalsos of the world for so long.
The rest of Keri’s piece, in which he also addresses whether the Cardinals would survive the 2012 season without Pujols, may be found here.