Offseason decisions: the Cardinals and the Machine

One of a series on dilemmas facing major league teams this winter.

Well, the St. Louis Cardinals took care of one significant need this offseason, tabbing one of their former catchers, Mike Matheny, as the new field manager. Another key step should be to identify the players who will man the middle infield in 2012, because the incumbents are either free agents, insufficient or both.

But the elephant in the room is, of course, Albert Pujols. Resolving the free agent status of the team’s—and maybe the sport’s—best player will be the most critical component of the franchise’s 2011-12 offseason.

The Terminator

Everyone knows how good Pujols has been throughout his career. There isn’t a team in the majors that wouldn’t be thrilled to have his production. (Okay, the Reds and Phillies might not have spots for him, but you get my point.) In case you’ve been hiding in a bomb shelter since the Y2K “crisis,” here’s what an average Pujols season looks like.

.328/.420/.617 BA/OBP/SLG
170 OPS+
8.0 WAR (FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference)
40 home runs
121 RBIs
117 runs scored
87:64 BB:K ratio

And here are some of the awards and honors Pujols has garnered throughout his career.

Three Most Valuable Player awards
Top-10 finishes in MVP voting every year of his career (2011 results pending)
Nine-time All-Star
Six Silver Sluggers
Two Gold Gloves

The case for retaining Pujols is easy. He has had, quite simply, one of the greatest 11-year runs in baseball history and is likely to remain remarkably productive over the next several seasons. He is the centerpiece around which championship teams can be—and have been—built. The Cardinals with Pujols would continue to compete for playoff berths season after season.

The Cardinals without Pujols would…well, that’s a tough question. The 2012 plan most likely would have Lance Berkman at first base and Allen Craig in right field. While Craig proved his mettle several times throughout the season and particularly in the playoffs, he clearly is no Pujols.

Beyond 2012, St. Louis could continue on a year-to-year basis with Berkman at first until he wears out, or pursue another long-term solution at the position. But the on-field and off-field ramifications of seeing Sir Albert depart would be massive.

Pujols puts butts in the seats. He sells merchandise—have you seen the vast quantities of No. 5 jerseys in the stands at Busch Stadium? He brings headlines and TV and radio ratings to the franchise. His charity work endears him to the public. His worth to the Redbirds far outstrips the merely phenomenal performance he provides on the field.

Re-signing Pujols would be completely justified from a baseball and a financial perspective. Having him wear the birds-on-a-bat jersey as he reaches the 3,000-hit, 500-homer, 600-homer, etc. milestones would bring money and publicity to the team that it couldn’t get any other way.

If Pujols retires as a lifetime Cardinal after a stupendous 20-year career, he could surpass Stan Musial as the greatest player in team history. That’s rarefied air, but Albert Pujols appears destined to reach such lofty heights.

Just about every Cardinal fan is hoping to hear Pujols say, “I’ll be back.”

Ghosts in the Machine

There have been whispers throughout Pujols’ career that he is older than his claimed age. His listed birthdate is Jan. 16, 1980, meaning he’ll be entering his age-32 year in 2012. I give little credence to these age-related accusations, but it should be noted.

Assuming his age is accurate, an eight-year deal still would run through age 39, and there aren’t too many players in history who have maintained strong production through that age. And you know any contract would pay Pujols top dollar every season of its duration.

There have been numerous players who have received long-term deals only to see their production slip, at best, or crater, at worst. Typical declines in skills, the wear and tear of a 162-game seaon, and traumatic injuries all have played roles in bringing the greatest players down to earth.

So even if Pujols continues to excel for a few more years, a long-term deal will pay him upwards of $30 million a season at the end of the decade for contributions that most likely will fall far short of his salary.

The other issue is whether that decline has already begun. I’ve taken to calling Pujols “Mr. 99″ lately. He finished the 2011 season with a .299 batting average and 99 RBI, both career lows and the first time he finished a season been below .300 or 100 RBI. He also had a 99-runs scored season back in 2007.

In addition to those average and ribbie marks, Pujols walks-to-strikeouts total last year was 61:58. That ratio is the worst it’s been since 2002, and he had never finished with fewer walks than this past season.

Perhaps even more telling, his OPS was only .906, the lowest of his career by nearly 50 points and the first time it has been under 1.000 since 2007 (when it was .997). Yes, offense was down last year, but Pujols’ OPS+ of 150 also was a career low. Sure, a broken wrist and his ever-present nagging injuries certainly contributed to his relatively weak year. But the total picture shows a player who is still incredibly talented, but not clearly the best baseball player on the planet.

There are justifiable reasons for St. Louis to say “Hasta la vista” to Pujols.

Recommendation

This is the free agent dilemma every team must deal with. Players who reach free agency typically are at or near their peaks, so future production is nearly guaranteed to be lesser than past production, particularly with a long-term contract. But free agency allows teams to acquire these highly-skilled players around the top of their games and may put a World Series championship within reach.

Adding in the significance players such as Pujols have beyond just their on-field performance only further muddies the waters when a team has to decide whether to re-sign a player, and for how much and how long.

Cards GM John Mozeliak has a very difficult decision on his hands. Reports are that St. Louis isn’t willing to move far off last spring’s offer in the nine-year, $200 million range, which works out to a $22.2 million average annual value (AAV). Pujols and agent Dan Lorenzo are said to be looking for a record AAV, topping Alex Rodriguez‘s $27.5 million-AAV deal with the Yankees.

A contract worth $200 million over seven years would net Pujols nearly $28.6 million a season, eclipsing A-Rod. (I would recommend a $199 million pact for Mr. 99, but that’s just me.) But I don’t know if that’s enough years for the Cardinals to retain him. Tacking on another year or two at $25 milllion per—either as options or guaranteed, if necessary—would retain that record AAV while all but ensuring Pujols would be a Cardinal for life.

There certainly is a match to be made between this courting couple. Hopefully the sides can reach an agreement that works for both of them, providing St. Louis and its fans with an iconic player to continue to cheer for the next several years and Pujols with the monetary recognition his sensational career has earned.

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Comments

  1. eric arvidson said...

    Well written. Good arguments for both sides.
    Keep in mind that you face a Peyton Manning scenario – you pay him so much that you can’t afford
    the rest of the players needed to be competitive. Keeping him may put butts in the seats, but letting him go and using that money to strengthen several positions could lead to a more sustained and competitive team – which ALSO puts butts in the seats!!!

  2. Duane Wallin said...

    Well written, Southpaw.  I’m glad that I don’t have to make that decision.  I’m a Twins fan and have watched what has happened to Joe Mauer with the fans this past season.  Here is a guy that has won three, count them, three batting titles and he is a catcher with great skills.  This season he has been hurt and has not done much.  Along with him is Moreau who has gotten the same treatment from the fans.  They are ready to run the two of them out of town and Mauer is a home town boy.  Things have changed dramatically in one season.  Could it happen to Albert.  You bet it could.  Tough decision all the way around.

  3. AaronB said...

    Well written indeed, Greg.  This potential deal is what separates the Yankees, possibly Boston, from everyone else.  If you are the Yankees, you give him an 8-10 year deal from $28-$30M/year.  If Albert ages significantly over the lifetime of the contract, no big deal, because the contract won’t cripple the organization’s ability to acquire new players and win. 

    The Cards, or any other similar team?  While they can spend the $ to sign him, they have to be smart about it, realizing that if Pujol’s #‘s significantly drop over the life of the contract, they’re stuck with it.  The Cards as an organization make a lot of money and have the ability to have a large payroll, but they don’t have the ability to eat $25 to $30M/year if Albert hit’s .260 w/22HR’s & 73 RBI at age 38. 

    The Cards & Albert obviously have a big decision here:  go for the really long term deal, but at less $/season, similar to the supposedly 9 year $200M offered, or go for the shorter, but higher annual salary, say a 5 year $140M deal.  That five year deal would make the annual average over ARod’s deal. 

    As a Cards fan, I’d really like to see a 5-7 year deal because the depreciation factor scares the hell out of me.  Do people realize that if Pujols signs a 10 year deal that he’ll be 41 at the end of it? 

    The Cards have to play this smart.  If they get Pujols signed to the right deal, they’ll be set up to contend for several years, having a nice blend of vets and younger talent.

  4. Bob said...

    Bear in mind, by the time Pujols is merely a 3-win player (say, 5 or 6 years from now), each win will likely be worth nearly $6M apiece on the open market—-making Pujols an $18M player. Which means that if Pujols is making $26M, he’s “costing” the team -8 million dollars. Hardly back-breaking.

    Moreover, knowing the kind of prideful athlete Pujols is (in the best sense), does anyone here think he’d even stick around once he becomes merely average? I seriously doubt that The Machine would accept in excess of $25M to hit .275/.350/.430.

    I think an early retirement that leaves money on the table (a la Mark McGwire) is more likely.

  5. Greg H said...

    Bob,

    Pujols and McGwire have nothing in common other than they both played 1B for the Cardinals.  McGwire was never the hitter or ballplayer Pujols is.  And McGwire’s body was forever breaking down throughout his career, whereas Pujols has been very durable. You may as well compare Pujols to Cecil Fielder.

    The problem with letting Pujols go is that the Cardinals will not be perennial contenders without him.  In fact, to get a feel for what’s in store for the Cardinals if they let Pujols go, just go back to the time pre-Pujols, from 1988-1999, after Whitey Herzog’s team got broken apart.  The Cardinals had a losing record six out of twelve seasons and only made the playoffs once.  Attendance was much lower than it has been with Pujols.  So the bottom line of the Cardinals would be affected without Pujols.  Attendance would drop when the team no longer is a shoo-in for roughly 90 wins or more per season. Media revenue would decline.  Merchandise sales would decline. Pujols pays for himself in spades by making the Cardinals a winner, and that’s what fills the coffers of Bill DeWitt Jr.

    The idea that Pujols would take up too much payroll space and thus be a detriment to the Cardinals is laughable.  The Rays have demonstrated that a team can sustain greatness for several seasons in a row without much of any payroll.  In contrast, the Cardinals would be in a position to devote $80 million and up to players not named Pujols over the duration of his expected contract extension. If a team can’t field a winner with that much payroll to play with, then the team has a lousy front office.  And if Pujols is just too expensive, then what is Matt Holliday?  How can one justify spending $20 million next year on Westbrook and Lohse?  If the Cardinals have put themselves is a position where they can’t afford the best player in the game because they overpaid for far less valuable players, then the Cardinals are run by idiots.

  6. Guy N said...

    I’m guessing the Cards could get creative and front-load the contract, start at $30MM per year and decline every 2 years with more and more incentives in later years.  Pujols gets his guaranteed $$ and AAV, Cards get a great (if not the best) player for a few more years, and a cash cow merchandising and attendance-wise.  And they wouldn’t have to be hurt as much in the later years if production declines…

    Just a thought

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