Matt v Matt: Albert Pujols – The Free Agent

By Matt Melton and Matt Mahaffey

It goes without saying that Albert Pujols is a player of no comparison. No player in MLB history has put up the offensive statistics that Pujols has over the first eleven years of a career. I’ve detailed in previous columns how this current offseason was going to force the Cardinals (and all of baseball) to attempt to value the invaluable. With what Pujols has already accomplished in his career, and with the future that lies ahead, teams looking at him this winter in free agency are not looking to sign just another first baseman. We are potentially talking about the best hitter to ever swing a bat.

That being said, I’ve invited my good friend, and enormous baseball fan, Matthew Mahaffey, to help me answer the opening question in this monthly Matt v Matt series – “How Much Money Should the Cardinals Pay Albert Pujols?”

Matthew Mahaffey

Thanks to an incredibly successful eighteen-game post-season and nail-biting regular season finish, the Cardinals are now swimming in money. Ticket sales will no doubt be way up for 2012, as will 2011 holiday merchandise purchases. If the city of St. Louis can forgo a mandated one to three-week furlough from postseason revenue increases, how many more armored cars are backing up to Busch Stadium right now?

And the Cardinals still should not pay Albert Pujols anything close to what he wants.

It is well known that Pujols’ ideal contract is in the ballpark of 10 years and $300 Million, with an acceptable but less-than-ideal 10/275, ala Alex Rodriguez. The Cardinals’ reported offer was around 8 years and $200 Million. That’s Ryan Howard money, plus three years.

No one needs metrics to understand how much value on the dollar the Cardinals have received over the course of Pujols’ recently expired contract, but they will open your eyes. According to Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus, over the last eight years (2004-2011) Pujols has been worth approximately $253.6 Million. The Cardinals have paid him $116 Million, saving $17.2 Million dollars per year for eight years. Yikes. There’s your Matt Holliday money, folks. However, the Cardinals are deciding how to spend for production not yet given, so let’s look a bit closer. Pujols’ anticipated value for 2011 was $33.9 Million. His actual value was $22.8M. More disturbing, his 2011 slash-line was .299/.366/.541 with the lowest WARP (5.6) of his career. His 2011 pre-season 20th percentile projection was .293/.399/.538. Better yet, before the 2011 season, his age 40 season projection (assuming he is his listed age) was 529 ABs, .303/.419/.554 with 28 HRs. That is pessimistically similar to 2011.

One other salient nugget to remember is that expensive long term contracts rarely bring a good return on their investment. Heading into 2012 the fifteen richest contracts in baseball (5 years or more in length) are: Alex Rodriguez, Joe Mauer, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Troy Tulowitzki, Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, Carl Crawford, Johan Santana, Alfonso Soriano, Vernon Wells, Barry Zito, Jayson Werth and Ryan Howard. Ugh. It is hard to make a good faith argument in favor of more than three of those (Teixeira, Tulowitzki, Gonzalez), and I think even those are a stretch. Occasionally you will get a Manny Ramirez, Barry Bonds, Chipper Jones or Albert Pujols-type return on the investment, however, it surely is the exception, not the rule, and you are certainly tempting fate to try it twice with the same player – a player now seven years older and looking for an even longer, more expensive contract.

Perhaps the best analysis of this situation came in December 2010 by Jeff Euston of Baseball Prospectus. Before 2011 began, Pujols’ Marginal Value Above Replacement Player (MORP) for the next seven seasons (starting with 2011) was $158.7 Million or $22.7M per year. For the next nine years (2011-2019), it was $201.7 Million or $22.4M per. This was assuming a 2011 line of .313/.422/.575 and the subsequent future fall off from those numbers, not from Pujols’ actual 2011 numbers. After presenting this data, Euston reminded readers that contract numbers tend to balloon above actual value once they reach the open market, mentioning as examples, Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth and Ryan Howard. Or as I like to refer to those contracts -stupid, stupider, and stupidest.

Successful baseball franchises are not built on paying for past performances, otherwise Baltimore and Chicago would be flying many more flags. The Cardinals have a strong legacy and tradition because they win, not because they are sentimental. A ten-year contract puts Albert’s age near 43 (c’mon, people!), and unless you are willing to say that 2011 was, in almost every manner, an aberration, then a long-term deal worth at or over $25M per is not good baseball business, unless the Cardinals are going to substantially increase payroll. Eight years and $200M was more than reasonable, and more years than should otherwise be offered. Five years and $150M seems about right for a wonderful, regressing player. This would make him the highest paid player in baseball, acknowledging how good he has been and still could be. It also wouldn’t ignore his 2011season, his age, and the Cardinals’ future. It should be a win-win, and that is my final answer.

Matt Melton

Before I answer the question, I must state that I believe “should” is a poor word choice. I’m a Cardinals fan first, so as far as I’m concerned, the team should pay Pujols however much it will take him to stay. The question is really better phrased in asking “how much money will the Cardinals pay Pujols?” There is no sense in asking how much, “could” or “should”, the team pay. Instead, the real question is: when the day comes, and the Cardinals announce they have resigned their franchise first baseman, what will be the terms of that contract?

Bill DeWitt Jr., majority owner of the Cardinals, owns a commodity in the franchise that makes him large amounts of money now, and will make him astronomically more on the day he decides to sell the team. However, like any uber-smart business man, he operates his company within the confines of a budget, and that leads to the essence of my answer – the Cardinals will pay Pujols as much as their budget will allow them.

Mr. DeWitt has made it known that the Cardinals will operate next season with a budget of $110 Million (based on a 25-man Opening Day roster). If you calculate the amount of money already committed to players on next year’s roster, and then account for likely expenses at positions with unknown starters, you will be left with what the team can afford for Albert Pujols’ 2012 salary. How does it look? I’ll give you a hint; not good, if you are a Cardinals’ fan.

First, let’s take a look at the pitching staff as it’s virtually set for next season. The starting rotation includes (in order of cost) Kyle Lohse ($12.2 Million), Chris Carpenter ($10.5M), Adam Wainwright ($9M), Jake Westbrook ($8.5M) and Jaime Garcia ($3.4M). Total Spent = $43.6 Million.

The bullpen is also relatively easy to figure. All available relievers are either fully under the Cardinals control for next season at the major league minimum salary (Mark Rzepczynski, Lance Lynn, Fernando Salas & Eduardo Sanchez), or are arbitration eligible for the first time (Jason Motte, Kyle McClellan & Mitchell Boggs). The names and roles are really irrelevant, as we are strictly discussing cost. The minimum salary player will each cost just shy of $500K, and the players eligible for arbitration should expect raises akin to their role and performance. I believe the team will spend roughly $6 Million on the seven-man bullpen.

Moving to the offense, most of the money will be spent in the outfield, as Matt Holliday ($17M) and Lance Berkman ($12M) are already under contract. Allen Craig & Jon Jay will share at-bats at CF, but both are fully under the team’s control, so they come together at a cost just shy of $1M. If you are keeping track at home, we have already spent $79.6 Million.

Shifting finally to the infield, the team has committed $7M for Yadier Molina, and GM John Mozeliak has stated the team will probably go with one of their minor-league catchers (Tony Cruz or Brian Anderson) as the backup, spending only the minimum $500K. David Freese, also being a minimum-salary player, will have to wait at least a year to cash in on his recent postseason heroics, as he will cost only $500K to be the team’s everyday 3B. The middle infield positions are a little trickier, as the team cannot afford to spend amounts equivalent to what they gave Ryan Theriot ($3.3M) and Skip Schumacher ($2.7M) last year. Rafael Furcal will have to take a huge pay cut ($13M last year) if he wants to return to St. Louis. That being said, I think the team will ultimately spend about $5 Million for 2B and SS (and their backups), and that takes into account the minimum salaries of likely bench players Tyler Greene & Daniel Descalso. Maybe the Cardinals get cute here and start Greene & Descalso to save money, but my guess is that they will need to secure more insurance at those positions with at least one veteran bat/glove, and that will cost a couple million.

There are other minor factors to consider, like the $850K owed to Zack Cox, as his rookie contract requires him to be on the major league roster, but if you add it all up, the roster as currently constructed will cost approximately $92 Million for 2012, sans that gaping hole at first base and on the lineup card. Herein lies the problem – the Cardinals, as presently constructed, have only budgeted about $18M next year for Albert Pujols. When you consider that such a salary would still make him the highest paid Cardinal, and would be a 20% raise from last year, it doesn’t seem that difficult to believe it can happen. But when my partner above throws out average salaries of $25-30 Million, we have a problem.

So, where is the extra money going to come from? Well, first thing I’d do is shift about $4M of retiring manager Tony LaRussa’s 2011 salary ($5M) and put it towards paying Pujols. The Cardinals look to be doing exactly that with the recent hiring of Mike Matheny as the team’s manager. Terry Francona was never a serious candidate; he was just too expensive, especially for this season. I might also talk to Molina about restructuring his deal, and add a few years beyond 2012, to lessen the salary for this season. Those two creative shifts might bring another $6M to the table, which gets you talking with Pujols’ agent. Beyond that, it’s really just pipe dreams – maybe the team convinces a veteran like Furcal or Theriot to play for $1M next season, or maybe they can convince another team to take on Lohse’s or Westbrook’s salary. That would allow the team to put a cheaper arm like McClellan or Rzepczynski in the 2012 rotation. This also means Edwin Jackson is not returning to the Cardinals next season, so if you see him sign before Pujols does, then Lance Berkman better dust off his first-base mitt.

The bottom line is that the Cardinals can allocate no more than $24M to pay Pujols for next season, and that is with the creative shifting of money I mentioned above. Considering a general rise in salary consistent with inflation, I see the Cardinals, if they are able to pull this off, announcing a contract for 8 years /$220M ($24M, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31), with one or both of the final years including some sort of option. This will force the team to find cheaper replacements from the bullpen to fill the innings Lohse and Westbrook will leave behind in the starting rotation in future years, to keep striking gold with those incredibly cheap and effective bullpen arms, and to hope that these young infielders can become lineup mainstays well into this decade. Albert Pujols gets what he wants (years and money); he retires as a Cardinal, maybe wins a couple more championships, and breaks some all-time records. It truly is a win-win, and we never have to have this discussion ever again.

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