The St. Louis Cardinals have until Wednesday to negotiate exclusively with baseball’s best player. After that, a contract that should go down as one of the great free-agent buyouts ever will be set for its final year, and there will be no guarantee that Pujols stays in St. Louis. Pujols currently has all the leverage in the world, it seems, so the Cardinals have limited options. They can pay up, offering Pujols something like a ten-year deal in excess of $250 million, or they can enjoy one more probable MVP-caliber year from him before he hits the market. Each one of these has significant enough implications to merit its own analysis, so today, the focus is on how the Cardinals might get Pujols to agree to an extension the Cardinals can manage and whether or not it would be a wise investment. Then, once the deadline passes, check back here for either analysis of Pujols’ new mega-deal or a look ahead at what could happen next.
What would a 10-year, $280 million deal do to the Cardinals payroll in the near future? (Note: That Pujols would take this deal is an assumption. Not counting the potential home run bonuses in Alex Rodriguez’s current deal, this would be the most lucrative player contract in baseball—and sports—history.) The Cardinals’ 2011 payroll, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, is right around $104 million, with $49 million already committed for 2012. If the new deal simply pays Pujols $28 million per year and the Cardinals pick up Chris Carpenter’s option, the 2012 payroll comes to $91 million. Colby Rasmus and Jason Motte will be arbitration-eligible for the first time, which may cost the Cardinals something like $6 million. Kyle McClellan, Skip Schumaker, and Ryan Theriot will get arbitration raises that could easily add up to another $10 million. Matt Holliday’s $2 million-dollar deferral leaves the Cardinals at around $105 million, meaning the Cardinals would have nothing to spend for 2012 if they do not increase payroll beyond its current level or take Holliday up on his offer to defer more money.
This is the tricky part. That decision would leave the Cardinals with Jon Jay in right field and without Ryan Franklin in the bullpen, based on their current depth chart. One might argue that having Pujols around renders those downgrades irrelevant, which is a fair argument, but the fact is that the current Cardinals are a fringe playoff team as it is and cannot afford too many subtractions. The 2012 team suggested here would be remarkably similar to the 2010 team, which only won 86 games but posted a 91-win Pythagorean expectation for the second straight year. That expected win total is one toward which the Cardinals can expect to regress if their run differential remains relatively constant again in 2012. In other words, the Cardinals would still have a fighting chance at making the playoffs, but they would likely not be favored to do so, especially if the Reds build upon the strides they made in 2010.
Clearly, though, the implications of this deal extend far beyond 2012. If they did not, this would be an easy choice. After all, all it would take for Pujols to be worth $28 million in 2012, assuming 5% salary growth, is 5.1 WAR, which he has bested literally every year of his career. The real question for Cardinals GM John Mozeliak is whether he wants to pay Pujols through 2021. If A-Rod’s contract puts a strain on the Yankees, one can only imagine how difficult it would be for a team with half the payroll to operate around a similar commitment. Still, it can be done, and Albert clearly has the potential to produce at least close to what $28 million per year would demand. See below.
2012: $5.5MM/WAR = 5.1 WAR
2013: $5.8MM/WAR = 4.8 WAR
2014: $6.1MM/WAR = 4.6fWAR
2015: $6.4MM/WAR = 4.4 WAR
2016: $6.7MM/WAR = 4.2 WAR
2017: $7.0MM/WAR = 4.0 WAR
2018: $7.4MM/WAR = 3.8 WAR
2019: $7.7MM/WAR = 3.6 WAR
2020: $8.1MM/WAR = 3.4 WAR
2021: $8.5MM/WAR = 3.3 WAR
These numbers probably look like child’s play for Albert Pujols as we currently conceive him, but even for him, there is risk involved. A-Rod signed his new mammoth deal after a season for the ages (9.2 WAR, .449 wOBA), but he suddenly dropped off to 6.0, 4.5, and then 3.9 WAR from 2008-10 with injuries and declining power along the way. At some point, this will happen to Albert Pujols, and when it does, the Cardinals will either be breaking even on Pujols or have several million dollars too many committed to him. The question is when that will be. Can 36-year-old Pujols post 4.2 WAR? What about 42-year-old Pujols’ attempt to reach 3.3? The Cardinals should be trying to answer these questions so that if they pay Pujols, they pay him rationally—that is, more when he produces more and less when he produces less—ensuring that he does not weigh the team down when he declines. This is what the Yankees did with A-Rod, committing more to him in 2010-11 ($32 million per year) than in 2016-17 ($20 million per year).
Ultimately, these numbers suggest that Pujols could indeed be worth the biggest contract in baseball history, especially if the Cardinals remain playoff contenders throughout most of the deal, which would boost Pujols value further. Losing him now, though, would mean the Cardinals would need to either spend very wisely elsewhere or rebuild. If the Cardinals can gradually take the burden off Pujols’ shoulders while he ages by setting up a rational payment structure and developing their farm system, they should do what it takes to keep him. Still, no statistic can dispute that this is a very difficult, risk-laden decision that will shape the future of the St. Louis Cardinals. For some clubs, no player is worth that kind of money, and financial flexibility seems the clear answer. The trouble with that is that no club has a player like Albert Pujols.
Lance Gurewitz is currently a freshman at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He also serves as the MLB Trade Rumors Florida Marlins Team Coordinator. You can read and discuss his baseball analysis and other sports musings in 140 characters or less by following @LanceWG42 on Twitter
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