16 February 2011

Cardinals Don't Need to Sign Pujols Now

There's never been a player quite like Albert Pujols, and so it stands to reason that there probably has never been a contract negotiation like the one going on now in the St. Louis Cardinals' spring training camp in Jupiter, Florida.  Pujols' contract option for 2011 was exercised by the Cardinals last October, so they're set for this year, but after that Pujols can become a free agent.

He's already stated that he won't negotiate a contract during the 2011 season and he's already extended the deadline to come to some agreement once, with the second deadline to be Wednesday at noon.  The Cardinals, of course, would like nothing more than to keep the best player in baseball, but given the literally historic nature of his talent, the Cards are likely to end up paying historic dollars - maybe $300 million or more - for the second half of his career.

But paying a player for the second half of his career and expecting the kind of production you saw in his youth is often a losing proposition.  To wit, we need look no further than the list of similar players (based on Bill James' Similarity Scores) on Baseball-reference.com:

  1. Albert Belle (848)
  2. Hank Greenberg (847) *
  3. Johnny Mize (826) *
  4. Juan Gonzalez (817)
  5. Larry Walker (805)
  6. Lance Berkman (803)
  7. Jim Edmonds (802)
  8. Chuck Klein (801) *
  9. Todd Helton (800)
  10. Jason Giambi (798) 
 Those stars mean that the player is in the Hall of Fame, and it's worth noting that several others on that list might still become Hall of Famers someday.  It's also worth noting, however, that Belle was out of baseball after his age 33 season, a victim of a degenerative hip condition that prevented him from playing without alleviating the Orioles from having to pay for the remaining three years and $35 million on his 5-year contract.

It's also worth noting that few of these guys would have provided anything close to fair value if they had received a contract consummate with their talents at age 30, as Pujols expects to get.  Greenberg retired after his age 36 season.  Mize was no longer a regular after age 35.  Gonzalez had his last productive, healthy season at 31.  Walker was a shell of his former self at age 36, a part time player by age 37 and retired at age 39.  Klein was washed up at 33, but played several more years as a part timer.

Berkman is 34 and looks like he's nearing the end.  Helton is playing regularly still, but is averaging about half as many homers and RBIs per season since he turned 31.  Giambi had some good years in New York, but only one anywhere near as good as his last few in Oakland, and that was at age 32, when he first arrived.  He missed halves of two different seasons to injuries and has struggled to remain employed as a bench player for the last two years.

The list of most similar players by age is not much more encouraging:
  1. Jimmie Foxx (863) *
  2. Frank Robinson (845) *
  3. Ken Griffey (840)
  4. Lou Gehrig (839) *
  5. Hank Aaron (839) *
  6. Mickey Mantle (821) *
  7. Mel Ott (800) *
  8. Juan Gonzalez (763)
  9. Eddie Mathews (751) *
  10. Manny Ramirez (744)
 Now we've got seven Hall of Famers, and presumably Griffey will someday make eight.  the other two would likely be in the Hall as well someday if not for the taint of PEDs, but in any case, the numbers are there.  But again, the picture looks kind of bleak when you start trying to justify something like a ten-year contract starting at age 32.

Foxx was washed up at 34.  Mantle? As famous for his injuries as for his prodigious skills, his career started unraveling after age 32.  Griffey had exactly one season in which he amassed at least 600 plate appearances after age 30.  Gehrig was forced to retire due to failing health at age 36 and was dead a year later.  Ott and Mathews were both done around age 36.  

Only Robinson, Aaron and Manny Ramirez offer glints of hope, and even they need to be taken with a grain of salt.  Manny Being Manny has been being pretty productive when he's played, but he hasn't played more than 104 games in a season since age 36.  Hank was still hammerin' at age 42, and was wonderfully productive in his 30's, but even he saw a drop off in his fourth decade.  He went from a 162 OPS+ in his 30's to a 107 OPS+ in his 40's, and averaged 35 fewer games per season.

Robinson was also very good through his mid 30's - better than the raw numbers would have you believe - but his playing time dropped off precipitously at age 38.  If Albert's contract goes into his 40's, as Alex Rodriguez' contract does and as has been speculated will be the case, the Cards are bound to get burned.

With all that said, it's worth noting also that Albert is unlike most of the men we've mentioned.  He's not seeing significantly inflated numbers because of the era or the parks in which he plays, as was the case with Klein, Walker, Foxx, Ott, and Helton.  He's not already injury prone like Mantle or Juan Gone, and he isn't likely to come down with some bizarre, career-ending ailment like Belle or Gehrig. Of course, neither were they until it actually happened. 

Well, on the other hand he has had some issues with a bad throwing elbow, which he opted to treat with a nerve transportation rather than Tommy John surgery two winters ago, so theoretically that could show up at any time.  But even that should - I repeat: should - only keep Pujols out for about one season if it proves necessary.  The Cards can still get their money's worth even if they get only nine of the ten seasons for which they're paying (or seven of eight, or whatever).

The real issue, as was the case with the Jayson Werth signing, is whether the Cards will get fair value for their dollars.  If they sign him to, say, a 10-year, $300 million contract, can they expect to get burned?   If you start with the value of a WAR (a Win Above Replacement) at about $4 million (according to FanGraphs.com), and then use 5% inflation for each of 10 years starting in 2012, you end up with a rate of about $6.9 million per win by 2021.

That sounds ridiculous and almost certainly won't be the case, but then 10 years ago the value of a Win was something like half of what it is now, and I wouldn't have believed then that it could rise so much as it has, so I suppose anything's possible.  This gives us an "average" cost per win of about $5.5 million over the life of the supposed 10 year contract.  So, if the Cardinals pay him $300 million over that span, he'll need to somehow accrue about 54 Wins Above Replacement over that time. 

There have been only four players in the history of professional baseball who managed to amass 54 or more WAR between the ages of 32 and 41, and you know each of them by one name: Barry, Willie, Babe and Honus, and one of those probably owes a lot of that success to "better living through chemistry", if you get my drift.

Three others, Hank Aaron, Cap Anson and Tris Speaker, earned a little over 50 WAR in that span, and three others more had at least 45.  Those include Ty Cobb, Edgar Martinez and Ted Williams, who almost certainly would have been in the 54 WAR+ group if he hadn't spent most of his age 32 and 33 seasons flying bombers over North Korea.

So that gives us four guys, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Honus Wagner.  Four guys in the history of baseball, in which about 17,500 players have spent at least one day in the majors, and about 4,500 have spent at least one day there between the ages of 32 and 41.  Pujols has a better chance of being hit by lighting at some point in his life than he does of living up to such a contract.

But of course Albert Pujols has already defied the odds.  He won the Rookie of the Year award at age 21, in his debut season, something only a handful of others had done.  He's one of only 10 players in history with 3 or more MVP Awards.  He's one of only about a dozen guys in history who have finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting at least ten times, and he's the only one to ever do it 10 years in a row.

How good is Albert Pujols?  His wors season was 2002, his second in the majors.  Pujols' "Sophomore Slump"gave him an average line of .314/.394/.561, along with 34 homers, 118 runs and 127 RBIs. That was the first and only time he didn't get on base at least 40% of the time in any season, and his work was good for 5.8 WAR, according to Baseball-reference.com.

That was his worst season. 

There are, by my count, 23 Hall of Fame position players who never had a season that good.  Granted, that list includes a lot of questionable Veterans committee selections and/or guys who were known predominantly for their defense, like Bill Mazeroski, Rabbit Maranville and George Kell, but it also includes prolific hitters like Sam Rice, Jim Bottomley, Lou Brock and Pie Traynor.  ANother 19 Hall of Famers have only one season as good as Pujols' worst, including Monte Irvin, Enos Slaughter, Mickey Cochrane and Dave Winfield.

Jim Rice, Zach Wheat, Sam Thompson, Roy Campanella and a dozen others had only two such seasons.  First-ballot guys Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray and Willie Stargell fall in with a group of 17 who had only three such seasons.  You see where this is going.  In fact, of the 134 Hall of Famers elected as position players, 118 of them don't have 10 seasons as good as Pujols' worst year. 

So it's possible, though I dare not say likely, that Pujols will continue to defy the odds and actually live up to such an incredible contract.  Projections that far out are all but impossible to make.  Baseball Prospectus, who's about as good at this on a year to year basis as anybody out there, shows Pujols in 2019 hitting .306/.409/.554 - but in only 301 plate appearances.  Don't you think that if you had a 39-year old who could hit like that, you'd find a way to get him into the lineup more than every other game?  Yeah, me too. 

But even if he does produce enough over the life of the contract, the likelihood of him still being even a productive player, much less a superstar, at age 41 is pretty low.  Barry Bonds, for example, racked up enough WAR in his 30's that even with a lost season at age 40 and reduced playing time at age 41, he still would have made the contract a bargain.  Ditto for Babe Ruth, who played only a handful of games at age 40 and none at all at 41, but was so good from 32-39 that the team would easily have made its money back on a contract like this one.

But those are the exceptions, not the rule, and anyway, getting enough value overall is not the only concern.  Having an albatross of a contract around a franchise's collective neck is going to be a real problem if Pujols gets hurt or even if he becomes gradually less productive, like everyone else who's ever played major league baseball.  Few things tend to jade a fan base like knowing that the team is throwing money away on an unproductive player.  Even if he wins the MVP five more times in the next eight years, getting stuck with two years on the end of the contract during which Pujols will earn $50 or $60 million and not do much will sour a lot of folks on both him and the team, and more important, may hamper the team's ability to field a competitive roster. 

Therefore, the Cards would do well to limit the length to, say, seven or eight years instead of 10, if at all possible.  That might require them to go up a little in average salary, but it could be worth it to avoid having to pay the man $25 or $30 million to ride the bench in 2020.

Better yet, though, they should wait.  Pujols is under contract for 2011, and what's the worst that could happen?  he wins another MVP award, and now they have to re-sign a 4-time MVP award winner rather than a 3-time winner.  Maybe now it's $32 million per instead of $30.  Big deal.  But if he gets hurt or something, and they're on the hook for $300 million?  Well, that would be disastrous.  Or if he plays, but shows some signs of decline, at least they have a leg to stand on in the negotiations, a way to justify not paying him quite so many millions for quite so many years. 

Additionally, other teams will suddenly have a reason to be wary of signing him away from St. Louis. They're already at the top of the market for this player.  He's as valuable as he's ever going to be, so why buy now?  He'll have just as much reason to stay in St. Louis next winter as he does now, maybe more if they make a run or win another World Series or something. 

So, my advice is: Wait. 

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