Monday, February 14, 2011

Albert Pujols Talk Takes a Hard Right Into Crazy-Town

By Kyle Jahner

He wants to stay. They need him to stay. And yet, #Albertageddon trending on Twitter amid reports that the Cardinals and Albert Pujols aren't yet close to a deal in contract negotiations. With a full season before his contract expires.

Keeping negotiations private and refusing to negotiate from spring training through the World Series might keep the team from becoming opinionated and divided on the issue, and even at least temper the number of questions Pujols and Co. get. But writers and fear-mongers couldn't be happier; it is the perfect formula to fuel rampant speculation about whether a player will test free agency in a year.

Of course, this isn't just any player. Pujols hits a baseball better than perhaps any man who has ever walked on earth. Sure, in a given year, another player will have a career year and put up comparable numbers to Pujols. Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, and Josh Hamilton (save some injury time) did last year. But only one man has the Pujols Guarantee.

Let's be clear how much better he is than other great players: Pujols' pedestrian eighth (yes, 8th) best numbers out of 10 seasons in key categories: .327, .414 OBP, 37 homers, 118 RBI, 112 runs. Adrian Gonzalez, the Red Sox' prized new acquisition at first, has never posted an average or OBP that high and only once amassed so many homers. The Yankees' Mark Teixeira (current deal: eight years, $180 million) has clipped those numbers once in OBP and thrice in homers, but never in average. Cabrera's 2010 season matched those OBP, average, and homer numbers ... for just the second time each. Elite NL one-baggers Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder can matchup with raw power, but matchup OBP once between them.

Even Alex Rodriguez, with 15 full seasons, has just as many 37-homer seasons as Pujols, and only half as many seasons with OBPs north of .414. (Only Barry Bonds' odd late-30s resurgence allows his numbers to even compare, and we all have a good idea how that came about.) Now, many still regard A-Rod's $252 million contract in Texas among the worst contracts ever, and the Rangers just recently recovered. While that deal did limit flexibility, so did dropping $64 million on Chan Ho Park to lead a pitching staff of awfulness; the Rangers' demise was compounded and elongated by A-Rod's deal, not caused by it.

But still, a middle-market team like St. Louis has to be cautious about how much more than a quarter of projected payroll they commit to one man (especially with Matt Holliday and others leaving the Cardinals plenty of other commitments), even if attendance and revenue in a baseball town like St. Louis wouldn't likely plummet as fast because of a bad season as it did in Arlington.

The Cardinals know this risk. Even most Cardinals fans know this. Though generally favoring a "pay the man" attitude when asked, we (yes, I'm one of them) know Albert isn't worth infinity dollars. No player is. And as great as Pujols has been, is there any guarantee (or even likelihood) that he'll be worth $30 million at 38, much less 41? How exactly do you project the future decline a player with no precedent? Plus, what happens if he does get hurt? How many years would disaster set the Cardinals back?

And unlike the Cubs, where multiple bad signings and injuries derailed the franchise (another team just now coming up for air), a sinkhole of this magnitude wouldn't have to be paired with much else to cripple an organization for years, considering the payroll capacity and farm system talent are middle-of-the-road.

Even though he is utterly irreplaceable and not signing him would be a definitive embarrassment, apprehension to act recklessly is natural and warranted. There is such thing as "more than he's worth," in wins and in revenue. The Cardinals should be willing to go over that to keep the face of the franchise. But by how much?

Pujols, meanwhile, is trying to effectively sign the last contract of his baseball life. He knows the Cardinals need him, probably quite a bit more than he needs them. Yes, he'd lose the charm of his loyalty to his only club. Prior statements that he'd made "enough" money and that if the Cards were committed to winning, he'd want to retire in St. Louis would ring hollow if he bailed for an extra year or two at a few more million per. But it would hardly bury him for years as the decision could the Cardinals. And considering that, more than any other player in history, he has justified his previous seven-year, $100-million extension better than anyone has ever justified a nine-figure deal. In fairness, the fair market might argue that the Cardinals probably still owe him for much of his 2001-2010 production.

Still, Pujols leaving would have St. Louisans feeling like Clevelanders after LeBronapalooza. But it would only be a feeling. First, baseball is not like basketball where one player, even Pujols, can disappear and have the team go from leading a conference in wins to tying the professional sports record for consecutive losses. It would hurt a lot, but the team wouldn't drop off the planet in the NL Central, either. Also, Pujols is unlikely to sucker punch the city with a big F-U press conference to talk about where he'll take his talents. Most importantly, Pujols has won a title in St. Louis, a city whose baseball tradition, despite what would be an emotional clobbering, would continue even in a post-Pujols apocalyptic world. Cleveland went back to having three awful pro sports teams to go with a dysfunctional economy and crappy weather.

At the same time, where could he go? As this article points out, most places that can really afford him don't make much sense. (The Cubs, of all teams, seem to be an exception). To outbid the Cardinals, a team would have to break the bank and take a gargantuan risk. Other teams have been mentioned, like the Nationals, Mariners, Orioles, and even Royals. But they'd be such long shots based on how much of their revenues they'd have to commit. And despite young potential on those clubs, leaving for a few extra dollars hardly rings true with any "commitment to winning" prerequisite Pujols has set forth. Potential doesn't make the playoffs. Wins do, and those teams haven't done it yet. The Cardinals have frequently over recent years and retain a great core.

The most telling recent comparison would probably be the negotiations of Derek Jeter. Both El Hombre and the Captain are iconic, respected stars playing their entire careers in one place. Both franchises would have taken a massive PR hit if they had lost their face-of-the-franchise figure. Neither player seemed to have any true interest in leaving. And Jeter also rejected a more-than-fair offer from New York, calling the initial three-year, $45 million dollar offer and the Yankees' negotiating approach "baffling." So don't equate rejected offer with contempt or an inclination to leave.

In fairness, that analogy is imperfect. Jeter's signing was just a thank you from the Yankees; Pujols has plenty of production left in his bat. Even Jeter had to know that any other GM would have to be on a Charlie Sheen-type bender to contemplate offering half that for his declining bat and awful defense. (Then again, the Angels traded for Vernon Wells' contract, Washington spent 1/8th of a billion dollars on Jayson Werth, and the Dodgers dropped $21 million on Juan Uribe's .300 career OBP. So who knows?)

So yes, Cardinals fans can fret about every negotiation tidbit and every day that passes without a contract, sleeplessly tossing and turning, ghoulish images of a deranged Albert cloaked in blue Cubs pinstripes tormenting your dreams as he takes a flamethrower to a paper machete arch replica while guzzling Old Style and cursing at small children in old Cardinals No. 5 replica jerseys.

But if Albert were only about the money, he would have waited for free agency the first time rather than signing an extension. If he wanted to play somewhere else, he wouldn't threaten to veto any trade this season, no matter what. If he could move back to third base for a cash heavy team already set at first, he'd do that for a St. Louis lineup that would rather not have Lance Berkman in the OF. And if the Cardinals weren't willing to do what it takes to keep him or spend money on winning, they wouldn't have dropped $120 million on Holliday to convince Pujols that they were committed to winning. Right? RIGHT?!

All kinds of people are spouting off about how he's gone. Hypochondria's new capital city is the Gateway to the Midwest. Every little cough emerging from contract talks is quarantined and examined as if The Plague had emerged. Pujols is being greedy. The front office is shunning its breadwinner and made him cry.

My advice: ignore it. Naïve? Maybe. But guess what: my attitude can't re-sign Pujols, and there's no tangible reason to believe it won't happen anyway. It's called a contract negotiation, people. And it's one involving the most valuable asset in a sport where these things are far from an exact science. It takes time. And as Jeter's example shows, tough talk doesn't preclude future harmony. The Cardinals are still the most logical destination. They will offer a contract very similar to anything he'll find elsewhere; there are no Yankees or Red Sox waiting with blank checks. St. Louis has proven able to contend in what is usually a quite winnable division. The Cardinals need Pujols more than any other team. Pujols says he likes St. Louis and wants to stay. And baseball people (people actually in the game, not writing about it and with incentive to drum up drama over the issue) have almost been universally quoted as saying they can't envision him landing elsewhere.

I refuse to torture myself. My guess: 8-9 years, $225-$240 million, with the final few years heavily deferred. Even if they don't negotiate until November, I'd be shocked if Pujols played in another uniform.

Yet, I still can't help but question whether a cough is a symptom every once in a while. Guess that's what happens when a player this good makes the stakes this high.

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