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Monday, October 24, 2011

Don't Be Fooled By Albert Pujols

Game 3 of the 2011 World Series was a signature moment in the career of Albert Pujols. The three home runs he hit placed him in elite company with Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson, as the only other players to accomplish such a feat. Pujols is undoubtedly one of the best players of all time, but somebody is going to make a very big mistake this off-season when he hits the free agent market, by overpaying him an enormous contract.

Although it was just one game, incredibly, Pujols’ Game 3 will have a major impact on how teams view him in free agency. It was the defining moment of his season, perhaps even his career, and will be what general managers remember most vividly when pursuing the slugging first baseman. That one game even turned Pujols into one of the greatest hitters in the history of the World Series. His previous 11 World Series games, where he hit .222 with one home run were absolved from memory, and despite the inherent bad business practice, will be a major factor in earning him more money this off-season.

The problem with most free agent contracts is that they typically pay the player for what they have done in the past, with the hope that it continues in the future.  Pujols turned down very lucrative contract offers from St. Louis this past off-season, banking on the belief that he would get even more money if he waited to hit the open market. Although his 2011 was a tick beneath his normal production, the aura of his performance in just one game, Game 3, will be enough to send his value skyrocketing again. 

Scenarios like this seem to happen over and over again in baseball. Pujols’ historic power output in Game 3 confirmed to many in baseball that he is who they thought he was. His nearly impregnable armor had taken a few dings this past year, with a slow start to this season, and then his disappearing act with the media following the Game 2 loss. However, Pujols wiped the slate clean because of Game 3, and in the process dazzled the free agent market, which will almost certainly overpay for his services, likely even more than if he had not hit his three home runs. 

Pujols is certainly worthy of a rich contract, but he is seeking to obliterate his last deal, which averaged around 14 million dollars per season over eight seasons. If media reports are to be believed, he is looking for a deal averaging at least 25 million dollars over eight years. It is likely that some team will give him what he wants, or at least come close, but if they do, it will be a major mistake.

Baseball has a bad habit of not being able to resist overpaying for aging stars. A current example of this is Alex Rodriguez and the albatross of his 275 million dollar contract that the Yankees will carry with them through the 2017 season, when A-Rod will be 42 years old. He had come off a 2007 season where he hit .314, with 54 home runs and 156 RBI, but it was also his 14th major league season, and it was a reasonable conclusion that such production represented an apex, not a trend. While he still remains an excellent player, albeit one plagued by injuries, A-Rod’s OPS has declined each year since his new deal, with his 2011 mark being almost 250 points below what it was in 2007. He has not yet had one season that has lived up to the contract, and as he gets older, it is increasingly unlikely that he ever will.

Pujols will be 32 (more on that in a bit) at the start of next season. His production has slowly decreased over the past few years. His OPS has decreased in each of the past three seasons, and his .906 mark in 2011 represented the lowest of his career; more than 200 points less than what it at his high point in 2008. This trend is easier to mask because even though the numbers are going down, he is still a star and perhaps the best player in baseball. But that is as of 2011. As a veteran of 11 major league seasons, it is unlikely that he will maintain his current numbers, let alone increase them, over the next six to eight years- the length of the contract he is certain to sign. The team who gives in to his exorbitant demands will likely regret it 

Whether or not it is fair, the question of Pujols’ age should be brought into play by any team considering signing him. There is no evidence that he is not his current stated age, but during his time in the majors there have been enough doubts raised that it is something that should be investigated thoroughly by anyone bidding on him. Any corporation about to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into one employee would be remiss to not perform all due diligence into their background and projected output. The scramble to reach the promised land of baseball salaries has led many players to do worse things than fudge their age, so the unfortunate result in such a climate is to be very careful when evaluating a player who is about to become a major investment.

The Cardinals stand to gain the most from signing Pujols. He has been the face of their franchise for over a decade, and their team is firmly branded in his image. He can bring as much to them off the field in terms of marketing as he can on it with contributing to winning. If he left St. Louis, the Cardinals would practically have to start over again with their product. Matt Holliday and Chris Carpenter are nice players, but a team built around them instead of someone like Pujols, is not going to be nearly as successful, either financially or competitively. That being said, the Cardinals had still better tread carefully and make sure that any contract they might agree to with Pujols is in their best interests. They will need to feel very confident about their cost/benefit analysis, and even then hope for the best.

Pujols is a once in a lifetime player who has already done more than enough in his career to ensure he will one day be enshrined in Cooperstown. Despite the staggering numbers, numerous awards and accolades, and tape measure home runs, teams should not let him fool them. He is now closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and any team planning on bidding for his services should not let his past influence their future. 

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