Earlier this week, the Minnesota Twins locked up Joe Mauer to a long term deal worth $184 million that extends through the 2018 season. Every year, there seems to be a few of these mega-deals. Last year, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia inked long-term deals, and this year Joe Mauer joins Matt Holliday as a long-term blockbuster. Of course, looming large on the horizon is the specter of an Albert Pujols contract -- one that many predict will make him the highest paid player in the game.
For any team that makes a mega-signing, the deal means that the team must commit to win quickly. With many deals backloaded, or at the very least paying a constant amount each season, the players are a much better value at the beginning of the deal. Why? Even the greatest players tend to age, and their performance will often start to steeply decline soon after the deal is consummated.
In the case of Mauer, I took a look at comparably outstanding young catchers in recent history: the nine catchers who, at age 26, had a three-year OPS+ average of 120 or more. Their names: Johnny Bench, Bill Freehan, Thurman Munson, Lance Parrish, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Ted Simmons, Jason Kendall, and Mike Piazza. That's pretty elite company for Mauer, especially when you consider that Mauer, at a 143 OPS+ is better than almost all of them. What's interesting however, is to see how these elite catchers aged over time. All of them, at age 26, were poised to become franchise players, and surely would have been worthy of large, if not Mauer-sized, long term contracts. How did they perform?
Using Wins Above Replacement data from Sean Smith's baseballprojection.com, I looked at the number of wins produced by these catchers in each season over the next nine years and scaled them up to account for the fact that Mauer is significantly better than the average catcher in the group. The graph below shows the expected Mauer production, based on the career trajectories of the other nine elite young catchers.
There's obviously a bit of noise here, but the overall trends are clear. As you can see, the elite catchers' production remained steady through age 30. At $23 million per year, the Twins should be getting a bargain if Mauer continues his awesome production as expected. However, after age 30, things start to take a tumble. At ages 31 and 32, the other elite catchers lost nearly half of their value. At age 33, things get even bleaker. During the last three years of his contract, Mauer, if he follows the trajectories of his peers, will be giving the Twins just two wins or less. And at $23 million per year, those two wins will not come cheap. Of the other elite catchers, only Fisk was still producing much of anything by the time he was 35 -- the age that Mauer's contract expires. In all, the pressure is on for the Twins to win now. Mauer is a relative bargain at $23 million in 2011, but his contract is almost sure to be an albatross during the years 2016-2018.
Part of the reason for the drop off of course, is the demanding nature of playing catcher. Most players do decline after 30 of course, but not as steeply as catchers. Like all mega-deals, Mauer's contract is a gamble. The Twins need to cash in on Mauer's production by building a winner in the next few years, because he will likely decline dramatically in the latter half of the deal. Even if Mauer continues his Johnny Bench-like production, that still means the Twins are in for a disappointing final few years of the contract. Bench himself was largely washed up by his mid-30's and was out of the game after age 35. Mauer's future is of course unknown, but by age 35 he's almost sure to be a shadow of the player he is today.
Albert Pujols is another player who likely will be signing a mega-deal in the near future. If the Cardinals were to make Pujols an offer similar to the one the Twins gave Mauer, would it be a fair deal? Again, let's take a look at comparable players. Looking back at all recent 29-year old first basemen with a three year OPS+ average of 150 or above, there are once again nine comparables: Willie McCovey, Dick Allen, Boog Powell, Eddie Murray, Fred McGriff, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Jason Giambi, and Carlos Delgado. Like Pujols, each of these sluggers were consistently great players in the prime of their career. Of course, as with the Mauer comparison, most of these players aren't weren't actually as good as Pujols. Still, they fit the mold of an elite slugging first baseman, and it's informative to see how these players aged.
Despite playing the easiest position on the diamond, most didn't age as well as you might expect. While these players held their production as they turned 30, their value dropped steadily after that. In just four short years, at age 33, their production shrunk to just one-third of its former value. Players like Thomas, who seemed invincible in 1997 at age 29, suddenly became mortal just a few years later. On average, Pujols' production appears to be in line for a drop of about one win per year starting in 2011. The graph below shows the aging pattern of comparable players (once again scaled upwards to reflect Pujols' superior abilities).
Although Pujols plays a much less demanding position than Mauer, because he is three years older, his value is expected to shrink just as quickly. Strangely enough, over the next nine years, both Pujols and Mauer are expected to produce a nearly identical 40 wins.
Given the aging patterns above, you might expect that Pujols would be in line for a contract extension equally as large as Mauer's. Some would argue that Pujols should command an even larger contract, considering that he is the best player in the game today. However, an important factor is when these contracts are slated to begin. In the case of Mauer, the extension does not kick in until 2011. Therefore, during the life of his new contract Mauer is expected to provide about 34 wins for the $184 million. However, since Pujols is signed for two more years, a likely Pujols extension wouldn't begin until he turns 32 in 2012. At that point, invincible as Pujols seems today, his skills will likely have already begun to diminish. Summing up his projected wins from 2012 onward, Pujols, based on comparable slugging first basemen, is likely to produce just 23 wins the rest of the way. The surprisingly low figure reflects the fact that it's difficult to guarantee continued production several years down the line for a player in his 30's.
As a result, handing Pujols a contract extension similar to Mauer's that began in 2012 would not be recommended for St. Louis. Were Pujols a free agent today, he would well deserve a contract worth over $200 million. However, given the fact that it won't kick in for a couple more years, handing Pujols a Mauer-type extension would be ill-advised. More reasonable would be a $130 million extension that keeps him in a Cardinal uniform for life. The figure, which many would say is far too low, reflects the fact the extension would not begin until 2012. In that time, mishaps, such as injury or simply a decrease in production due to age, could potentially reduce Pujols' value considerably. The other reason for the surprisingly low figure is that a Pujols extension would lock him up for his declining years, as opposed to Mauer's contract which covers a large portion of his prime. By signing such a deal, Pujols would be trading possible upside for the security of knowing he'll be "set for life" (as if he wasn't set for life after his first $100 million deal), no matter what happens in the next couple of years.
The Twins signing of Mauer will surely be influential going forward, as these types of mega-contracts tend to set the market. However it would be a mistake to think that whatever Mauer is making, Pujols should earn more. Yes, Pujols is a superior player to Mauer today, however, due to their ages and the timing of the contracts, Mauer is likely to vastly outpace Pujols' production over the course of an 8-year contract extension. The Cardinals brass has a huge decision to make regarding the future of Pujols and the Cardinals franchise. However, they shouldn't be wooed into giving Pujols a Mauer-type contract extension, even if he is the best player in the game.