On Monday morning, five of the most productive first basemen in the National League were due to become free agents after the 2011 season:
Berkman is the odd man out in that group because of his age. In 2012, the first year of their next contracts, Fielder will be 28, Gonzalez 30, and Pujols 32, but Berkman will be 36 and likely past his expiration date as a full-bodied first baseman. If he manages to avoid a major collapse between now and then, however, he could draw a high annual average over a shorter term deal.
Age is less of a concern regarding Pujols because he is such a unique player. Pujols has undeniably been the best player in baseball the past few seasons and is one of the greatest hitters the game has ever seen. Not only is he a masher, but he's a great all-around athlete. In addition to his otherworldly plate production, he has mixed in 48 steals over the past five seasons and is a former Gold Glove winner who has deserved more than the one award he received for his fielding.
While it might otherwise seem foolish to offer a seven or eight-year deal to a 32-year-old player, Pujols' best comparison, because of his athleticism and unprecedented level of production, is not Teixeira or Howard, but
If Howard's deal has any impact on Pujols, it's as a reminder that Pujols exists somewhere well north of his counterpart in Philadelphia. The ludicrous Pujols-for-Howard trade rumor this past offseason helped throw the gap between the two players into sharp relief. While Howard has hit .278/.379/.589 over the past four seasons, Pujols batted .333/.427/.628 over the past
That is good news for Fielder and Gonzalez, because whoever loses the Pujols bidding should still have a nice stash of cash set aside to spend on the runner-up, and both could wind up surpassing Howard's haul. What the next two seasons will help determine is exactly who that runner up will be. Gonzalez is likely to be dealt by the Padres in advance of his free agency, and if his new team offers a Teixeira-like contract, he could well come off the market before hitting free agency, leaving Fielder to bathe in Pujols' wake. If both make it to free agency, however, Gonzalez, despite being two years older, should be the preferred player.
For the reason why, one need look no further than Fielder's father,
Both the younger Fielder, listed as 270 pounds, and the 255-pound Howard fit that bill, but Gonzalez, whose body type is more similar to that of Teixeira, doesn't. In the unlikely event that the Padres resist trading Gonzalez, or wait until the 2011 trading deadline to do it, it will be interesting to see if bidding teams are more captivated by Fielder's impressive raw numbers or the potential benefit of freeing Gonzalez from the hitting hell of Petco Park. In 2009, at age 27, Gonzalez hit .277/.407/.551 overall but .306/.402/.643 on the road. Teams may find themselves bidding on those road stats, which, combined with his superior athleticism and potentially longer career, makes a contract in excess of Teixeira's a distinct possibility for Gonzalez. For Fielder, anything more than a five-year deal comparable to Howard's extension would be excessive. That doesn't mean Fielder won't get Teixeira money, but given the likelihood that he'll suffer a decline in his early 30s, he shouldn't.
As for Howard, there's no doubt that he has earned this pay day. In his first five seasons, he won the National League's Rookie of the Year and MVP awards and was the cleanup hitter on the Phillies teams that have won the last three NL East titles, the last two pennants, and the franchise's second-ever world championship in 2008. Over the last four seasons, he has
Phillies fans can rejoice that their team has wrapped up the 30-year-old Howard though at least his age-36 season, which should guarantee that all of Howard's remaining productive seasons come in a Phillies uniform. However, there's a very good chance that the last of those seasons will arrive well before this new deal has run its course. Over the last three guaranteed years of this deal -- 2014, 2015 and 2016 -- Howard will be making $25 million while fighting the harsh realities of injuries, a slowing bat, and the effects of a few extra pounds on his already massive 6-foot-4 frame.
Even if Howard manages to fend off the fates, his contract will limit the team's ability to flesh out the rest of their roster. That effect that could be felt as soon as this offseason, when