By Cliff Corcoran
April 26, 2010

On Monday morning, five of the most productive first basemen in the National League were due to become free agents after the 2011 season: Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder and Lance Berkman. Monday afternoon, that number was reduced to four when the Phillies inked Howard to a five-year extension worth $125 million with a club option for a sixth season that includes a whopping $10 million buyout.

As Tom Verducci has already pointed out, the end result is that Howard is effectively making Mark Teixeira money. Teixeira, who is in the second year of his deal with the Yankees, will make $160 million from 2010 through his age-36 season in 2016. Including the $39 million left on his current deal, Howard, who is six months older than Teixeira, will make $164 million over the same span. Thus the Howard extension has solidified the market for the four remaining members of the star-studded first baseman class of 2012.

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 Alex Rodriguez, whom the Yankees resigned after the 2007 season to a record contract worth $275 million over 10 years that will take him to the age of 42. Pujols won't break Rodriguez's record because the only team that can afford a contract like that is the Yankees, and they already have Rodriguez and Teixeira's deals on the books. Plus they are facing impending free agency for Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera this offseason.

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 nine, which is to say his entire career. In his worst season (his .314/.394/.561 performance as a 22-year-old sophomore in 2002) Pujols was every bit as good as Howard has been in his four-year peak seasons. Pujols is also a better fielder, a better baserunner, two months younger than Howard, and in his first nine seasons struck out 195 times fewer than Howard has in his previous four. If Howard is worth $125 million over five years, Pujols could easily be baseball's second $200 million player. Ultimately, the big question is not how much Pujols is worth, but whether or not there is a team in baseball that can afford him.

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, Cecil. The elder Fielder is part of a well-established pattern of early declines suffered by similarly-built and similarly-skilled slugging first baseman throughout the game's history whose careers peaked in their early or mid-30s. Cecil Fielder was one of the most fearsome sluggers in baseball in his late 20s, but his production fell of significantly once he turned 30, and he was finished by 34.

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 averaged just under 50 home runs and exactly 143 RBIs while putting up a .278/.379/.589 line and drawing a total of 97 intentional walks, all while greatly improving his play at first base.

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 Jayson Werth, another late-bloomer unlikely to provide strong returns on a long-term investment but well worth retaining for the short term, becomes a free agent. The time for the Phillies, though, is now. This is their chance to continue their stranglehold on the NL East for the next few seasons. Any missed opportunity to continue their recent success in that time will only make Howard's new contract weigh all the more on the team in the years to come.

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