"As great a player as Ryan Howard is, Albert is the greatest player in the game,'' Jeff Borris, one of Pujols' agents at the Beverly Hill Sports Council, told SI.com. "He stands above the rest.''
Borris won't discuss dollars, but it's pretty plain to all at this point that Pujols will be seeking to match or top Alex Rodriguez's record-setting 2007 contract. That only stands to reason. After all, why would the best ask for less? The A-Rod deal guarantees $27.5 million a year for 10 years and is likely to pay close to $30.5 million, assuming he hits his reachable homer plateaus. So, logic dictates, the magic number for Pujols has to start with $30 million a year.
Cardinals GM John Mozeliak didn't return a call, but others around the game did guess at just how much Pujols will get.
"Pujols should get everything," one other agent said. "He gets it all."
One management person from a competing team pegs the winning number at exactly $30 million. "I think he'll get 30 [million], not more. That's a nice benchmark."
"He's the best player in the game. His numbers are better than A-Rod's," said yet another agent, who believes Pujols is worth $35-$40 million.
Ultimately, folks around the game conclude that the Cardinals have no choice but to pony up the $30 million for Pujols.
Whatever the final number winds up being, one thing is for sure: the Howard deal has made Pujols' value clearer than ever. Pujols is better defensively than the improving Howard, strikes out far less frequently and hits for a significantly higher average. But those factors might not be as important as this one: "Pujols means more to the Cardinals than Howard does to the Phillies," said the management person. "Howard has a better supporting cast. What [Howard has] done is lock in the Cardinals. I don't see how [Pujols] isn't getting 30 [million]."
Pujols will have to confront the fact that first basemen have already been a priority for large-market teams. The Yankees are set at first base with Mark Teixeira, the Mets appear happy with top prospect Ike Davis and the Red Sox seem to like Gonzalez, if they can get him (though that last part is pretty speculative). And while Howard is off the board and will no longer be a free agent after 2011, Fielder and Gonzalez still might be available and could possibly become viable alternatives for the Cardinals.
Here are updates on each of the other star first basemen:
John Boggs, Gonzalez's agent, said the Howard deal definitely can't hurt his client, nor Fielder or Pujols, whom Boggs called "the lead dog." Howard will get $2 million more per year than Teixeira did, which was the comp Boggs mentioned in his one, brief getting-acquainted chat with Padres management before the season. "It's a pretty impactful deal because he sets the standard for first basemen," said Boggs of Howard's extension. "When the scale goes up, it can't be considered anything but good."
Boggs said he can't be sure whether there's any hope for a big deal to keep his client with the Padres because there hasn't been any discussion between the two sides since Boggs' initial meeting months ago with new Padres GM Jed Hoyer. "We're just kind of innocent bystanders,'' Boggs said. "We haven't been contacted. We're not even at the point where Prince Fielder is and there are conversations. We don't know if [Gonzalez] will be there two more years or [if] they're going to trade him.''
At this point, the signs aren't great for an extension. Padres people have said they don't want to use 30-40 percent of their limited payroll on one player, even a great one. Boggs has read those remarks. "Unfortunately, most of the quotes I've seen suggest they might not be able to digest a salary that [a big star] is worthy of,'' Boggs said.
Meanwhile, Boggs and Gonzalez will continue to monitor the market.
"We are taking notes,'' Boggs said.
Yes, there have been conversations between Milwaukee and its Prince. But as was reported in this space a couple weeks ago, Fielder will be looking for about $200 million or more over eight years. That may sound high, but it would come out to at least the same $25 million per year that Howard just signed for. Additionally, Fielder is five years younger than Howard, so more years are apparently expected.
The Brewers are serious about trying to keep their All-Star first baseman, but there is no evidence they are interested in meeting that lofty price. Milwaukee is generally more likely to contend than San Diego, so trading Fielder is seen as a long shot. But if the Brewers fall out of the race, it can't be ruled out.
Howard's contributions can be overlooked at times because of the overwhelming presence of Pujols, who's clearly the best player in the National League, and also because Howard is only part of a fabulous nucleus in Philly that includes Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Jayson Werth.
Howard does have a few negatives, such as his high strikeout totals (an average of 189 the past four seasons), his weakness against left-handed pitchers (last year his OPS was 1.088 vs. right-handers vs .653 vs. lefties), his age (30) and the possibility he'll decline during the contract as he gets older.
But the belief among skeptics of the deal that this was an obvious overpay isn't reflected one bit among baseball people. In fact, a few inside the game remarked that the package was strong though not unreasonably so and one actually opined that it was light. I agree with the prominent competing agent who said, "The $25 million AAV (average annual value) reflects fair market value.''
As boring as it sounds, it was a good deal for both sides.
There are those suggesting Howard won't be the player at the end of the deal, when he'll be 36, that he is now, and that isn't an unreasonable prediction. But A-Rod, for example, will be 42 when his contract will be up, and besides, that guess can be made about many long-term deals. One GM said five years isn't outrageous at all and actually praised Howard for not being greedy and insisting on seven or eight.
That Howard received $2 million more than Teixeira also seems about right under the circumstances. Teixeira has a more diverse set of skills, is slightly younger and signed in New York as a free agent, but he couldn't make a case that he has the same offensive impact as Howard, a classic slugger. With the $39 million Howard is making this year and next on his current deal, that means he'll get $164 million though 2016, or just $16 million less than the eight-year contract Teixeira signed with the Yankees. Teixeira's defense is superior, but considering all the variables, $164 million isn't unreasonably high for Howard.
But here are a few more reasons Howard is worth this investment:
1) He's showed his value by finishing first, fifth, second and third in MVP voting the last four years. There is a group of numbers people who think these finishes don't count, but there is no reason to think Howard was vastly overvalued in the voting. The folks around his team view him as valuable, as do opposing teams who have intentionally walked him an average of 24 times a year for the last four full seasons.
2) He also has averaged 49.5 home runs and 143 RBIs over the past four years, far more than anyone else. Everyone agrees that home runs are an important stat, but to those who believe RBIs are only a reflection of one's teammates, and thus pure luck, here are the top five RBI leaders since 1900: Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial. Five very lucky fellows.
3) It isn't unreasonable to suggest Howard might decline during his extension. As a matter of logic, he probably will. But the evidence isn't strong that he's declining yet, (his 2009 slugging percentage of .571 wasn't significantly different from his .582 career mark), and even if he does suffer a slight drop off, it's from a tremendous height (his 198 home runs over the past four years are 29 more than everyone else). Plus, he's shown he's serious about his game and his body. He has lost an estimated 30 pounds and remarkably turned himself into at least an average defensive first baseman from something a lot less than that. So in that way, he's actually on the rise.
4) He's a winner and a major part of one of the strongest lineups in baseball. Why mess with a good thing?
5) The market could explode. The economy is improving, baseball is doing great and the appetite for superstars on the free-agent market is always strong, even in down times like the past couple years. "You can't really pinpoint what these guys could be getting on the open market,'' Boggs said, honestly. That's true, but that allows for the possibility it could go way up.
• There doesn't seem to be a lot of optimism for Philadelphia to keep Werth after the Howard deal was done. "If an extension isn't done between now and when Jayson becomes a free agent, he'll be the premier free agent outfielder this upcoming offseason,'' his agent, Borris, said. Though Borris wouldn't talk dollars in this case, either, the belief around baseball is that Werth will be seeking a deal for close to $100 million, considering Matt Holliday got $120 million this winter. The Phillies have a top young outfield prospect in Domonic Brown, but beyond the fact Werth is a proven five-tool player, he is also the lone right-handed middle-of-the-order hitter the Phillies have (Brown is left-handed, as well). The best idea would be to keep Werth and move Raul Ibanez, if that can be done.
• There's more optimism the Phillies will keep Rollins beyond 2011, when his contract expires, though there's little evidence to date that anything serious has been done about it.
• The Red Sox might have to seriously consider catching alternatives. Speaking of Victor Martinez, one scout said, "He's really declined defensively.'' The Tigers like their backup, Alex Avila, and some suggest Gerald Laird could make sense for the Red Sox, though it isn't known whether the Red Sox have inquired.
• The Brewers have demoted Jeff Suppan and his $42 million contract to the bullpen, but some wonder whether he could wind up being cut entirely.
• Meanwhile, the move of Carlos Zambrano to the 'pen for the Cubs has worked wonders, at least temporarily solving Chicago's biggest problem. The Cubs have won four straight and Zambrano has allowed one run in three innings in his first two relief appearances since 2002.
• Before the Pirates snapped a 22-game losing streak in Milwaukee with a 7-3 win on Tuesday night, Ed Price of AOL Fanhouse pointed out that the Brewers had outscored the Pirates 55-4 in four games (all victories, no kidding) but been outscored 100-65 in their other 15 games, in which they went 5-10.
• Texas made a move to help its offense by promoting catcher Max Ramirez. Taylor Teagarden is a defensive catcher.
• A clause in phenom Stephen Strasburg's contract permits 100 innings at the major league level this year. So, that might explain why there's no rush to bring him up.
• As one baseball person pointed out, it doesn't make sense for David Ortiz to have called his club in the Dominican "40-40,'' not because that is the name of Jay-Z's but because 40-40 wasn't a feat that meant anything to Ortiz. He did just open a restaurant in Massachusetts called "Big Papi's," which would have made a lot more sense in the D.R. too.
• Best wishes to Bob Uecker, the great Brewers announcer who undergoes heart surgery Friday.