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Biggest obstacle in Pujols talks


The biggest obstacle between Albert Pujols and a contract extension with the Cardinals is age -- and more specifically, what clubs know about how players age in the Testing Era. Pujols will play next season at 32, so an Alex Rodriguez-styled 10-year deal would pay him boatloads of money through his age 41 season. Look around baseball: The days of the superstar player in his late 30s are over.

Last year only three players age 36 or older played 100 games on defense and posted at least a .728 OPS, the major league average: Todd Helton, Raul Ibañez and Ichiro Suzuki. There were four times that many productive older players in 2004, the first year of PED testing with penalties.

Here are the year-by-year numbers of players age 36 and older who played 100 games in the field and put up an OPS of at least .728:

2004: 12

2005: 7

2006: 8

2007: 9

2008: 9

2009: 5

2010: 3

If you raise the minimum age to 37, you're left with Ibañez as the only older player who played defense and provided even a mediocre OPS in 2010.

This is what the Cardinals are up against: Can they afford to pay Pujols $28 million to $30 million at ages 39, 40 and 41, especially when they don't have the escape hatch of the DH position? Good luck with that.

As much money as there is in the game, every team but the Yankees is reluctant to guarantee huge sums of money to a player as he approaches 40, especially because of the two greatest awakenings by clubs since testing began: a better understanding of how players age and the importance and ability to quantify defense.

There are 11 current contracts that guarantee position players at least $125 million. Only one of them extends that guarantee into the player's age 39 season. Here are the ages of those players when those contracts run out:

32: Miguel Cabrera

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35: Joe Mauer, Troy Tulowitzki, Carl Crawford, Vernon Wells

36: Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira

37: Todd Helton

38: Alfonso Soriano, Jayson Werth

41: Alex Rodriguez

It's beginning to look as if there is one team that is the best fit for disgruntled Rangers infielder Michael Young: the Texas Rangers.

Young may have every right to be upset that he was, in his words, "manipulated" by the Rangers as they shopped all winter for players who would potentially take playing time from him (Jim Thome, Lance Berkman, Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli, etc.). But what team, with the start of spring training at hand, can a) add a $16 million a year player and b) guarantee him a better situation (which includes postseason potential) and c) give up talent to make it happen?

The underlying problem here is what happened to Young in the second half last year: he hit .262/.302/.401, declined on defense and turned 34 years old. The Rangers looked at Young and DH Vladimir Guerrero and saw how two of their most-used players wore down and showed some age. Guerrero is gone and now Young is looking at a diminished role or being gone himself.

Young, however, might not find a better opportunity than what he has in Texas. The values of his leadership and presence in the community are greater in Texas than anywhere else. And how many teams want a full-time 34-year-old corner infielder who posted a .302 OBP against righthanded pitchers last year and does not bring above-average power, defense or speed?

That's not to say Young doesn't have value -- it's just that he is entering a different phase in his career in which he shouldn't be expected to win Gold Gloves, be an All-Star and play 157 games. And that's hard for anybody as proud as Young to easily accept.

His value is tremendous to the Rangers, not only as a leader but also as someone who can play second base (Ian Kinsler has started 130 games there only once in five years), first base (Mitch Moreland can take a seat against tough lefthanders) and mostly DH (when Napoli catches). That's still an important role for a team that should be favored to win the AL West. It's understandable why Young would be upset enough to ask out. But as a winning player on a winning team, albeit with fewer at-bats, Young might still have a future with the Rangers.

Jered Weaver lost his arbitration case and will earn $7.37 million instead of the $8.8 million figure he submitted. That the Angels and a pitcher as important as Weaver went to a hearing over a $1.4 million difference is a bad sign toward a long-term relationship between the club and the Scott Boras client.

Perhaps Weaver's case was blown up when on Jan. 18 the Dodgers signed Chad Billingsley to a $6.275 million salary to avoid arbitration. Weaver and Billingsley both are in their second arbitration years. Weaver is the better pitcher, but, using slightly above the midpoint of the Weaver numbers, is he really 29 percent better than Billingsley? Not likely.

Check out this quick comparison between Weaver, Billingsley, Jon Lester and Cole Hamels: four pitchers born less than two years apart who are separated by no more than five wins and 0.02 ERA points:

The quick numbers are pretty darn close. But what about their earnings? Not so close. Take a look, with dollar figures in millions:

What do those numbers tell us?

• For Hamels, being a Super Two player in 2009, which gave him four arbitration-eligible years instead of three, (and motivated the Phillies to sign him to a three-year deal) has been worth about an extra $8 million, with one more arbitration year still to come.

• By locking up Lester early -- buying out three arbitration years and one free agent year - the savvy Red Sox saved at least $15 million and any residual scars that can come with the arbitration process.

• Weaver and Billingsley, as the arbitration panel found, continue to look very similar as they go year-to-year with their contracts.