Cardinals G.M. John Mozeliak got to enjoy being the architect of a championship team for less than a week. His star first baseman, Albert Pujols, is now a free agent. Coming off yet another productive year, capped by the greatest game any batter has ever had in the World Series, Pujols isn't likely to be any easier to sign than he was last off-season. He may have put up the worst statistics of his career, but his stat line—a .299 batting average, .366 on-base percentage and .541 slugging percentage, with 37 homers—made him one of the 10 best hitters in the league, and he paired that bat with strong defense.
The risk in signing Pujols remains what it has always been. He turns 32 in January, and any contract is likely to tie him down through his age-39 season. It's the rare player who doesn't decline through his 30s. Even in the Series, Pujols—who was hitless in five of seven games while being walked intentionally five times—showed occasional signs of age, struggling to go first to third and letting a throw by centerfielder Jon Jay get by him during the Rangers' rally late in Game 2. Pujols's statistical comps include a number of players who aged very well, such as Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron, but anyone investing $200 million or more has to consider the other names on that list—such as Ken Griffey Jr., who was never the same after age 30.
Pujols's price won't be set by his stat line or his comps, of course. You get what the market will bear, and the market for Pujols is constrained by two factors. One, the teams at the very top of the payroll scale have little need for a first baseman, however great. The Yankees have Mark Teixeira and also a logjam at DH; the Red Sox have Adrian Gonzalez, a younger version of Pujols; the Phillies may not have Ryan Howard, who blew out his left Achilles tendon on the final swing of the Phillies' season, for a while, but they'll be paying him $125 million for the next five seasons nonetheless. Even the Cubs, long expected to pursue Pujols, may not be in the market; new president of baseball operations Theo Epstein had a poor track record with big-name free agents in Boston, and he may not want to make a $200 million contract his first move in the new job.
Second, there's a younger first baseman, Prince Fielder, also reaching free agency. Fielder was actually a more productive hitter than Pujols was this season, batting .299/.415/.566 with 38 homers, but the big number in his favor is 27. That's Fielder's age; by signing him, you get more of his peak and less of his decline phase. Fielder doesn't have Pujols's defensive skill, and his size (he's listed at 275 pounds) creates concern about longevity, but there's a huge difference between getting a player's age 28 through 31 seasons and his age 35 through 38 seasons—which is the gap between signing Fielder and signing Pujols. Pujols may be the best player available, but he's not the best investment.
November 7, 2011
In the end, everything points to Pujols's re-signing with the Cardinals. His market price will remain within their range, and his importance to St. Louis as a franchise means they can afford to pay a premium to keep him. The Yankees paid Derek Jeter a significant multiple of his market value last off-season in a decision that had little to do with baseball. The Cardinals will also pay extra, perhaps in years rather than dollars, to retain the face of their franchise.