Commentary

The Albert Pujols contract: Pony up!

How much is he really worth? Imagine the moola is coming out of your pocket!

Originally Published: February 24, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Nobody is better at spending other people's money than ex-spouses, the Defense Department, sports writers and fans.

Albert Pujols wants to become the highest-paid player in baseball? Sure, fine by me. It's not as if a 10-year, say, $300 million deal for The Machine is coming out of my pocket. It'll come out of the St. Louis Cardinals' pocket, or whichever team decides a season from now that it can't live without a 32-year-old first baseman beginning the back end of his Hall of Fame career.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesNobody else has hit at least 30 home runs and driven in at least 100 runs in 10 straight years, as Albert Pujols has. So what's that worth?

Some MLB owner is going to pay Pujols close to what he wants and for however long he wants it. If Pujols' goal is to pass Alex Rodriguez in the salary HOV lane, that means an average annual paycheck worth more than $27.5 mil per year. If it means surpassing A-Rod's record-breaking, 10-year total package, then we're talking about something due north of $275 million.

Whatever the final numbers, it's going to energize or eviscerate a franchise and, by doing so, help define the legacy of the owner who signs off on the deal. If Tom Hicks were available for comment, he could tell you all about it.

Hicks, who declined an interview request, is the now-former Texas Rangers owner who gave Rodriguez a 10-year, $252 million contract in 2000.

Happy Hicks then: "Alex is the player we believe will allow this franchise to fulfill its dream of continuing on its path to become a World Series champion."

Horrified Hicks 10 years later: "Dumb."

Rodriguez hit lots of home runs as a Ranger, at least a few of which weren't steroid-aided. But it wasn't until after A-Rod (and eventually Hicks) had given up on the Rangers that Texas finally reached the World Series in 2010.

A-Rod was 25 when he signed the 10-year deal with Hicks, 32 when he signed a 10-year extension with the New York Yankees. Pujols will be 32 when the 2012 season and his new contract kick in.

[+] EnlargeRodriguez/Hicks
Tom Fox/Getty ImagesThis $252 million handshake between Alex Rodriguez and Tom Hicks back in 2000? Dumb, Hicks says now.

So if you're Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr., what do you do if the Pujols sticker price is $300 million out the door? What do you do if you're one of only a handful of owners with the resources and the actual need for a full-time first baseman such as Pujols? (You're not going to pay The Machine all that money just to DH, right?)

In short, imagine it's not DeWitt's money but your money going into Pujols' bank account. How do you determine what an iconic player such as Pujols is worth? How do you reconcile the financial realities versus the real and intrinsic value of the best player in the league?

"It's never easy," said Mark Cuban, a deal maker who knows a little something about pro franchises. He owns the Dallas Mavericks and has made runs at acquiring teams such as the Rangers and the Chicago Cubs. He understands the game and, better yet, the business of the game.

"The hard part is looking out into the future," Cuban said in an e-mail. "The owner and the GM have to work together to assess the risk of injury and under-performance for each year going forward. Then based on that risk assessment, you have to determine the total impact on the future on-field and financial performances. What happens to our record and our bank accounts if he gets hurt or has a bad year? Depending on how you assess those risks will determine what you offer in the future and for how many years."

William DeWitt Jr
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonCardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. has to figure out how high to go to retain Pujols' services.

Gets hurt? Pujols, the three-time NL MVP, has never played in fewer than 143 regular-season games and averages nearly 156 per season.

Bad year? No player in MLB history has hit at least 30 homers, batted at least .300 and driven in at least 100 RBIs in 10 consecutive seasons -- except Pujols.

Total impact? Beer vendors, bat boys, fans, TV viewers, players (yours … theirs), stadium rodents … they all stop what they're doing when Pujols steps into the batter's box. He's the active leader in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and scare-the-crap-out-of-opposing-pitchers percentage.

But this is baseball. There are no sure things. If there were, Pujols wouldn't have been the 402nd overall selection in the 1999 amateur draft, taken one pick after journeyman infielder Alfredo Amezaga and 372 picks after Cardinals first-rounder Chance Caple. Caple spent six years in the minors, never advancing past Class A ball in the Florida State League.

Cuban knows what he would do if he were the Cardinals. He'd come up with a deal he and his franchise could live with "and try to guess what other teams might pay to steal the player away." Depending on that number, you decide whether to bump up the offer.

"Then finally," Cuban wrote, "you run through the same type of evaluation of the future of your team record and bank account if you lose the player. You'd determine what the marginal impact on both [would be] if you use that money to sign one or more players to replace [him]. Or if you can't find replacement players at all."

[+] EnlargeMark Cuban
AP Photo/LM OteroThe Mark Cuban approach to superstar salary offers: Crunch every number possible.

Hmmm. Would losing the best player in baseball affect the Cardinals' record? Uh, I'm going to Roger that one. But would paying him $30 million a year -- a little less than the entire 2010 Pittsburgh Pirates' payroll -- leave blood stains on the team bank account? Absolutely.

As for replacing Pujols, you can't. At least, not now.

Not to get too seamheady on you, but using the wins above replacement metric (Stay with me! You can do it!), only Ted Williams created more wins for his team as a position player than Pujols did in his first 10 seasons. That's a stat with some very sharp teeth.

Cuban is an emotional guy. He wears his heart and his temper on his T-shirt sleeve. But when it comes to that magic number -- his last, final, drop-dead offer in a deal -- Cuban is as detached as an actuarial table.

"In some organizations, I know they extend the analysis to include the PR hit if the player would leave," Cuban wrote. "I never include PR in the process."

There will be a PR hit flush in the jockstrap area if the Cardinals don't re-sign Pujols. There will be a void in the fat part of the St. Louis batting order. There will be a crater on the right side of the field.

But in the end, the numbers do all the talking. They always do.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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