Commentary

Looking at star-studded 1B class of 2011

With Ryan Howard cashing in, what might the market be for Albert Pujols and others?

Originally Published: April 29, 2010
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Ryan Howard might have rocked the world of baseball bean counters everywhere this week with his five-year, $125 million extension. But here's one thing he didn't do:

Decimate the first-base free-agent market of 2011-12.

Yeah, it's sad to report that Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder and Lance Berkman don't have Howard around to keep them company, and feed them Subway footlongs, anymore. It won't be the same without him.

But allow us to point out that the four guys Howard abandoned have 17 All-Star appearances, six Silver Sluggers, three Gold Gloves and 10 40-homer seasons among them. So there's an excellent chance they'll get paid slightly more than, say, Alex Cintron in 2012.

So what does their market look like now? What are they worth? And are there enough teams out there to pay them what they're worth? You might be surprised. So let's take a look at the star-studded first-base class of 2011:

Sir Albert

If there's a living human who thinks Pujols will wind up playing anywhere other than St. Louis, please raise your hand. You need to get out more. The Cardinals' entire franchise is built around Pujols. They can't possibly let the best player on our planet walk -- or even make it to the auction. Right?

"I don't even consider that a question," one GM said. "He's a god there. No way he leaves."

So the debate about Pujols isn't where he's going. It's how monstrous his checks will be. And let's just say that when we asked his agent, Jeff Borris, what effect Howard's deal might have on his client's earning power, Borris actually laughed.

"No contract has any effect on Albert," he said. "Albert is the best player in Major League Baseball. As great a superstar as Ryan Howard is, there's no comparison to Albert Pujols. He stands above all the rest."

The Cardinals, you'll be stunned to learn, have noticed that, too. So we're not sure what they're waiting for. But the best guess is that they'll get that extension done during the winter. And although it's hard to comprehend where the dollars will land, you can bet that, as one baseball man put it, his annual salary "is going to start with a '3'" -- as in $30 million a year for seven or eight years (i.e., the biggest salary ever).

Yo Adrian

Once Pujols is off the board, that will leave Gonzalez as the No. 1 horse in this derby. Agent Scott Boras and his man, Fielder, may beg to differ. But most clubs view Gonzalez as the superior all-around package -- basically a Mark Teixeira Lite. Or maybe not so Lite.

The Padres haven't quite announced over the Petco Park PA system that they have no chance to keep Gonzalez. But we might as well announce it for them. Their entire roster is earning barely more money ($37.8 million) this year than A-Rod ($33 million). So even though they eventually project to reach $75-80 million down the road, those $22-25 million-a-year players can't possibly fit that program.

Unless the Padres even shock themselves and win the NL West the next two years, this man will be traded eventually. And if he does, that will have a direct impact on whether he reaches the shelves of the free-agent supermart at all.

"My guess is that he never gets there," said an official of one team that's watching all this closely. "I think this becomes a sign-and-trade situation where, at some point, they deal him, and the team that trades for him signs him to an extension. … But if not, he'd have a giant market."

Fresh Prince

Of all the players in this group, Fielder was always the best bet to reach free agency. Why? Because he's a Boras client, of course. Don't they all reach free agency?

It's possible that by November 2011, Fielder will be the last of these potential free-agent first basemen standing, because the rest are so much more likely to sign an extension. But if there are other options, it will be fascinating to see whether Boras can get this guy the $200 million that he's been intimating will be just the opening bid.

Boras will try to sell Fielder as better than Howard and four years younger. But the Boras Corp. had better start working overtime on that sales pitch, because some teams are resisting it already.

"He's not as good as Ryan Howard," said an official of one big-bucks team. "In fact, I think he's at least a tick below all these guys -- one, because of weight, and two, because he's not a good defensive first baseman. He's going to have to be a DH, and that limits his market right there."

Free-Lancing

And, finally, there's Lance Berkman. He tends to get lost in this conversation. But we're not sure why. Only two players in baseball have slugged at least .500 with at least a .385 on-base percentage in every one of the past nine seasons. One is Pujols. The other is Berkman. (But keep in mind that Howard, Fielder and Gonzalez have each played less than nine seasons in the majors.)

Plus, Berkman is also four years older than Pujols and Howard, and eight years older than Fielder. So clearly, there are no eight-year deals in his future.

There is also a lot of buzz that assuming the Astros pick up Berkman's $15 million option for next year, they'll tack on a short extension. Which would zap him right off this market.

But even if that doesn't happen, when we asked one old friend of Berkman whether he thought Berkman had any interest in playing for another team, the friend replied: "No. Maybe for two months down the stretch somewhere with a chance to win. But the truth is, he's more likely to end his career in Houston. He loves being home."

Market watch

And now the really fun question: Who has enough cash stuffed in the mattress to sign all these guys?

The Yankees are locked in with Teixeira, so they're out. The Phillies are married to Howard, so forget them. The Mets have Ike Davis. The Tigers have Miguel Cabrera. The Angels have Kendry Morales. That's five of the top eight $100 million-payroll teams in the sport that almost certainly won't be shopping. And that's never a good development if you're trying to stoke a major bidding war.

So which teams does that leave? More than you'd think. We surveyed a bunch of clubs this week. We even shocked ourselves with all the possibilities:

Boston Red Sox Red Sox: Could this team possibly lust after Gonzalez more than it already has? Sure it can. Just wait until he becomes available. He has the ultimate Fenway stroke.

Seattle Mariners Mariners: Is desperate for offense. Has money to spend. And remember, GM Jack Zduriencik is the man who once drafted Fielder in Milwaukee. "I'll tell you the team to keep an eye on with Prince, and that's Seattle," one baseball man said. "Jack loves him."

San Francisco Giants Giants: They've been shopping for a masher ever since Barry Bonds walked out the door. And there's no reason to think they won't still be shopping in a year and a half. Whether they could persuade a left-handed-hitting power plant to play in their park is a big question. But "that's one team that jumps right out at you," one GM said.

Milwaukee Brewers Brewers: They're already working on signing Fielder; they're just not interested in that $200 million sticker tag. But if the Brewers could offer CC Sabathia $100 million, why would we think they won't find similar dollars for Fielder if he wants to hang around?

Washington Nationals Nationals: They made a gigantic offer for Teixeira two winters ago. They don't seem likely to commit to Adam Dunn for the long haul. "So I could see them playing [Josh] Willingham at first for a year and then going crazy over Gonzalez or whoever," one exec said.

Baltimore Orioles Orioles: A "sleeping giant," one baseball man said. They have dollars. Their park is built for offense. Their system has almost no position players coming. They made a run at trading for Gonzalez this past winter. And there were lots of rumblings that they had their eye on Howard. So could they wind up with one of these guys? Why not?

Chicago Cubs Cubs: Depending on which options they pick up, the Cubbies could have anywhere from $48 million to $90 million committed beyond 2011, so they could be tapped out. But the incumbent first baseman, Derrek Lee, will be a free agent after this season. Then many millions of dollars will start to disappear off the books. So you never know what kind of splash the Cubs' new owners might want to make.

Chicago White Sox White Sox: Paul Konerko is in the final year of his deal. They crave more offense. Their ballpark is a homer-hitter's utopia. And there are plenty of dollars in their money-market fund. So they're definitely another team to watch.

Atlanta Braves Braves: They're probably inclined to just keep this spot open for hot prospect Freddie Freeman. And they probably can't afford a guy in this price range. But they're also big Adrian Gonzalez fans. So don't rule anything out.

Los Angeles Dodgers Dodgers: They can't make a run at any of these men at the moment, with Divorce Court in session and dollars a major issue. But in a year and a half, who knows? James Loney seems entrenched in this position for now. But Fielder hit more home runs last season (46) than Loney has hit in more than 1,700 career at-bats. So it's way too soon to count the Dodgers out of this extravaganza.

Toronto Blue Jays Blue Jays: They're a big long shot, considering they have Brett Wallace waiting to become their first baseman of the future and rank 22nd in the big leagues in payroll. But we keep hearing they're squirreling away north-of-the-border dollars to unload when they think the time is right. So is the right time a year and a half from now? Stay tuned.

Florida Marlins Marlins: Yeah, this doesn't seem like their M.O. But hold on. Guess which year their new ballpark will open? That would be 2012. So is anybody sure they don't belong on this list, especially if it's part of a scenario in which they trade for Gonzalez and then extend his contract? "It goes against their grain," said an official of one club. "But they have to make a splash with that ballpark opening up. And they sure have the prospects to make a trade."

That's 12 teams. And we didn't even include the Cardinals or Astros. So who says there's nobody out there who can afford the first-base class of 2011? Players like this -- at a position this important -- don't come along every year, or even every decade.

So if we arrive at the winter of 2011-12 and find there's no serious bidding going on for a group this stellar, Rumblings hereby authorizes the union to scream "collusion" as loudly as it wants. Heck, we might scream it ourselves.

Ready to rumble

Jayson Werth
Werth
What's he Werth?: What's next for those spendthrift Phillies now that they've gotten that pesky Ryan Howard contract out of the way? There are increasing indications that they've concluded they have to find a way to keep their one right-handed masher, Jayson Werth, around. But getting this deal done might be a bigger challenge than getting Howard signed.

Werth is the Phillies' only everyday player who isn't tied up beyond this season. This team already has about $130 million committed to 15 players in 2011 -- but Werth isn't one of them. That's not because signing him just kind of slipped their minds, you know.

"We've had dialogue with the Phillies since the winter meetings," Werth's agent, Jeff Borris, told Rumblings. "But at this point, we're pretty much at an impasse."

And there's a simple reason for that: Much as Werth clearly would love to stick around, one word he's never uttered is "discount."

If he reaches free agency, he would be surrounded by a position-player class that includes Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Manny Ramirez, Derrek Lee and (in theory, anyway) Derek Jeter. But Werth's agent says that "if Jayson isn't signed to an extension before he gets to free agency, he'll be the No. 1 position player out there." Which is another expression that isn't exactly a synonym for "discount."

Borris calls Werth "the only true five-tool player in that market." And he says people looking to measure Werth's market value should consider the Jason Bay and Matt Holliday signings of this past winter, But Borris also says that Werth is so multitalented, "I don't think he really has any comparable players."

So if Holliday received more than $17 million a year in his deal, and Bay received $16.5 million a year from the Mets, it gives you an idea where the Werth conversations might be heading. That's a place the Phillies, as presently constituted, wouldn't seem to be able to go without pushing their payroll north of $150 million. So how could they make this work?

There are rumblings that their game plan is to dangle Raul Ibanez to try to clear payroll space. But we're talking about a guy who will turn 39 next year and make $11.5 million in 2011. He also has hit .227 with a .327 on-base percentage and .421 slugging percentage since he came off the disabled list in July 2009. So unless Ibanez finds his stroke, it'll be tough trying to move his dollar signs.

Albert Pujols
Pujols
Ryan Howard
Howard
Timing is everything: Our nomination for the most asked question about the Howard contract: Why did the Phillies do it now? Why not wait until Howard got closer to free agency or even reached free agency?

Excellent question. And the answer, from what we've been told, can be summed up in two words: Albert Pujols.

The Phillies never believed that Howard's contract would impact Pujols. But they were sure a Pujols deal would affect Howard's asking price. So they concluded that if they didn't sign Howard before the Cardinals wrapped up Pujols -- at Alex Rodriguez dollars and/or points north -- waiting wouldn't save them money. It would cost them money.

It's safe to say not everybody in the industry agrees with that logic. But if you wondered about the timing, that explains it.

Babe Ruth
Ruth
Babe talk: Never compare anybody to Babe Ruth. We learned that lesson this week. We've been barraged by outraged tweeters and e-mailers wondering what the heck we meant when we called Ryan Howard "the Babe Ruth of his generation" on Monday. And you're all correct. We really should have explained that analogy better. So let's take a moment to do that now.

Contrary to popular belief, we're not total knuckleheads around here. We know Ryan Howard ain't Babe Ruth. OK? We know that.

Here are the only grounds for comparison: There are just two players we can find in the history of baseball who waited until age 25 to become true everyday players -- and then immediately started launching 50 homers a year. The first was that Bambino. The second was Ryan Howard. No one else has followed that particular career path. Just them.

So that's all we meant. Now stop tweeting already.

lastname
Sizemore
Not your Size: We've heard a lot of buzzing about the possibility of the Indians' trading Grady Sizemore in July. But don't bet your copy of "The Curse of Rocky Colavito" on it.

For one thing, according to one baseball man who felt out the Indians on this, they've showed "zero inclination" to trade their center fielder.

Second, just the structure of Sizemore's contract makes it almost impossible for the Indians to trade him any time soon. Sizemore has two more guaranteed seasons left ($5.6 million this season, $7.5 million next), plus a $10 million club option for 2012 or $500,000 buyout.

But if he's traded, that option would become a player option that he'd almost certainly exercise. Which would slash Sizemore's 2011 trade value to discount rent-a-player levels.

So if the Indians hang on to a man who has become the face of their franchise, they'd control him for three more seasons. And that makes trading him this year a nonissue. Then the contract gives them almost no incentive to deal him next year, either. So let's just drop this subject entirely until at least the winter of 2011, OK?

Gerald Laird
Laird
Chris Snyder
Snyder
What's the catch? The Chris Snyder and Gerald Laird rumors continue to float in Boston. But according to two teams that have been speaking with the Red Sox, they aren't anywhere near as hell-bent (yet) to find a catcher who can throw as they've been portrayed to be.

"Obviously," said an executive of one of those teams, "they can't continue to allow stolen bases at this rate. But here's their problem: If they bring in a catcher, then they have to DH Victor Martinez. And if they DH him, it means [David] Ortiz and [Mike] Lowell are both sitting on the bench, and then they probably have to release one of those guys. So their whole roster becomes a total mess if they don't have Martinez and [Jason] Varitek catching. That's why I see them trying to let this play out a while longer and hoping they can live with this."

Victor Martinez
Martinez
One more catch: And before we move on to other topics, and before any more of that panic paralyzes Kenmore Square, the citizens of New England might feel better if they just revisit a little Victor Martinez history.

As recently as 2006, Martinez was throwing out only 22 of 122 base stealers (18 percent) in Cleveland, a development that definitely did wonders for the ranks of the Kelly Shoppach Fan Club. But Martinez went to work on his throwing and footwork, then came back and threw out 32 percent and 37 percent of potential base stealers the next two years.

It's also worth remembering that if he'd stayed in Cleveland, the Indians -- who knew him better than anyone -- had no plans to move him to another position until catching phenom Carlos Santana arrived. So the moral of this story is: It's not safe to assume Martinez will throw out 7 percent for the rest of this year. Got that? Great. You can now resume panicking.

Jason Frasor
Frasor
Relieve it or not: The trade deadline is three months away, so we don't usually stumble upon many sellers in April. But the Blue Jays already have the "SALE" sign posted in their bullpen window. And one team that we've heard is looking at them hard is Baltimore, which is believed to have interest in deposed closer Jason Frasor.

"They would move a whole bunch of their bullpen guys," one AL executive said of the Blue Jays. "Frasor, [Scott] Downs, [Jeremy] Accardo. And Casey Janssen might have as much value as any of them. But the problem is, they're all situational guys or setup guys. So what are they going to get back? A middling prospect at best? I just don't see where, even if they make a trade, it's going to make that big a difference to their club."

New York Mets U-turn on the Grand Central: It was just a week ago in this column that we were quoting scouts saying the Mets could finish behind the Nationals. Now here those same Mets are, hanging out ahead of the Phillies in the standings. Tremendous. Is this an amazing sport or what?

Scouts who watched the Mets during this 9-1 blitz checked in with a very different opinion. So here's one of those reviews:

"I don't think they're going to win the division, but they're better than everybody thought. It's looking like three of the five starting pitchers could be pretty solid guys. [Johan] Santana looks like Santana. [Mike] Pelfrey has finally gone to that level people thought he'd be -- 6-foot-6 and throwing downhill with heavy, heavy sink. And [Jonathon] Niese has got a chance to be OK if he doesn't fall in love with his cutter.

"But offensively, I don't think they're a very good club. I've never seen David Wright swing through so many pitches in my life. [Jason] Bay looks terrible, although I think he'll be OK. He's always been streaky. And I don't know what [Jose] Reyes is. He can look like a dynamo. But he spins so out of control, it never allows him to be a good, consistent player."

And how 'bout Ike Davis, the man who seemingly turned this whole season around? "Ike Davis is a stud," the same scout said. "He's going to hit."

By hook or rook: If Jason Heyward hasn't learned by now that his career will be a never-ending game of adjustments, it won't take much longer. Teams first tried working him away, and he adjusted to that almost instantly. So during the past week or so, we've seen a whole new approach.

"When clubs were pitching him away, he'd just poke it into left, or if they made a mistake, he'd turn on it," one scout said. "But the Mets tried pounding the heck out of him [inside], and what happened? He got no hits in that series. So now you'll see that approach until he adjusts back. But I have no doubt he'll make that adjustment. He reminds me a lot of Adrian Gonzalez. He's willing to take what they give him."

Future shock: Finally, since we started this column by mulling which teams might be able to invest megabucks on a free-agent first baseman in 2011, we'll finish it with some data that should give us an indication of who has money to spend and who doesn't.

You measure that by how much (or how little) cash clubs already have tied up beyond this season. So here's a list of which teams have the most money committed beyond this year and which teams have the least:

Take into account that these figures don't include players who can go to arbitration or options that will almost certainly be picked up. But it still means the teams on the "Least" list have tremendous flexibility.

The most eye-opening figure in this entire chart: The Dodgers have $80 million guaranteed disappearing from their books in the next two years. They can't use all of it to pay Frank McCourt's lawyers, right?

The Rumblings Scouting Bureau

Once again this week, we check in with some of America's foremost scouting minds:

• On Ken Griffey Jr.: "His bat is really slow. He's really on the downside now, almost to the point where you say, 'This guy is done.' He might hit a little against the No. 4 or 5 starters. But he has to cheat to hit a good fastball. And he's not even able to cheat anymore. Everything is in slow motion. Hopefully, it gets better. But I don't see a whole lot of upside right now."

• On Zack Greinke: "He's not doing it as easy as last year, because he basically just cruised last year. He's working a little harder to make his pitches. But he still makes great pitches. I feel sorry for him. Their bullpen is just hideous."

• On David Price: "They're taking the same approach with him that they took with Edwin Jackson last year. He's backing off his [velocity] early in the count, early in innings and in non-RBI situations to throw first-pitch strikes. But then, when he has an RBI situation or he has to reach back with two strikes, he can go get 94 or 95 [miles per hour]. It isn't as commandable at 94-95. But because he's ahead in the count, and the life on it is so electric, it doesn't even have to be in the zone. They still swing at it, and it's tough to catch up to."

Quotes of the Week

• From White House visitor Derek Jeter, on what it's like to set foot in the Oval Office: "It's sort of like being in Mr. Steinbrenner's office."

• From Brewers speedster Gregg Zaun (to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Tom Haudricourt), on barely sneaking his toe in to beat a relay throw to the plate: "It's a good thing I wasn't a Size 12."

• From Blue Jays pitcher Brandon Morrow, on how it felt to watch his catcher, Jose Molina, throw out four Rays trying to steal in four innings Sunday: "After the second inning, I came in and jokingly said, 'I'll just walk them, and you throw them all out.'"

• From A's pitcher Dallas Braden, on that mound-trespassing charge he filed against his favorite Yankee, Alex Rodriguez: "If he wants to run across the mound, tell him to go do laps in the bullpen."

Press Note of the Week

A day after Royals pitcher Bruce Chen picked up the first save of his 12-year career this week, always-creative K.C. media-relations genius Mike Swanson provided this entertaining bulletin the next day in his daily media notes:

CHEN CLIMBS TO SEVENTH ON PANAMANIAN SAVE LIST

"Bruce Chen made his 261st Major League appearance last night and recorded his first big league save. … tied for seventh with Ed Acosta and Carlos Maldonado for saves by native Panamanians. … Bruce enters tonight just 531 shy of the leader, Mariano Rivera."

Whew. He's only 531 back? We bet Mariano has been looking over his shoulder all week.

Headliner of the Week

Finally, this just in from the lunatics at theonion.com:

TRUE YANKEES, REGULAR YANKEES TO NOW WEAR DIFFERENT UNIFORMS

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com