The Pujols Contract

Earlier this week, Cardinals owner Bill Dewitt told Jon Paul Morosi that he was “hopeful” that his team would be able to come to terms on a contract extension with Albert Pujols, who is scheduled to become The Free Agent To End All Free Agents next winter. The obvious question that looms over everything is just what kind of contract is fair for one of the best hitters to ever live.

It is easy to forget just how great Pujols is, but to put it in perspective, he’s on an entirely different plane than the rest of the league. For instance, the Red Sox gave up a significant chunk of their farm system for the right to pay Adrian Gonzalez about $150 million dollars (whenever that deal becomes official, anyway), and yet, Gonzalez’s best year is only marginally better than Pujols’ worst year. I think this graph kind of tells the story.

Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira are both elite players, and are being paid accordingly. Stack them up next to Pujols, though, and they look like scrubs. He dwarfs even the best active first baseman, and his only true peers now reside in Cooperstown. What’s fair market value for a player with these skills?

Let’s start with the working assumption that wins are currently being priced at about $5 million apiece this winter. For his career, Pujols has averaged +7.1 WAR per 600 PA, and that actually understates his value, because his career low in a season is 634 plate appearances. He’s been both amazingly valuable and remarkably durable. Still, headed into his age 31 season, we have to assume that he can’t sustain this level of greatness forever, and that his body will start to make him take some days off eventually. Let’s project him as a +7 win player for 2011, just to play it safe. You could argue for a bit higher number, but this will at least give us a baseline.

If we use the standard half-win-decrease-per-year aging curve, our ten year projection for Pujols would have him producing +47.5 wins between now and 2020. But he’s already under contract for 2011, so we should remove that from the equation, and just focus on 2012 and beyond. A deal that took him through 2021 would produce an expected +42.5 WAR, and if we assume a steady rate of 5% salary inflation, the value of those wins would be $267 million.

If 10/267 sounds remarkably close to what Alex Rodriguez got, then it is. They’re pretty similar players through this stage of their career. Pujols is a bit better hitter – his career wRC+ of 173 bests Rodriguez’s 153 mark through 2007, the year he opted out and signed his 10 year extension – but Rodriguez offered the potential of being able to play a tougher defensive position. When someone holds up Rodriguez’s deal as an example of the type of contract that Pujols should receive, they’re not grasping at straws; the numbers support a fair market value in that neighborhood.

Even if Pujols gives the Cardinals a 10 percent hometown discount, we’re still looking at his value being in the neighborhood of $240 million or so. If he wants his talents to be reflected in his next contract, the Cardinals are going to have to get somewhere near that number in order to give him separation from the likes of Teixeira and Joe Mauer, who each received $180 million deals and simply aren’t as good as he is.

The good news for the Cardinals is that, barring a catastrophic injury, he’ll probably be worth the money. There’s likely going to be some sticker shock, but he’s the kind of player you go all out for. Even if it costs $250 million to keep him, he deserves it. He’s that good.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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