Pujols, Fielder, and Free Agent Decisions

This winter, five franchises will face the same decision — is it time to say goodbye to one of the cornerstones of their team? As Jayson Stark discusses in a piece today, the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets and Boston Red Sox all have a star player on the roster who is eligible for free agency this winter, and if they want to keep their rosters intact, they’ll have to pony up a long-term contract in order to make it happen.

Paying for the second half of a player’s career can often be a dangerous proposition. Using wins above replacement, we’ve decided to look back at similar historical players and see how well they held up after the same point in their careers. After all, those who don’t learn from history …

Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals

It’s only fitting that the most comparable player to Pujols is Stan Musial, the man who stands in Pujols’ way for the title of “Greatest Cardinal of All Time.” Through their age-31 seasons, there is little to distinguish one from the other. From 1941-52, Musial collected 87.3 wins above replacement, while Pujols is presently at 84.7, and will likely finish the season with a number very close to Musial’s mark.

Musial sustained his greatness from age 32 through 37, giving the Cardinals six more excellent seasons before finally succumbing to the effects of aging and losing most of his value. While Pujols has been rumored to be seeking a deal as long as 10 years, even the best players in the game’s history had a hard time holding off a decline into their early 40s. However, as Musial showed, great players can decline from their peak performance and still be among the best players in the league, and the Cardinals could get enough value from Pujols at the beginning of a long-term deal to justify overpaying him at the end of it.

Verdict: Keep him. In 15 years, they can build another statue outside the ballpark, and these two can forever be linked together as the best players in franchise history.

Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers

It’s hard to find good comparables for Fielder because most athletes his size end up in the NFL. However, when the Brewers sit down to decide whether they should commit to Fielder for the rest of his career, they would do well to remember Mo Vaughn. Also a super-sized slugging first baseman, Vaughn developed at a later age than Fielder did but had a similar skill set and physique.

Unfortunately for the Angels, that physique helped to wreck his knees shortly after they gave him a monstrous free-agent contract, and he was essentially finished as an impact player after his age-30 season. Fielder is just 27 and has worked hard to keep himself in better condition, but he’s still a very large human being, and his defense will likely demand a shift to DH at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Verdict: Let him go. The Brewers don’t have the luxury of using a DH, and while they will miss his bat dearly, he’s not the kind of player that a National League team should be committing to long-term.

Jose Reyes, SS, Mets

If it weren’t for the injuries, this would be an easy call, as Reyes is one of the game’s best players when he’s completely healthy. However, leg injuries to players whose game is based around speed can be scary, and Reyes has had two lost years in the prime of his career. He’s bouncing back in a big way this season, however, and if he were surrounded by some more talented teammates, he’d be among the leading candidates for National League MVP.

If the Mets need reassurance that early career health problems can be overcome, they should look no further than Barry Larkin, a remarkably similar player who also struggled to stay on the field in his 20s. While he was never the most durable player in the game, he remained excellent while on the field through his age-35 season.

Verdict: Keep him. He will always present a health risk, but dynamic shortstops are in short supply, and it could take the Mets years to find a player who could fill Reyes’ shoes.

David Ortiz, DH, Boston

After being written off as over the hill in 2009, Ortiz has come back with a vengeance and re-asserted himself as one of the game’s best hitters. At age 35, however, the end is somewhat near with Ortiz, and the Red Sox will have to figure out just how much longer he’ll be able to fight off Father Time.

Like Fielder, Ortiz is also hard to find a comparable player for, but Andres Galarraga‘s late career resurgence does offer some similarities. He looked like he was on his way out of baseball before thundering back to life at age 35, the first of a three-year run as one of the game’s best hitters. Amazingly enough, his best season came at age 37 immediately after leaving Colorado and returning to sea level. We’ll never know how long he could have kept it up, as a cancerous tumor cost him his age 38 season and he wasn’t the same upon returning. However, Galarraga showed that big sluggers can revive their careers with more than a one-year fluke, and Boston fans should be encouraged that Ortiz has stopped striking out this year.

Verdict: Keep him. The Red Sox need his bat, he’s beloved in Boston, and his new ability to avoid striking out suggests that he’s not anywhere near finished yet.

Jimmy Rollins, SS, Phillies

There’s no question that Rollins is not what he was a few years ago. He’s almost certainly never going to hit 30 home runs in a season again, as the power looks to be gone and never coming back. However, as a switch-hitter with speed and elite contact skills, Rollins could continue to be a productive player well into his 30s.

Tony Fernandez never had Rollins’ power, but his skill set was similar to the one Rollins is showing now, and he also plateaued not long after turning 30. However, even as his speed waned, his ability to hit for a high average while holding down a spot on the infield made him a useful piece on championship-caliber teams. Rollins can still play shortstop and has enough left in the tank to stay there for a few more years. While he’s more of a league-average hitter now than the dynamic offensive player he was previously, he has the skills to stave off serious decline.

Verdict: Keep him. The Phillies have already committed long-term deals to Ryan Howard and Cliff Lee, so now would be a silly time to start sacrificing the present in the name of fiscal responsibility.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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