A couple of months ago, I wrote that the Derek Jeter negotiation with the New York Yankees, while entertaining in its own voyeuristic way, was a lot like a comfortable movie. We always knew how it would end. They two sides could fight, there could be some raw feelings, they could be tension, there might even be a moment when a breakup seemed inevitable. But no breakup was possible. Derek Jeter needed the Yankees. The Yankees needed Derek Jeter. The fans needed them together. Just like Harry and Sally, Jim and Pam and The Eagles reunion tour, there were no alternate endings that made any sense at all. Jeter and the Yankees HAD to end up together.
The Albert Pujols-St. Louis Cardinals negotiation seems similar. The Cardinals need Albert Pujols. And Pujols, whether he fully appreciates it or not, belongs with the Cardinals. Baseball fans would like them to stay together (except those who would like to steal him away). It seems like the same thing, but it isn’t the same at all. Pujols and the Cardinals could break up. More and more it looks like they WILL break up. The reason is obvious and a story almost as old as love. The reason is money.
See, in the Jeter situation there was never any doubt that Jeter was worth a lot more to the Yankees than anyone else. Sure, Jeter is probably the most famous player in baseball. He’s probably the most widely respected player among people inside the game. He’d offer a ticket boost, I suppose, and a bit of local buzz. But Jeter is turning 37 years old this year, and he’s coming off a season that suggests he’s in decline, and he still wants to play shortstop though time clearly ticks on him playing baseball’s second-most demanding defensive position.
So, what is a 37-year-old shortstop worth, one who hit .270 and slugged .370 while playing half his games in one of the American League’s great hitter’s parks? What is he worth if his name is not Derek Jeter? Marco Scutaro put up roughly the same year in 2011, he’s a couple years younger, he’s getting $6 million in 2011. And please: I am not comparing Marco Scutaro’s history to Derek Jeter’s — Jeter is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the four or five best hitting shortstops in baseball history. I am simply trying to estimate a player’s worth. Baseball insiders suggested that Jeter, based on his age and pure performance projections might have been worth a two-year, $17 million deal.
But, of course, Jeter was worth MUCH more than that to the Yankees. He’s worth much more to them because of his history with the team, his respect within the clubhouse, his ability to thrive in New York, his work ethic, his constant professionalism and so on. Do the Yankees believe Jeter still has enough left to rebound offensively and play a reasonable shortstop for the next three years? I’ll bet there’s a pretty wide difference of opinion on that within the organization. But with everything else involved, the Yankees are really the only team in baseball that had the impetus to bet big money on a Jeter comeback. The Yankees gave Jeter a three-year, $51 million deal. I’d guess no other team would have given him half that. But it made sense for the Yankees. Anyway, the Yankees have more money than Midas.*
*I don’t mean King Midas. I mean Midas, the brake repair company.**
**Have you ever thought how strange it is that their slogan is “Trust the Midas touch?”
The Pujols-Cardinals relationship has some of the same general characteristics of Jeter-Yankees. From the Cardinals side, it should be pretty obvious to everyone how important it is to sign the best player in the game. We don’t have to go into too much detail on that. For fun, we’ll give you the start of some charts to gawk at:
All-time records through first 10 seasons:
1. Albert Pujols 408
2. Eddie Matthews 370
3. Ralph Kiner 369
1. Ted Williams, 1,273
2. Albert Pujols, 1,183
3. Joe DiMaggio, 1,146
1. Joe DiMaggio, 1,277
2. Al SImmons, 1,275
3. Ted Williams, 1,261
4. Albert Pujols, 1,230
1. Ted Williams, 1,552
2. Albert Pujols 1,506
Wins Above Replacement
1. Ted Williams 86.2
2. Albert Pujols 83.8
3. Mickey Mantle 78.8
4. Willie Mays 76.3
OPS+ (min. 5,000 PAs)
1. Ted Williams 190
2. Ty Cobb 182
3. Lou Gehrig 181
4. Rogers Hornsby 180
5. Albert Pujols 172
(tie) Stan Musial 172
Yes, the Cardinals side of the negotiations is pretty plain.
From the Pujols side: He’s obviously the biggest star in one of America’s great baseball towns. The fans love him, he loves the fans, there is a connection there that happens very rarely in baseball. It is happening for Jeter in New York. It happened for Brooks Robinson in Baltimore. It happened for Johnny Bench in Cincinnati. It happened for George Brett in Kansas City. Before George Brett’s last game, he famously kissed home plate at Kauffman Stadium while a full stadium cheered, and I guess I’m naive enough to think that sort of thing does matter. Brett has told me many times that he remembers that moment as vividly as his biggest home runs. What does a player have after his playing days? Money, sure. Rings, if he’s lucky. Opportunities, maybe. But as much as anything: He has memories.
That’s not to go all mushy and say that a player should do what he can to stay with one team all his life. That’s dumb. It doesn’t make sense for the vast, vast, vast majority of players. Most will get traded or low-balled or mistreated … that’s a part of business and part of the game. Most players will have to leave to get what they are worth, to get a better opportunity, to not be taken for granted.
But for someone iconic like Pujols, a player on his way to making a case as the greatest hitter in baseball history, a player who has all the love of a city that lives and breathes baseball, well, sure, he has a chance to be one of the most beloved players ever in the game.
I can’t say I know Albert Pujols well, but I suppose I know him a little, and I think he understands fairly well what it would mean for him to stay in St. Louis. There’s no way for a man at 31 to know what he will know at 50, after the cheering has faded, after the fame has congealed, but I do think he has a sense of history, of relationships, of how special it would be to play his whole career in St. Louis and to become a part of the city’s history, not unlike someone else who is being honored today. More on that in a second.
But I also think that Albert Pujols feels under-appreciated. Why? I think that is part of his story. In high school, he was not even named first-team all-Kansas City by my former newspaper. He was constantly charged with being older than he claimed. He was not drafted. He went to Maple Woods Community College. He was drafted in the 13th round and was lowballed. He often says one of his hardest years was his first year in pro ball, when his family had no money, when few believed him. This is part of his baseball history, it is part of his life history, and it is having the strength and faith to work through all these things that helped Albert Pujols become the player he has become. He was driven to prove something to all those who doubted him. The doubters mostly have gone away. But I suspect that hunger and that feeling to prove them wrong has not.
Baseball, like life, often rewards people for leaving. Think about the biggest pay raises you have received in your life. They probably came when you went to another job, or at least when you were OFFERED another job. I don’t know if familiarity breeds contempt, but it certainly breeds apathy. Albert Pujols, for putting up 10 of the greatest seasons in baseball history, has been paid roughly $85.5 million by the Cardinals. Fangraphs calculates his value over those 10 years at roughly $285.5 million. That’s a pretty big gap.
Of course, this is because baseball is set up so that Pujols got less than a million each of his first three years, and then he signed a team friendly seven-year contract that turned into eight years when the Cardinals happily picked up his option for the baseball bargain price of $16 million this year. See, Pujols has already shown great loyalty to St. Louis.
Anyway, the reasons are not relevant. By baseball standards, Albert Pujols has been ludicrously underpaid. It feels absurd to say that someone can get SIXTEEN MILLION DOLLARS a year and be ludicrously underpaid, but we can’t let ourselves get lost in the numbers. We are not talking about real money. We are talking baseball money.
Players who will get paid more than Albert Pujols in 2011*
1. Alex Rodriguez
2. Cliff Lee*
3. Joe Mauer
3. C.C. Sabathia
4. Johan Santana
5. Mark Teixeira
7. Carl Crawford*
8. Roy Halladay
9. Miggy Cabrera
10. Derek Jeter*
11. Ryan Howard
12. Torii Hunter
13. Ichiro Suzuki
14. Vernon Wells
15. Barry Zito
16. Jake Peavy*
17. Matt Holliday
18. Carlos Beltran
19. Alfonso Soriano
20. A.J. Burnett
21. John Lackey*
22. Jayson Werth
23. Carlos Lee
24. Jason Bay
*And by getting “paid more” I mean they have signed contracts that pay them more than $16 million per year. Technically Cliff Lee will get paid less this year, but only because his 5-year, $120 million deal is backloaded. Same with Carl Crawford’s 7-year, $142 million. Derek Jeter’s is backloaded with an $8 million player option. Peavy will get paid at the end. John Lackey got much of his money up front.
Players who deserve to get paid more than Albert Pujols in 2011:
1. (Crickets sounding)
So you cannot blame Pujols for believing that the Cardinals have gotten one heck of a deal for 11 years. Maybe you don’t buy Fangraphs $200 million difference in value, but certainly the difference is $100 million. And you cannot blame Pujols and his agents for thinking that to come back to the Cardinals they ought to give him market value PLUS pay the minimum $100 million for services rendered. When you look at it that way, a 10-year, $300 million deal doesn’t sound quite as crazy.
So you say: “No, it doesn’t work that way. He got paid plenty by the Cardinals.” But it doesn’t matter what you or I say. It only matters how Pujols and his people feel. If the Cardinals want to sign Pujols, they have to deal with this sort of math. To Albert, I do believe, money equals respect. And that’s where the difference comes between Pujols-Cardinals and Jeter-Yankees. Because, at the end of the day, Jeter had no other viable options. No other team was going to offer him even half of what he wanted. But Pujols … yeah, there will be plenty of action on free agent Albert Pujols. Maybe nobody will offer a soon to be 32-year-old man the 10-year deal he wants … but never bet against the uncontrolled impulses of rich men searching for a place to spend their money. Someone paid $151.8 million for this Jackson Pollock painting:
So don’t tell me that no one will pay $300 million for perhaps the greatest hitter who ever lived.
Yes, this is different from Jeter’s deal. Pujols, I believe, wants to break the bank, wants to be paid more than any player in the history of the game. And if he pushes hard enough, if he sparks the interest of the right teams (the Cubs?)* he just might get there.
*A friend of mine, Jeff Gordon at the Post Dispatch, wrote something kind of silly last week. He wrote that the Kansas City Royals might be the best place for Pujols after St. Louis. This is largely because Pujols went to high school in Kansas City, still has connections the city, the Royals have a lot of free payroll and a desperate need to make a splash … all sensible enough thoughts, I suppose. He tended, however, to overlook one rather key point: Jeff, have you lost your mind? The Royals don’t have one of the lowest payrolls in baseball by mistake. The Royals have a low payroll because they have low revenue, and they have a not-lavishly rich owner who carefully watches the bottom line (the man ran Wal-Mart, for crying out loud), and they are attempting to build through their loaded farm system and the jewel of that farm system is a first baseman named Eric Hosmer. David Glass told my friend Bob Dutton: “There’s little justification in giving anybody a $300 million contract. You might as well give them the franchise.”
Sign Pujols? Glass paid $96 million to buy the Royals in 2000. It was more than he wanted to pay.
So, there is a real possibility — not a trumped up possibility but a real one — that Pujols will leave St. Louis even though it’s in just about everybody’s best interest for him to stay. It’s certainly in the Cardinals best interest. It’s in baseball’s best interest to have Pujols as the centerpiece of one of its proudest franchises. It’s in Pujols best interest to play his last years in a place that loves him and will forgive his inevitable decline (rather than get booed somewhere for the $30 million he no longer deserves).
Today, Stan Musial receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I’m proud of the tiny role I played in making that happen. Musial was one of the greatest players in baseball history, and he was one of the great role models of American sports history. And he came to represent his city of St. Louis. There have been many famous people to come from St. Louis, from all walks of life, but there is something about sports that captures our imagination, and so for a half century when people thought of St. Louis, they thought of the Arch, and they thought of Stan the Man Musial.
Albert Pujols can be that man for the next half century. Again, I don’t know his mind, but I do think he would like that, I do think he would like to represent something larger than baseball, would like to represent community and connection and stability and faith and all those things. I do think, all things being even close to equal, he would like to play his whole career for the St. Louis Cardinals. I hope he does. I think a lot of us hope he does.
But the ending isn’t written yet. Pujols has options. There are a lot of rich owners out there.