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This week Ryan Howard became the newest star to be locked up for the long-term. Twenty-five million dollars a year for a player likely to be more suited as a designated-hitter than a first baseman within a year or two. The question becomes then, how much should a true first baseman, and better hitter to boot, like Albert Pujols make when he (potentially) becomes a free agent in 2011?
Since the news broke last week, many have pointed out the problems with the contract Howard was given by the Philadelphia Phillies. There have also been defenders of this contract, and he may well be worth the money in the end, but the truth is the list of reasons this contract does not make sense is too long to ignore.
The most obvious reason is that through his age 29 season, Howard’s three most similar batters historically are Richie Sexson, Cecil Fielder, and Mo Vaughn. All three of these players were ineffective by age 33 and out of baseball by age 35. Howard turned 30 in November. This contract extends through 2016 (with a team option for 2017). He will be almost 37 when this contract comes to an end. Big power-hitters, with his body-type just have not historically been effective into their thirties. No need to look further than David Ortiz for the evidence.
The Phillies had Howard under contract for two more years. They could have looked at Ortiz as an example and seen that it might have been worth it to wait the two years to determine if Howard could continue to be effective. Going into free agency at age 32, Howard would have been lucky to receive a contract worth twenty-five million a year, and the Phillies gave it to him when they still had him under contract.
According to a formula Fangraphs.com produces based on saber metrics, Howard has had exactly one season where he was worth that much ($25.3m) and that was back in 2006. If he was at least an average fielder it would be a different story, but by all accounts he is destined to be a designated-hitter playing out of position within a few years.
After the news of Howard’s contract surfaced, Keith Law of ESPN commented that if Howard was worth that much, then Pujols must be worth $50 million a year. It sounds like an exaggeration at first, but is it really that outrageous of an idea?
Pujols is clearly a superior player to Howard both offensively and defensively. He has also been much more consistent over his career and is a few months younger. It all comes down to whether one team wants him badly enough to shell out that kind of money, but there are only a handful of teams even capable of paying that sum.
The Yankees always come to mind first when thinking of the most expensive contracts in the game. They are usually in on any major free agent signings. If anyone can afford paying a player in one year more than the entire San Diego Padres roster in 2009, it’s the Yankees.
It seems unlikely they will go hard after Pujols for a couple reasons though. If he does make it to free agency, the Yankees already have one of the best defensive first basemen in the game in Mark Teixeira. Pujols is also considered one of the best at the position defensively, and neither of these guys would be happy relegated to the designated hitter position in the prime of their career.
Of course, money can change people’s mind, as we saw with C.C. Sabathia last off-season. Still with the number of long-term players they already have under contract, the Yankees are more likely to go after a lower-level star like Carl Crawford next year. The Yankees can never be counted out, but right now it looks unlikely they will be a front-runner for Pujols.
There’s nothing a Red Sox fan would rather hear than the team is gearing up for a big run at a player of Pujols’ caliber. The Red Sox are probably the only team other than the Yankees that could afford a contract approaching $50 million a year.
Whether the Red Sox are in on the slugger could have a lot to do with the development of first baseman Lars Anderson. If the newest member of the PawSox continues to hit like he did before being promoted from Double-A, there may be no room and no need for Pujols. Anderson has always had the upside of a middle-of-the-order power bat, and at least above-average skills defensively, but his down season last year called into question whether he would ever reach that ceiling.
The way Anderson has come out hitting this year should have Red Sox fans drooling over his future with the club. He has the potential to make fans of this team forget they ever pined for Adrian Gonzalez or Albert Pujols. Then again, if Anderson cannot get his bat going in Pawtucket, the team may be in this same position next year and when/if Pujols becomes a free agent. If this scenario unfolds, they could definitely be a major player in the Pujols sweepstakes.
In the end, the likeliest destination for Pujols is right where he started, with the St. Louis Cardinals. No, they will not be able to pay him $50 million a year, but something like $35 million is not out of the question.
Many believe the Cardinals expressly signed Matt Holliday in order to put themselves in better position to re-sign Pujols. The rumors are that Pujols is more interested in signing with a team more committed to winning than money, and is very loyal to the only team for which he has ever played. The Cardinals showed that commitment this off-season. The likeliest outcome is that they will reach an extension before the start of Spring Training next year in the neighborhood of seven or eight years at close to $35 million a season.
Of course, if he does reach free agency, it will be hard for the big-market teams to resist a run at him. Look for him to make close to $40 million a year if this happens, but in the end the only team that would be willing to shell out $50 million to any player in the near future is likely the Yankees. If that happens, Red Sox fans should prepare to have a new enemy number one.
Tags: Albert Pujols, Boston Red Sox, C.C. Sabathia, Carl Crawford, David Ortiz, Lars Anderson, Mark Teixeira, Matt Holliday, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Red Sox, Ryan Howard, St. Louis Cardinals