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February 10, 2011

The BP Broadside

When is Baseball's MVP Its Least Valuable Player?

by Steven Goldman

As of this moment, baseball’s best player has its least trade value. The Cardinals, apparently at an impasse with Albert Pujols, face the possibility of seeing their great slugger depart as a free agent after the season, leaving nothing behind but a draft pick, and perhaps not even that. If the career .331/.426/.624 hitter is determined to test the free-agent waters and see if some Tom, Dick, or Steinbrenner is willing to make him a kabillionaire, the only proactive option for owner Bill DeWitt, general manager John Mozeliak, and pals is to trade him for whatever they can get. Yet, those Cardinals fans expecting such a deal to provide a significant balm for the loss of Pujols should give up hope and devote themselves to more useful pursuits, like wondering if the defense will be the worst in the National League, or thinking up ten ways you can lower the national debt while working from home .

While it is possible that some overreaching general manager may take leave of his senses and offer a real reward of the future Hall of Famer, the near-certainty that there is no possibility of deflecting Pujols from free agency means that any acquiring team will function as a mere way station on the player’s path to untold riches. Sure, Pujols might take an 85-win team and push it into the playoffs, but as the theme from The Poseidon Adventure says, there’s got to be a morning after; renting Pujols is no guarantee of winning, and the aftermath of trading for Pujols, failing to make the playoffs (or washing out early) and having neither the star nor the prospects to rebuild around should be a serious disincentive to roll the dice.

Even if the Cardinals are certain that they cannot sign Pujols, any deal carries significant risks, not the least of which is that owner DeWitt can join his father in immortality as the instigator of one of baseball’s historically bad trades. DeWitt pere, in his role as owner-operator of the Cincinnati Reds, infamously dealt the 30-year-old Frank Robinson to the Orioles for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun, and Dick Simpson, calling Robinson “an old 30.” This may seem like mere ridicule that will pass away in time, and surely it will. That said, ridicule can mean something in terms of lost ticket sales and television viewership.

The Robinson deal can stand for the sheer futility of trading an all-time great player. Dealing Pujols means that all the risk of an uneven deal will be assumed by the Cardinals. And rest assured—if it’s not obvious already—Pujols is an all-time great player, having already cracked the top 50 in career WARP at 30 years old. Barring a Dale Murphy-like crash landing, he is going to finish his career as one of just 25 modern-day players to have been worth over 100 wins to his teams, a development which would put him in the same ranks as Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and a host of inner-circle Cooperstown denizens.

Even when the additional pressures of free agency are added to the picture, there have been relatively few trades of the top 50 players, and almost all of them are ranked among baseball’s worst swaps. The reason is simple: there is almost no way to trade a Hall of Famer in his prime and get anything like equal value in return, because even the best prospects rarely turn into 100-win players, or even 50-win players. That is why, despite salary contretemps and character issues, in franchise financial health and bad, the clubs opted to pay up rather than deal out.

As such, should the Cardinals take the rare step of trading, they will almost certainly have to settle for the kind of return that the Phillies got for Pete Alexander (Pickles Dillhoefer, Mike Predergast, and $55,000), the Mets got for Tom Seaver (Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, Dan Norman, and Pat Zachry), the A’s got for Rickey Henderson (Jose Rijo, Stan Javier, Eric Plunk, Tim Birtsas, and Jay Howell) or the Yankees got for Henderson (Greg Cadaret, Eric Plunk, and Luis Polonia), or the A’s got for him the second time around (Steve Karsay and Jose Herrera)—and we haven’t even gotten to Ruth going from the Red Sox to the Yankees at 25 for $100,000 and help with the Fenway Park mortgage.

Given the likelihood of an underwhelming return, a soft division, and an aging pitching staff, it would make far more sense for the Cards to try to ride Pujols to a last postseason, and then shrug and say, “Hey, we tried,” than to give in to the entirely imaginary pressure to get something when something may prove to be a fourth starter, a reserve catcher, and a LOOGY.

Calls for a trade not only tend to ignore the question of who would offer enough to interest the Cardinals under these conditions, but who has the money to sign him to an eight- to ten-year deal at an annual price of close to $20 million a year and thus might overpay on prospects to get ahead of the line. It’s titillating to think about the Red Sox having the option of replacing either Adrian Gonzalez or David Ortiz, both of whom are playing out their contracts, but unless either of those players suffers an injury, it would be impossible to accommodate Pujols in-season. As such, why deal Jose Iglesias, Josh Reddick, and Lars-Stolmy Middlebrooks in June? The Yankees have a Gold Glove first baseman already, and Pujols seems unlikely to want to DH. The Dodgers and Mets would seem to be off the board due to the off-field distractions of their respective owners. The Angels would seem a good fit, but if the conversation is going to start with Mike Trout, they should probably think better of picking up the phone.

Tris Speaker for Sad Sam Jones, Fred Thomas and $55,000. Jimmie Foxx—a player not dissimilar to Pujols—for George Savino, Gordon Rhodes, and $150,000. These are the kind of returns that await the Cardinals for Pujols. Whatever deal the Cardinals make, should they make one, will make a great answer to a trivia question one day, in the same way that people ask what the Cardinals got for Steve Carlton when they traded him to the Phillies at 27. (Rick Wise—you buy the next round.) It might be better to take the draft pick, a result that will, at least, push off the promised reward for Prince Albert well into the future.

Given this reality and the club’s other weaknesses—a poor middle infield combo, Lance Berkman in the outfield, Chris Carpenter’s age and fragility, a weak farm—even if Pujols stays he might not be able to keep the club in contention. Trading him won’t fix these problems, and failing to sign him might well prove a fatal blow. Whichever manner in which Pujols departs, not only should expectations for his replacements, however acquired, be lowered, but hopes for the club as a whole should be dismissed altogether.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

41 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

ragerd

Ryan Howard, St Lou hometown boy, plus an upper level arm for Pujols. Get it done.

Feb 10, 2011 04:30 AM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

You aren't getting Albert Pujols for Howard's ridiculous contract. You might get Alberto Callaspo though.

Feb 10, 2011 23:25 PM
rating: 1
 
spinkate

if Cards are going to pay howard's ridiculous salary in that trade then they might as well sign Pujols.

Feb 10, 2011 05:11 AM
rating: 12
 
ragerd

Pujols is asking for TWICE what Howard is due. I get the whole AAV thing, but its the years that kill you, not the dollars.

Feb 10, 2011 17:57 PM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

That's true, but $125 Million will kill you too.

Feb 10, 2011 23:25 PM
rating: 0
 
Tarakas

Press reports have stated Pujols would veto any trade. They could be wrong, though, but I doubt it.

Feb 10, 2011 05:32 AM
rating: 0
 
Nowhereman

I heard that as well.

Feb 10, 2011 06:02 AM
rating: 0
 
Cory Schwartz

He's a 10-5 guy and can veto any trade

Feb 10, 2011 10:05 AM
rating: 1
 
Nowhereman

Given the importance of Pujols to the franchise and his talent level, I honestly can't understand how this hasn't gotten done yet. Pujols is supposedly seeking a contract similar to A-Rod's, which while unreasonable for ARod, is probably only a marginal overpay for Pujols. Any 10-year contract is a risk--I get that--but just frontload it slightly so the first seven years are over $30M, keep the last three years fairly low (so you meet ARod's base salary of $275 but don't go over) and give Pujols the ability to opt out of the last three years. Unless he's disastrous over the next seven years or gets hurt, he'll easily be able to opt out and get a better payday over those last three years. Heck, you can even include a clause that allows the Cards to prevent Pujols from opting out by agreeing to raise his salary to X amount. This just doesn't seem to be that difficult of a problem. Given how much money worse players have gotten and how much Pujols means to the franchise (and I guarantee you he brings in a sh-t ton of revenue via merch and ticket sales), it seems like a no-brainer to me to get things done on his terms. They're not that unreasonable (at least, not as far as I can tell from the limited reporting on the subject).

Feb 10, 2011 06:07 AM
rating: 10
 
Matt Kory

Explain again why you'd give him a bunch of money and then let him leave when his salary gets cheap.

Feb 10, 2011 23:27 PM
rating: 0
 
ClubberLang

It's not a "let him leave", it's a hedge against him 1) being older than he is, or 2) a rapid decline. If you frontload it at, say, 32 for the first 7 years or so and he falls apart, the 17.333 million over the last 3 (that he would take if he wasn't good anymore rather than opting out) kills your payroll less than if you just did 27.6 annually over the 10 years. And if he's that good that he's worth more than 52 million guaranteed over three years on the open market after those seven years, odds are pretty good that you pretty much got your money's worth on those frontloaded years.

(7 years 32mil and 3 years at 17.333 mil is 10 years, 276)

Feb 11, 2011 12:08 PM
rating: 1
 
Matt Kory

If the total money is the same, and you front loading the contract, the time value of money will make it a more expensive contract for the team to pay off even if the total dollars are the same. Inflation over the life of the contract means that 2011 dollars are more valuable than 2021 dollars.

Think about it this way. Would you rather have $100 in 2011 money or would you rather have $100 in 1920 money? The latter is worth about $1,100 now.

Feb 13, 2011 19:58 PM
rating: 1
 
FungoJerry

Is ownership allowed to include a small percentage stake in the team as part of a deal? Does MLB forbid this? Why not seek an innovative contract here for the best player in baseball?

I don't know the current value of the Cardinals, but it's a lot more with Pujols on the team. From the owners point of view, wouldn't 5% of the team and a contract of 6/100m make more sense than 8/250m? Just a new way to defer money...

Feb 10, 2011 06:35 AM
rating: 0
 
Benjarvis

It's a great idea, and I could be wrong, but I believe there is something in the MLB by-laws that excludes the possibility of a (current)player having an ownership stake. It was discussed before the Twins re-signed Mauer.

Feb 10, 2011 06:58 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Neil deMause
BP staff

Kevin covered this last year - the reason for the ban is the problem of what to do when your part-owner is later traded to another team:

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=10316

(Especially prescient intro on that article, btw...)

Feb 10, 2011 07:58 AM
 
hyprvypr

I think the Cardinals are either going to have to lose him to FA or pony up the huge dollars he's going to get as a FA. If Crawford, Werth and Howard can be overpaid, so can Pujols, which means he's worth every penny at 10/275. If they can't afford him, some team like LA, SEA or CHI will try to.

Feb 10, 2011 06:44 AM
rating: 1
 
John Carter

This is the new (well, for the last 30+ years) reality - no matter how good a player is on the field, his value to his team is only worth his first three years in the Majors, plus the diffenernce between his next three years and the market value they had to pay for him through arbitration. Money equals opportunity to invest in player development, alternative salaries, etc. Long term contracts can spread the time of usefulness out a bit, but there is a cost to that, so ultimately those six years is all they get. After that, the bargins probably don't even equal the losses.

Feb 10, 2011 07:47 AM
rating: 1
 
Agent007

Pujols is an ingrate! Send him to the Orioles. I hear Nolan Reimold is available. Maybe even Luke Scott if you catch Andy McPhail at a weak moment.

Feb 10, 2011 08:05 AM
rating: 0
 
Ian Miller

Luke Scott would be a great fit in STL. Scott could accompany LaRussa to all those Glenn Beck appearances.

Feb 10, 2011 09:12 AM
rating: 21
 
Richie

The Cards will only want to move Pujols if they clearly fall out of the division/wild card race. In such an event, the player involved always accepts a trade to a contender, so as to 'have a shot at the World Series'.

Feb 10, 2011 08:58 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

As to franchise value, this has amazingly little to do with how good the major league team is. Overwhelmingly market size, stadium coming in a far-back second, after which what cable deals already in place, et.cet., et.cet.

Given the ownership egos involved, this makes perfect sense. Anyone with sufficient oodles of cash to secure managing partner for any ownership group will be certain he's great enough to turn around the club no matter what state it's currently in.

Feb 10, 2011 09:04 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

While the historical record is daunting and undeniable, I think there are two factors which have changed. First, with the doubling/quadrupling of playoff teams (8 rather than 4 or 2), your pool of possible suckers is much expanded. All you need is one to think 'Pujols WILL! get us into the playoffs then win the World Series for us then happily re-sign with us!!!', and now you got somebody you can hold up.

Second, I think there's more pressure on ownership/management today to win, particularly to grab for the brass ring anytime there looks like there's an actual chance at it. Ergo, I think the Cards will have a better shot at getting SOME-thing of real worth for Pujols than the historical record suggests.

Of course, between the wildcard and a winnable division, I figure on the Cards hanging around at least close enough to contention anyway. And so sensibly keeping Pujols, especially given how 2006 worked out for them.

Feb 10, 2011 09:22 AM
rating: 1
 
juiced

If the Cards lose Albert they are done for a few years. Think Giants after Bonds' forced exit.

Feb 10, 2011 10:01 AM
rating: 0
 
ostrowj1

The Giants didn't have Wainwright, Carpenter, Holliday, or Rasmus. To make things worse, they did have Brian Sabean...

Feb 10, 2011 13:42 PM
rating: 0
 
irussma

And despite that, the Giants just won the World Series. Yeah, they were bad for a few years, but an established franchise can stand a few bad years without falling apart.

Feb 10, 2011 15:10 PM
rating: 1
 
Morris Greenberg

The problem with this is that most teams that can afford Pujols who are in contention already have great offensive first basemen. True, Pujols is better than the rest of them, but it would be hard for most of them to be able to fit both Pujols and their starting 1B in their lineups if they aren't going to move Pujols' position:
Red Sox - Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz
Yankees - Mark Teixeira
White Sox - Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn
Phillies - Ryan Howard
Reds - Joey Votto
Brewers - Prince Fielder

That leaves basically the Rangers, Giants, and Braves as bigger contenders that have the potential flexibility to acquire Pujols. If Teixeira or Pujols would be willing to move to DH, then they could also be in contention, but that would be unlikely. Maybe a surprise team does better than expected and plucks him, but overall, while the competition should be big in theory for such a great slugger, in reality it probably won't be.

Feb 10, 2011 12:02 PM
rating: 0
 
ostrowj1

I would love to see Tampa Bay make a deal for 1 year of Pujols. They have the prospects and the team to pull it off...

Feb 10, 2011 13:40 PM
rating: 1
 
Matt Kory

I don't think they could afford his salary this season. If they got him in July he'd cost them $8 million. They traded Garza because he'd cost them half that.

Feb 10, 2011 23:31 PM
rating: 0
 
RaysProf

I think you should have added a ;) to your comment. It is unlikely the Rays would be willing to pay for his current contract and they would only do it to make sure they had a draft choice after he left.

Feb 11, 2011 12:55 PM
rating: 0
 
chris in illinois

Add the Cubs to that list. They have all of $49 million guaranteed next year, they can afford the man.

Feb 10, 2011 14:16 PM
rating: 2
 
ClubberLang

Indeed. The conspiracy theorists (who could well be right) believe the Cubs wanted a first baseman on a one year deal so they'd have the spot open for Pujols. Enter Carlos Pena on a one year deal.

And though it's a fairly friendly rivalry as rivalries go, there's certainly some value in buying Pujols and making themselves a lot better while also crippling their rival.

Feb 10, 2011 15:12 PM
rating: 0
 
Patrick

I think this is a valid point, but wanted to mention the strangeness of including the Reds and Brewers as "teams that can afford Pujols."

It seems like an incomplete list, too. No Twins or Tigers or Angels? No Dodgers or Rockies included as contending teams without great first basemen?

Feb 11, 2011 06:09 AM
rating: 0
 
John Douglass

"Whichever manner in which Pujols departs....hopes for the club as a whole should be dismissed altogether."

Boy, that's a tad aggressive. A team that typically spends $95MM or so in payroll, with only $29MM committed after 2012, that plays in a soft division, should give up all hope if Pujols leaves? There have been 18 non-Pujols World Series teams since he entered the league, and there will be plenty more when 33 (36?) year old Albert is being paid to play like 29 (32?) year old Albert did.

Feb 10, 2011 12:11 PM
rating: 2
 
rookie319s

I am guessing that the Cardinals are telling Albert that if I give you the money then what about Carpenter, Wainright, Yadi, Rasmus also getting paid? Lee got rich with the phillies. I wonder what Wainright is worth on the open market. For now the farm system is barren of good prospects except for Shelby Miller. I live in Saint Louis and have enjoyed watching Pujols. Something tells me 300,000,000 could be better spent elsewhere. Albert is great, but I dont see him worth anything near 27 million around age 40 or 41.

Feb 10, 2011 15:37 PM
rating: 0
 
pikapp383

My guess is that the Cards are trying to hold the line at 7 or 8 years. I believe they will (have) agree(d) to pay 30 million a year with some deferred, but the length of the contract is the issue.

I also think that the Cards will cave and give 10 years rather than let Pujols walk.

Feb 10, 2011 22:42 PM
rating: 1
 
Matt Kory

I just checked to see if Teixeira has a no-trade clause. It occurred to me the Yankees might try to dump him on Baltimore and sign Pujols. Unfortunately, Teixeira does have a no trade.

Everyone is acting like the Red Sox are out of it, but they haven't signed Gonzalez long term yet. It will be interesting to see if they decide to wait on that deal at all to see what happens in St. Louis with Pujols.

Feb 10, 2011 23:35 PM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

I say "Unfortunately" because it would be funny, not because I want the Yankees to get Pujols.

Feb 10, 2011 23:36 PM
rating: 0
 
mrdannyg

Let's not forget Ortiz is only signed through 2011. What's to stop them from moving Ortiz, a promising expendable outfielder like Kalish or Ellsbury (and, presumably, other pieces) for Pujols in July?

Feb 11, 2011 10:21 AM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

Nothing presumably other than the fact that I very much doubt either Pujols or Gonzalez (remember him?) wants to DH. They could decide to not sign Gonzalez and let him go after this season in effort to sign Pujols, but then you're really rolling the dice. It's entirely possible in that scenario that Boston could be left without either.

Feb 13, 2011 20:01 PM
rating: 0
 
BERSMR

I think you meant 8-10 years at near 30 million. Anyway, Cliff Lee may not be an inner circle HOFer quite yet, but if they are out of the race and could get a return including a top nearly ready position prospect at a position of need (like Smoak) they would have to consider it. More likely, they have a competitive season and he goes where he goes after the season.

While I'm not sure I would just hand out 10 years at 30 million do we really know that is Pujols' bottom line. 8x28 plus a vesting option or two seems like something both sides should be interested in. I'm surprised the Cardinals don't seem to be putting up more of a fight to get this done or at least shown themselves to have gone the last mile.

Feb 13, 2011 05:32 AM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

It is surprising that an extension hasn't been finished by now, but ten years and $300 million is a lot of years and money to tie yourself to if you're St. Louis. As great as Pujols has been, maybe it's better to thank him for his services and point those resources in a different direction.

Feb 13, 2011 20:04 PM
rating: 0
 
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