February 18, 2011
Albert Pujols is looking for Alex Rodriguez money, which means a contract that will likely last him the rest of his career—he wants ten years, and at a hefty fee per annum. The Cardinals couldn’t bring themselves to make an offer of that magnitude, which leaves matters at a standstill for the foreseeable future.
The Cardinals have some difficult questions to answer, not just about Pujols, but about themselves. Even if Pujols is worth the sort of money he’s asking for, that doesn’t mean they have it to spend. And if they do have it to spend, it’s not clear that it’s prudent for them to sink all of it into a single asset, even one as good as Pujols. A contract as large as the one Pujols is seeking can cripple a franchise financially, even if the player performs well—A-Rod provides us with an object lesson in how a franchise like the Yankees is better suited to take on that sort of large deal than a franchise like the Rangers. The Cardinals are much closer to being the Rangers than the Yankees in terms of cash flow.
But aside from the particulars of the Cardinals’ finances, is it a prudent idea for any baseball team to give Pujols the sort of money he’s seeking? Obviously his past ten seasons have been more than worth the sort of outlay he’s looking for, but his contract does not bring with it a time machine—teams are being asked to pay for what they think he’s going to do, not what he’s already done.
So let’s talk in terms of how we think he might age. Rumors and innuendo aside, we’ll take him at his word that he’ll be 31 years old for the duration of this season. (Obviously, if it were our money we were spending, we’d make very sure to double-check that, just in case.)
To answer this question, we'll draw upon PECOTA, which looks at similar players as a means of determining the way in which we expect a player to age. Comparable players are selected based upon a variety of factors, including age, body type, position, skill set and performance level. So let’s consider a subset of the eligible player pool—those who have finished playing (in other words, excluding active players). From that grouping, let’s find Pujols’ top comps and see how long their careers lasted:
That’s a good group of players to have as comps—outside of the curious inclusion of Morgan Ensberg, the system places Pujols in the company of elite hitters. And if his comps are any guide, Pujols may well have more than ten seasons left in him. (Matters are further confused by the inclusion of Barry Bonds, whose career was cut short by legal problems, rather than by decline or injury.)
If we expand the comps list to about 40 players (all of the players among Pujols’ top 100 comps who have finished their careers) and weight their remaining years by how similar they are to Pujols as measured by PECOTA, we come up with an average career length remaining of about eight years. Pujols is a better player than most of his comps, and modern players seem to age a bit more gracefully, so it seems easy to talk ourselves into taking the over. But there’s still reason for concern.
PECOTA gives us, for instance, the cautionary tale of Jeff Bagwell, whose post-age-30-season self seems to have been a reasonable stand-in for what Pujols is now—a highly productive first baseman both with the bat and with the glove. But Bagwell would play only seven more seasons, and his final campaign was well below his usual standards: he played in only 39 games, was below average at the plate (for anyone, much less a first baseman) and couldn’t throw across the infield. His value had been sapped by shoulder problems that caused him to sit out the final season of his contract.
But even aside from the risk of a career-ending injury, we know that ballplayers tend to decline with age. How does the rest of Pujols’ career look? If we assume that he spends the next eleven years (the upcoming season, plus the hypothetical ten-year extension) of his career playing, without losing significant time to injury, we can estimate the slope of his career based upon how his comparable players declined:
While it wouldn’t be fair to assume that Pujols will remain the hitter he’s been, his forecast here looks like a pretty good one—at no point does he look like he’d be a liability with the bat as a first baseman. Again, we’ve assumed that he’ll avoid the sort of career-ending (or at least career-limiting) injury that would keep him off the field for extended periods of time—we’re being optimists about his playing time, in other words.
But if he can do that? Then he’s got a real shot at breaking some records. Right now, Pujols sits at 408 home runs. If he hits 336 more over the next eleven years, as this projection suggests he might, he'd sit behind only Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron on the career home-run leaderboard (if A-Rod doesn’t beat him to it and raise the bar, of course). At that point, he'd likely attempt to stick around long enough to claim the record, assuming his body cooperates.