For Pujols, Angels Can Afford the Gamble

Here’s a scenario for you. Your friend has performed in-depth studies into a new car he’s going to buy. Let’s say it’s a Buick Regal. And the studies show that about 98 percent of the time, the Regal runs well for 150,000 miles before it starts to require tons of service and starts to break down. Your friend needs a car that will be good for 100,000 miles. When it was new, the car cost $22,000. If you and your friend were out looking at cars and found a nice one with 100,000 miles, would you tell your friend to spend $22,000 for it? Would you tell your friend to gamble that the car is going to buck the odds, and last for another 100,000 miles? Or would you expect that it would cost less, and last as long as the odds say?

That’s the analogy I drew when it was suggested that the Cardinals pay Albert Pujols what the Angels paid him. History shows us that Pujols, after 11 superb seasons in St. Louis, still has gas left in the tank. But his new 10-year contract will take him through age 41, and we can expect he’ll be great for about half of that.

In 2010, one of the top 50 hitters in OPS was 36 or older, and that was Hideki Matsui at No. 49, with an OPS of .820. In 2011, the top OPS hitter that was 36 or older was Chipper Jones, who was 39 during the season and achieved an .814 OPS, good for 53rd in MLB. Contrast that with 2003, the last year without testing for PEDs. That season, Barry Bonds led the league in OPS at 1.278, in a season in which he turned 38. Also in the top 50 that year, playing at least part of the season at 36 years old, were Gary Sheffield at 1.023 (fourth), Frank Thomas (13th), Luis Gonzalez (17th), Sammy Sosa (27th), Larry Walker (33rd) and Edgar Martinez (35th). Bonds, in fact, had the top two OPS seasons in history in 2004, at the age of 39, and 2002, at 37.

We’re living in a different world in the post-steroid era. I’m not suggesting that all of those players listed above were using PEDs, but it is telling that in the last two seasons, we’ve had one player in the top 50 in OPS that was 36 or older, and eight years earlier, we had seven, including two of the top four, in one season.

Of the top 50 OPS seasons ever, the only players to crack the list at the age of 36 and not be associated with steroids are Ted Williams (10th all-time at 38) and Babe Ruth (23rd at age 36 and 45th at age 37). Bonds is first, second, fourth and eighth on the all-time, single-season list, all in years he was older than 36, all in years that he is suspected to have been on steroids.

To suggest that Albert Pujols is supernatural isn’t out of the question. To suggest that he’s going to be able to buck a trend that goes back 135 years, and bet $25 million a year on it, is quite a gamble. His best OPS season ever is 73rd all time, at age 28. To think that he’s going to be able to sustain his excellence in this era beyond the age of 35, for the second half of this contract, is problematic at best.

For the Angels, the TV business is as big a part of the contract as the baseball business. The Halos are in negotiations with Fox for a new deal after their current one expires after 2015. Right now, Anaheim takes in $50 million a year from Fox. The Rangers will start a new contract for $80 million a year, and the crosstown Dodgers worked out a $2 billion, 17-year deal with Fox (not allowed by MLB) that owner Frank McCourt wanted to use to keep the team. By the way, that averages out to $117 million a year. If the Angels can get close to that kind of TV money, $25 million a year for Albert will be a bargain. And the TV deal will run well past the time Pujols is effective.

The Cardinals did everything they could to keep Pujols. There’s no way, in the St. Louis market, that Fox can ever make enough money to pay $50 million, $80 million or more per season for Cardinals TV rights. We don’t have enough people to watch, or enough advertisers to spend big money on commercial time. As general manager John Mozeliak said, the Cardinals went beyond their means in their offer. The Angels can make the big money, have Pujols, and still have enough left over to build a team around him. They can still pay Torii Hunter, C.J. Wilson, Jered Weaver and Dan Haren, plus the ineffective Vernon Wells. And they can afford to push Pujols aside when he becomes less effective in five years, making him a part time DH, and sign someone else to pick up that slack.

Finally, Pujols would have been foolish to leave $30-$50 million on the table. There are reports that he turned down $275 million from the Marlins. He has always said he wants to be at a place where the team can put a competitive club on the field every year. The Marlins wouldn’t be able to do that if they had Pujols and Jose Reyes; they couldn’t afford the pitching. The Cardinals likely couldn’t sustain excellence with a payroll that included Pujols, Matt Holliday, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina.

This situation worked out the way it should have. Pujols and the Angels are best positioned to win together, and Los Angeles/Anaheim can afford to pay him in what will almost assuredly be the lesser final five years of his contract. The Cardinals can’t carry the weight of a $22-million player that isn’t performing at a high level. They’re better off having him walk away from their deal. And Pujols gets his money, and a chance to win, as well.

Very rarely is there a win/win/win situation. The Pujols situation is one of them. The Cardinals couldn’t gamble on that Regal, but the Angels can afford to.