It’s 2011. Albert Pujols, the greatest Cardinal of my generation and the driving force behind 2 World Series titles, is about to become a free agent. Pujols accumulated 81.3 fWAR in his 11 years in a Cardinal uniform and was well on his way to the Hall of Fame. He had been the Rookie of the Year, won the MVP 3 times and finished 2nd 4 more (he’d have certainly won 3 more if not for Bonds and the fact that MVP voters love RBI). He had won 2 Gold Gloves and been an All-Star 10 times. He was, in every definition of the word, a Cardinal hero…and he was about to become a free agent.
Everyone knew the price for Pujols was going to be high; the obvious question was “how high would the team go in order to re-sign him?” He had to be re-signed, though, right? He was, after all, Albert Pujols. We couldn’t let him get away. Many were surprised, including Albert himself, when the team didn’t make more of a push to get him signed before his final year in a Cardinal uniform. In January, 2011, the team offered Pujols a 9 year, $198 million offer which he rejected. He became a free agent that November and in December, the team upped its offer to 10 years, $220 million. We, of course, know what happened next. The Angels swooped in with a 10 year, $254 million offer and he was gone.
As it turned out, the team didn’t miss a beat. The Cardinals installed Lance Berkman and Allen Craig at first base, won 88 games, and was 1 win away from playing in the World Series. The Angels had a good season themselves, winning 89 games, but finished 3rd in the tough AL West. Pujols played well, accumulating 3.6 fWAR but it was the lowest total of his career. And he hasn’t been even that good since. In his 4 years in Southern California, Pujols has accumulated a total of 9.1 fWAR — less than 2.3 per season. In 2003 as a Cardinal, Pujols accumulated 9.5 fWAR in that season alone. Now he’s basically a league average player.
In the 2012 amateur draft, the Cardinals had 2 compensation picks for losing Pujols to the Angels. They used those 2 picks to select Michael Wacha and Stephen Piscotty. Craig became a hero for the Cardinals and, when he started to slip, we traded him to the Red Sox for John Lackey. Now, does anyone think that the Cardinals would trade Wacha and Piscotty for Pujols? Would any team be so stupid as to make that deal? I guarantee that the Angels would rather have Wacha and Piscotty than Pujols.
Dave Cameron from Fangraphs does a trade value series each July where he ranks the top 50 players in baseball in terms of the trade value and then he concludes the series with the 5 players in baseball with the lowest trade value. In other words — the 5 worst contracts in baseball. In 2013 and 2014, Pujols ranked first — the worst contract in the game. This year, Pujols made it up to 5th with Cameron estimating that Pujols’s contract had $70 million in dead weight. Whether or not we agree that Pujols’s contract is the worst, or the 5th worst, or the 10th worst in baseball, it is inarguably a bad contract, one to which we should all be ecstatic the Cardinals never agreed.
This offseason the Cardinals are back in that boat, trying to decide how much to offer Jason Heyward, another free agent who will be seeking somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million. Many Cardinals’ fans, with full knowledge of how well the team has done since Pujols left and of how burdensome the contract is to the Angels, will follow the Heyward negotiations with trepidation. “$200 million for guy who hit 13 home runs last year? That’s preposterous!” But is it?
First of all, it’s not 2011. Salaries have escalated by about 7% per year in baseball over the last 4 years. So, $200 million today is equivalent to about $153 million in 2011. Second, when Pujols left for the Angels, he was already 31 years old and his last season was his worst (though still very good). He had dealt with multiple injuries to his arm and his feet and was basically relegated to first base. It was pretty obvious that he was not going to age particularly well. He would soon, undoubtedly, become a DH at least part-time and with the Cards in the NL, it didn’t make a ton of sense to carry a part-time DH on the roster. As it turns out, Pujols was only in year 4 of his 10 year deal and only played 1B 95 times last year. Down the stretch for the Angels, Chris Cron played 1B and Pujols was the DH. Formerly a very good base runner, at least for someone without blazing speed, now Pujols is frequently pinch run for. And he still has 6 years left on his deal.
Jason Heyward is a very different character. First, he just turned 26 — 5 years younger than Pujols was when he began his first season in LA. He’s an outstanding defensive outfielder and base runner. He’s easily the best defensive right fielder in the game by both UZR and DRS and the team even felt comfortable enough with Heyward in the outfield to put him in CF 10 times. Fangraphs has Heyward as the 5th best base runner in the game, adding 7 runs to the team just by stealing bases and taking the extra base on singles and doubles. So even though Heyward doesn’t hit with the power that one would like from a superstar, $200 million player — averaging just under 13 homers per year over the previous 3 seasons — he still accumulates a lot of value other ways. Once Pujols started to break down, he became basically just a slugger.
Even though he only hit 13 homers in 2015, he was still the 6th best outfielder in the game by fWAR and was the team’s most valuable player as well. Most importantly, however, many players don’t reach their peaks until they are somewhere between 27 and 30. Heyward has already hit 27 HR in the big leagues once and with his frame, 6’5″ & 245 pounds, there are a lot of reasons people think that power may return. In other words, there are a lot of reasons to believe the best is yet to come with Heyward. That simply was not realistic with the Pujols contract.
Yesterday, Craig Edwards of vivaelbirdos and fangraphs shared this via twitter:
Sure, Holliday had more homers than Heyward at his age but Heyward was still arguably a better hitter at his age than Holliday was (121 wRC+ > 116 wRC+). And Holliday didn’t provide anywhere near the defensive and base running value that Heyward provides.
So, here’s the point, the Cardinals can’t afford to hand out $200 million contracts to anyone who wants one. They must be offered judiciously. Thus, the team should offer a huge mega-contract only to players who:
- are obviously great
- are young and can provide value for a long time
- have the ability to help the team at the plate, in the field, and on the bases
- may not have yet reached their peak
- have a good injury history
- can help the team win when they’re not hitting homers
Jason Heyward meets all of those criteria. If the team is ever going to bid on the top free agent position player on the market, this is the guy to bid on. We won’t be able to go after Bryce Harper in a couple of years but we do have as good a chance as anyone of landing Heyward and should push all our chips in to get him. We have room in the budget and the team is going to get a lot more money when its big contract with Fox Sports Midwest kicks in. The dollars may be similar, in that they may both start with a 2, but this is not the Pujols contract.