Albert Pujols signed the second worst contract in baseball history last week, and he did it all without meeting with a team he thought was based in Los Angeles.
OK. OK. Perhaps I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but bear with me. Right now, Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year, $275-million contract, signed when he was heading into his age 32 season, is generally considered to be one of the worst in baseball history. Four years into the deal, A-Rod has struggled to stay healthy, averaging just 124 games per season, while hitting .284/.375/.521. It’s an impressive slash line, but that is a far cry from the .306/.389/.578 line he put up beforehand.
To make matters worse, as we know, A-Rod’s world was rocked by scandal a few months after signing the deal when revelation of past steroid use became public. All of a sudden, the historic milestone clauses that could push A-Rod’s contract value over the $300 million mark became onerous. A-Rod gets paid no matter what, but a tainted home run race won’t draw as much money to the Yanks’ coffers as it otherwise would have.
A-Rod, who turned 36 this past July, is under contract for six more years and will earn another $143 million from the Yanks. It’s highly doubtful he’ll be worth it even if he can stay healthy enough to regain some semblance of his All Star production levels. Now, the Yanks could do worse than have A-Rod under contract for a while, but they were bidding against themselves in the winter of 2007 when A-Rod opted out. He walked away richer, and even before the ink dried on that contract, we knew a contract covering A-Rod’s age 32-41 seasons would not look pretty.
Enter the Angels. Or the Marlins. Or even the Cardinals. Albert Pujols is a great baseball player. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer with a career 1.037 OPS, 445 home runs, three MVP awards and two World Series rings. He’s also going to be 32 when the 2012 season opens and just signed a contract for $254 million covering his age 32-41 seasons. With an injury-plagued past, he’s coming off a year in which he hit only .299/.366/.541. For him, that’s a down year, and at his age, it’s not unreasonable to expect a slow and steady decline.
Of course, just like A-Rod in decline is still a very good player, so too is Albert Pujols. He makes the offensively-challenged Angels instantly better in the short term. In the long term, I’m glad the Yanks haven’t just forked over $254 million in guaranteed dollars to a first baseman. At least A-Rod played a premium position.
So all of these dollars got me thinking: If A-Rod’s deal is generally considered one of the worst in baseball, can’t we call Pujols’ contract the second worst? He’s a bit better offensively than A-Rod was at the same point in his career, but he plays an easier position. He’s signed for the same time period and is likely getting paid by the Angels for what he’s already done in his career — for another team, to boot — than what he will do going forward.
But who cares? I’m looking forward to seeing the Angels sink $25 million in 37-year-old Albert Pujols in a few years. There’s a larger concern though. Baseball’s system is now set up to reward the past. With new CBA, draft pick compensation is going to be tightly controlled, and the international free agency system will be limited as well. Free agency, then, will reign supreme, and teams will have to overpay for top talent. The Yanks are seeing that now as pitchers who aren’t rotation aces are getting paid as such, and teams are demanding the stars and the moon in trades for younger arms.
So the Yanks will spend cautiously and, some might say, wisely as free agent dollars explode. That’s the system the owners and players association have crafted to protect, on the one hand, current MLBPA members and, on the other, smaller market teams. At least the Yanks aren’t alone in signing a great player to an absurd contract though. For the next ten years, they have company.