Do you think Angels’ owner Arte Moreno wakes up a couple times a week in a cold sweat after dreaming that Albert Pujols decided to sign for the Miami Marlins rather than his team in November 2011?
Earlier this week the underachieving Angels decided to shut down Pujols due to his nagging case of Plantar fasciitis. In 99 games the 33-year-old hit 17 home runs with 69 RBIs, posting a .258/.330/.437 line, well below his career averages of .321/.410/.599. It’s the second-straight season Pujols’ numbers have decreased across the board since signing with Los Angeles for $240 million over 10 years.
Last May Jason Lisk explored the drop-off in the early-stages of Pujols’ debut season for the Angels and concluded the superhuman consistency of his days with the Cardinals was likely over, although he would likely remain a productive player. A year later, that prospect is looking much less certain. Realistically, the only certainty is the Angels are stuck paying $212 million to a declining corner infielder who’ll be 41 years old when it expires after the 2021 season.
Even better? The contract is back-loaded. The Angels owe him an additional $10 million on a personal services contract after he retires and the way the contract was written Pujols receives an additional million per season starting in 2014 so by the time the contract ends he’ll earn $30 million a year.
For the sake of the rest of this post, let’s leave the Jack Clark steroid allegations toward Pujols off the table. The easiest thing to do would be to point at Pujols’ statistical peak 2008-09 when he posted back-to-back seasons of an OPS north of 1.100, look at the nearly 400 point drop and conclude he was taking something. The way baseball has worked in the last two decades nobody is beyond suspension, but without an admission or failed test we don’t know and can only insinuate or make allegations like Clark — which resulted him in losing his radio gig after a week. Beyond that, it’s far too simplistic to assume Pujols’ production was all PED-driven. If the Biogenesis case teaches us anything, it’s that anyone could be using and taking banned substances won’t necessarily turn you into an All-Star, ie. Jordany Valdespin. (When you’re done here, read Gabe Kapler’s take on steroid suspicion, it’s worth your while.)
But back to Pujols’ contract. The Angels landed a 20-year $3 billion cable deal right around the same time it signed Pujols. Even so, the contract remains a massive albatross around the club’s neck. It’s also the worst active deal in all of baseball(*).
Fangraphs estimated in its annual anti-trade value post that Pujols deal is doubly-toxic as the second-worst current deal, Alex Rodriguez’s (albeit with much less baggage). Fangraphs guessed in order to move Pujols the Angels would have to eat roughly $152 million to get it done. Prince Fielder, rated the fifth-worst deal by Fangraphs, will get $24 million per year from the Tigers through 2020, but Fangraphs guessed it would only take Detroit eating $46 million to move him if they wanted.
Los Angeles is in okay shape now, floating Pujols (and Josh Hamilton), but they’ll run into an issue after the 2014 season when Mike Trout is arbitration-eligible for the first time. Trout, arguably the best player in the game not named Miguel Cabrera, is only making $510,000 this season. He’ll be a free agent after 2017, which luckily for the Angels is the last year of the Hamilton contract, which pays him $30 million that season.
As of now, if you Google, “Worst Contracts in Sports,” Pujols name doesn’t come up alongside such luminaries as Jerome James, Kei Igawa or Rick DiPietro. Nor is it exactly fair to lump a baseball contract alongside something the $100+ million the Redskins signed Albert Hanyesworth for considering so much of NFL contracts are non-guaranteed. Pujols contract is much worse since somebody will be on the hook for every penny of it.
Eventually, given Pujols’ downward career trajectory and age, we’ll find his scowling mug in slideshows next to the Denny Neagles, Darren Drieforts and Mike Hamptons of the world. This will be unfair, to a degree, since at one time Pujols was in fact the best hitter in baseball and not simply a fringe player a team overpaid to sign. Most likely Pujols (and the contracts for Fielder, Hamilton, etc.) might end up being the last of their kind for position players.
The trend in baseball is more on par with what the Rays did, inking Evan Longoria to a six-year, $100 million extension while still under team control which keeps him a Ray through 2022. The key difference here is Longoria signed the deal at age 27, not when he was already past 30. Guys like David Wright and Elvis Andrus are re-upping with their current clubs before hitting the market. Expect this to happen more-and-more for anyone not associated with Scott Boras.
Another good comparison down the road will be the 10-year, $225 million extension the Reds gave Joey Votto, like Pujols a former National League MVP. Votto, 29, will make an average of $25 from 2018-23. One difference is Votto’s best skill might be his patience at the plate. His .432 on-base percentage leads the NL this season and its a skill that doesn’t necessary decline with age.
Unless Pujols finds a way to turn back the clock and become the best hitter in baseball again, his contract will remain a disaster for the Angels. Even at 80 or 90 percent of the player he was at his peak, this is far to much money to pay for a guy who’ll be north of 40 when it’s all said and done. Meanwhile in St. Louis, the Cardinals are laughing all the way to to another playoff appearance.
(*) Technically the worst active deal in baseball is the side deal the Mets cut with Bobby Bonilla. Instead of paying out the remainder of his $5.9 million owed, the club bought he him out in 2000 and opted to defer payments in yearly installments of around $1.2 million from 2011-2035. It means Bonilla will still collect checks from the Mets when he’s 72 years old.