Less than 36 hours from now, Albert Pujols will have arrived at the Cardinals spring training facility in Jupiter, FL and the contract negotiations will have to end and the best player in the majors will inevitably become a free agent at the end of the year.
We all know his demands, Pujols want $300 million over 10 years in order to "take his talents to..." as Lebron James said when he was in this exact same situation last summer. But there's a deeper story of the economics of the game of baseball that explains why the Albert Pujols feels like he can ask for $30 million a year and feel like he can get it.
First base is one of those "fetishized" positions in the sport like the quarterback on a football team and that shooting guard/ small forward type player in the shape of Kobe Bryant in the NBA. Players and positions in which fans, front offices and the media expect to be populated by superstars.
Granted a first baseman is usually the most productive offensive player on a team, but by no means is that a given. Most importantly, first base is a position in which the player's defensive skill set is not a priority which makes a player less valuable generally speaking (with exceptions)
So with that presupposition that signing or resigning a first baseman will give your team in most cases at least 30 HR, 100 plus RBI and an OBP of .350 or better. The market for first baseman always seem to be rather competitive especially among the the top players and the top teams in terms of revenue.
The point to be made is that the performance of players at the first base position often do not match their contracts precisely because of, and created by, market pressures and competition for talent in the Major Leagues.
Adam LaRoche and Carlos Pena are both good examples of the overemphasis on the first base position based more on myth than an on fact.
Adam LaRoche: In the past three years in a stretch where he played for four different teams. He averaged a WAR of 2.2, a wOBA of .351; along with 25 HR and around 90 RBI. This off-season the Washington Nationals rewarded a commendable but well...average...extremely average performance with a two year $16 million contract, with an option worth $10 million for a third year.
Carlos Pena: In the past three years all of them with the Tampa Bay Rays Pena has averaged a WAR of 2.6 and a wOBA of .358. With about 29 HR and 95 RBI in that that three year split. Further the Pena's batting average has been worse every subsequent year he was with the club with its nadir in 2010 where he hit under the Mendoza line.
In every year since 2008 he has also struck out more than 30 percent of the time another unacceptable test for what is supposed to be a team's best offensive player. Which is obviated by his position as the team's cleanup hitter.
Pena became a free agent in the fall of 2010 and the Chicago Cubs signed the first baseman to a one year, $10 million contract.
LaRoche and Pena's case obviate something very important about MLB's free agent market in the 21st century. Two players who seem productive as a result of their raw traditional "production" stats. Both of them perennially assured of seasons of 25 plus HR and 90 plus RBI obfuscate their true value of about two in terms of WAR and wOBA of around .350. They are Valuable but not extremely so, not even all star caliber players.
These upward pressures in salaries of players that don't come to being as good as Albert Pujols is one factor that contributes to making his potential contract as big as it is. The other factor is the wealth of the contracts signed by players more similar to Pujols than Adam LaRoche. Two cases are Miguel Cabrera and Mark Teixeira.
Miguel Cabrera: From 2005 to 2007, the three years before Cabrera signed his new contract after being traded to the Tigers from the Marlins. He averaged a WAR of 6.2 along with a wOBA of .404 along with raw stats of about 31 HR and 117 RBI. He was the best and most productive player on the Marlins during that stretch.
Further Cabrera hit over .320 and almost won a NL batting crown in 200, went to three All Star games and won two silver slugger awards. He was considered one of the best up and coming stars in all baseball, many considered one of the best hitters to enter the sport since Albert Pujols.
In 2008, he signed an eight year, $153.3 million contract with the Tigers worth an average of $19 million a year. One of the biggest in the history of baseball
Mark Teixeira: In the three years preceding his free agent signing with the New York Yankees, 2006-2008. Average a WAR of 5.0 and a wOBA of .397. along with about 31 HR and 112 RBI in that time span. Compared to Cabrera, Teixeira's strength was on the field as opposed to purely at the plate.
In 2006, Teixeira won the Gold Glove at first base while with the Texas Rangers. He also had one of the highest FP percentage among first baseman on any given year. (sorry, I just don't get UZR). This is another strength of Teixeira's resume his value as fielder above and beyond just being a hitter.
The Yankees signed Big Tex to an eight-year $180 million contract in the winter following the 2008 season. Averaging $22.5 Million a year.
The disturbing thing about that comparison is how a player like LaRoche can make only $nine million less than Miguel Cabrera when their values are so different. Contracts like LaRoche's and Pena's are the problem and not of the elite players.
When players that are merely average—granted above average—but not nearly as valuable at such a deep position such as first base inflate the contracts of the better and more valuable players. Value can be seen as merit, how much a player is worth to his team is directly related to the his contract.
$10 million a year for Carlos Pena skews this equation in a way that is unfavorable to the fans and the small market teams and benefit the league itself and the teams from the large cities with payrolls and fan bases large enough to support such contracts.
Come next November it would not surprise me that this travesty of a financial and economic system would drive one of the best players from one of the best baseball town to a place like Anaheim or Chicago just because of money.
Albert Pujol's contract situation acts to prove a bigger point about the reality of the economic of baseball today and it isn't good for everyone.