Albert Pujols Contract Standoff: Good or Bad for His Fantasy Value?

Andrew SeifterContributor IFebruary 17, 2011

Pujols may find that the cameras and microphones follow him relentlessly during his walk year.
Pujols may find that the cameras and microphones follow him relentlessly during his walk year.Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

If you're the type of person that reads this website, you've undoubtedly heard by now that the deadline has come and gone for Albert Pujols to reach a contract extension with the St. Louis Cardinals. 

The Cardinals reportedly offered "more than $200 million over nine or 10 years" for the future Hall of Famer and even an ownership stake in the team. But it just wasn't enough for the game's best player.

Pujols has apparently "told the team he'll still give them a chance in the window between when the season ends" and free agency begins, but that still means he'll play out his walk year with free agency looming.

The news will surely send shivers down the spines of Cardinals fans everywhere, as their heads are filled with nightmares of Pujols donning a Chicago Cubs jersey. Just ask Cleveland Cavaliers fans how they felt in LeBron James' final year of his contract.

But there's another—albeit less dramatic—story line here: What does this news mean for Pujols' fantasy value?

Pujols enters the 2011 season as the clear No. 1 player in fantasy baseball. While a few fantasy writers have chosen to rank Hanley Ramirez or Miguel Cabrera ahead of Pujols, those rankings appear to come from an overemphasis on position scarcity or the desire to be different for the sake of being different.

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Ramirez is the rare elite hitter at SS, but he doesn't put up the type of eye-popping numbers in any rotisserie category that Pujols does.

Cabrera is Pujols-lite: He's has never topped 40 HRs (Pujols has hit 40-plus HRs six times), and he's a .313 career hitter (Pujols is at .331). The fact that Cabrera's drinking problem has now resurfaced makes it even more difficult to compare him to Pujols going forward.

So does Pujols' contract situation threaten his No. 1 fantasy player status, or does it vault him even further ahead of the competition? Let's break this question down into two sections: the short term (this year) and the long term (the next five to 10 years).

Short Term

Many players have put together career seasons in their contract years. If Adrian Beltre was able to hit .334 with 48 HRs in a walk year, imagine what Pujols might be able to do.

Pujols may not show it on the outside, but he has to be motivated to show the world that he has every right to ask for the largest contract in baseball. On a rational level, he surely understands the economics of the situation from a team standpoint, but that doesn't mean he won't also feel slighted on an emotional level.

He could very well turn that fury into stats we haven't seen since the end of the steroid era.

Of course, there are also some players who struggle in their walk years. Sometimes it comes down to circumstances or bad luck (injuries), but in many instances it comes down to whether a player thrives or wilts under the pressure of playing for a big payday.

This isn't your typical walk year either. Pujols has tried his best to get out in front of the story and make it clear that he won't talk about his contract situation with the Cardinals or the media during the season, but as the LeBron James situation showed, that doesn't mean the story is going to hibernate for six months. Pujols is going to feel far more pressure than the Adrian Beltres of the world ever did.

That said, this also isn't your typical player. Throughout his career, Pujols has displayed a level of class, professionalism and maturity that is equal to his on-field abilities. This isn't Javier Vazquez (or Cabrera) we're talking about here—if anyone can handle the intensity of this situation, it's Pujols.

We already know everything we need to know about Pujols' on-field skills. We also know a lot about his off-field demeanor, but after this ordeal, we'll know more.

The bet here is that Pujols rises to the challenge and posts a fantasy line in 2011 at least equal to his average season. A true career year (50-plus HRs) is certainly possible.

Long Term

The long-term question when it comes to Pujols' fantasy value gets to the crux of the situation: What team will he play for in 2012 and beyond?

If Pujols does leave the Cardinals, there is a good chance it will help his fantasy value. 

In 2010, Busch Stadium ranked as the seventh-most pitcher-friendly ballpark in the majors. Given the troubling state of the Mets' finances, the Los Angeles Angels are the only potential team in the Pujols sweepstakes that plays in a worse stadium for hitters than Busch.

If he does leave St. Louis, the most likely destination for Pujols is with the rival Chicago Cubs. The Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field is the third-most friendly park for hitters. The next most logical team to sign Pujols is the Texas Rangers, who play in the sixth-most friendly ballpark for hitters.

The Red Sox (seventh-best hitter's park) and Yankees (second-best hitter's park) both already have top-tier first basemen (Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira, respectively) but can't be counted out when a player of Pujols' magnitude is on the market.

All four of these teams would also likely be able to construct a better lineup around Pujols than the Cardinals can offer. OF Matt Holliday is as good a cleanup hitter as you could hope for in terms of providing protection, but St. Louis lacks impact bats throughout the rest of the lineup.

If the Cardinals are somehow able to re-sign Albert, it would seem as though his long-term value would remain unchanged. But that's not necessarily the case.

St. Louis is a great baseball city with terrific fans, and the Cards frequently finish in the top five in baseball in attendance. But at the end of the day, the Cardinals are a mid-market team, and that's not going to change whether or not they keep Pujols.

The biggest reason the Cardinals have been reluctant to give Pujols a record-breaking contract is that they worry they won't have enough money left to continue to build a team around him. Or worse yet, they'll have to immediately begin to dismantle the team they've already built.

Many eyebrows were raised last winter when the Cardinals managed to come to terms with Holliday (and his agent Scott Boras) on a seven-year, $120 million deal that included a full no-trade clause. That deal was meant to assure Pujols that the Cards were committed to winning and that he'd have protection in the lineup, but it also made re-signing Albert much more difficult.

The Cardinals had the 11th-highest payroll in baseball last year at $93.94 million. Holliday is scheduled to receive $17 million per year over each of the next seven seasons.

If Pujols were to sign a 10-year, $300 million contract, as has been rumored may be necessary for the Cards to keep him, that would mean the team would be committing $47 million—or about half of last season's payroll—to just two players for the life of Holliday's contract. Add in the $24 million the team will owe Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter in 2012, and there is barely more than $20 million left for the rest of the team.

Yes, veterans like Carpenter and Lance Berkman will come off the books in the next year or two, but Wainwright and Colby Rasmus are going to become more expensive.

The bottom line is that unless they start spending significantly more on payroll, the Cardinals aren't going to have the resources to put any other decent hitters around Pujols besides Holliday and perhaps Rasmus. That could affect Albert's run and RBI production down the road.

It's also possible St. Louis could decide it needs to convince Holliday to accept a trade, which could take a bigger toll on Pujols' fantasy production. Under that scenario, Pujols could end up seeing a record number of intentional walks.

On the other hand, the Cardinals have never really put a great top-to-bottom lineup around Pujols in the past, and it hasn't seemed to bother him much. So the impact may well be negligible.

Pujols could hit in a lineup filled with Little Leaguers, and he'd probably still manage to hit over .300 with 35-plus HRs. He's just that good.

In the end, whether or not he stays in St. Louis, Pujols is so talented that he should remain the best fantasy player of them all well into his mid-thirties.