Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Big Numbers, Franchise Faces and Albert Pujols

It's a week of big numbers. Monday President Barack Obama submitted his $3.7 trillion budget proposal to Congress. 3.7 trillion is almost incomprehensibly big. It is hard to give it context in a way to make it familiar. It is estimated that five trillion text messages were sent in 2010. I'm not sure if that puts more or less context around it, but it's as close as I could come in a quick search.

This week the St. Louis Cardinals are also making a budget proposal. They are trying to negotiate a new contract with superstar Albert Pujols. They aren't offering $3.7 trillion, but that may closely approximate the number of words written on the matter both in St. Louis and around the country over the last couple months. Pujols is said to be seeking a deal in the neighborhood of 10 years/$300 million and he has set Wednesday as the deadline for negotiations. If no agreement is reached The Machine will play out the last year of his current contract and become a free agent at the end of the year.

Albert Pujols is 31 years old. His numbers through the first ten years of his career are as good as the game has ever seen. He is a three-time MVP and has finished second an additional four times. He's finished below fourth in the voting one time during his career. He hits for power, for average, runs the bases well and is an excellent fielder. In today's era that type of performance is worth $30 million/year. But, because of the indentured servitude-nature of baseball Albert has made "only" $89.5 million thus far in his career. 

And that is the problem. That, and the fact that he is The Face of the Franchise.

No other phrase in sports has ever become so widespread just a quickly as it lost its context. In times past the superstar was the "star of the team" or the "leader of the clubhouse." The face of the franchise was the head coach or the owner and the players were the players. 

But in a world of 24/7 media with teams looking to label, brand and market their product, iconic figures are the rage and superstar athletes are the salesmen. Now these superstars have become The Face that the fan associates with the team--or at least that is what their agents and Madison Avenue would lead us to believe. Albert Pujols has been The Face of the Cardinals almost since his arrival.

Now the Cardinals appear to be held hostage by their Face. How can they possibly let the best player in the game leave via free agency--potentially even to the hated Chicago Cubs? The general consensus is they must reach an agreement and keep Albert around so that he can "retire a Cardinal" as he has said he wishes to do. If they don't, the backlash will be immense, the franchise will suffer for years and the team will lose its identity.

Ridiculous. Rare is the franchise that is crippled by the departure of any one player. Bad personnel decisions by management and mishandling of a team's finances can certainly lead to seasons of failure. But much more often, it is the allocation of too many of a team's resources to one player that leads to problems. The Cardinals identity is incredibly woven into the fabric of the midwest. Stan Musial, Ozzie Smith, Mark McGuire come and go and the team is as popular as it's ever been.

Albert Pujols is at an age that is universally recognized as being the down phase of a baseball player's career. Of course every player is different and Pujols won't likely follow the linear average performance of the age curve, but it isn't unreasonable to expect his numbers to begin to drop off, particularly 3-5 years from now. Ten years from now? I'm guessing Albert will be closer to his induction ceremony than to a top ten in the MVP voting.

The Cards should offer Albert $200 million/7 years. It will be the highest contract in terms of average annual value in the history of the game. It will pay him through the age of 38 and inherently includes a "this is for all you've done so far" component. It won't cripple the team financially and if Pujols gives five solid years of production with an even moderate decline in performance the Cards will benefit.

Historically the monster contracts rarely work out. Most recently A-Rod's $275 million/10 year contract with the Yankees looked like a bad decision about the time the ink started to dry. Too often, teams pay players for what they have done rather than for the performance that can be expected in the future. Goodwill and public relations are always overestimated. Cardinal fans are generally going to support their team. If nine "faceless" guys go out and win 106 games, attendance and revenues will be better than ever and the mantle of Face will be taken up by someone new. At the same time, losing 90 games with an unproductive Pujols being the centerpiece won't stem the criticism.

Pay Albert Pujols an amount of money over a period of time that allows the organization to maximize the benefit to the team. If Pujols walks (I'm betting he won't) $28 million per season can bring a lot of useful assets into an organization. In this case, don't spite The Face, but don't overpay him either. If he walks the Cardinal franchise will still be just fine.

[Note: Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated posted an article about Pujols and the Cardinals minutes after I did. Here is the link.]

1 comment:

Bobby K said...

Hi, Dave,

I live in St. Louis. Around the proverbial water cooler, most fans believe that Pujols is being excessively greedy in his demands. In the PR war, the team will win.

To put things in their proper perspective, the Cardinals are to St. Louis as the Steelers are to Pittsburgh. The team will get support and draw 3 million fans annually, with or without Pujols.

Pujols high level of performance and consistency have been nothing short of astonishing, perhaps masking what I have seen as a subtle decline that started after the 2009 All-Star Game Home Run Derby (which I had the good fortune to attend).

A Pujols at 80-90% of peak performance is still one of the best players in baseball, but at some point, the decline will be more evident. He deserves to be paid for past performance, but only within reason. Your number (200/7) is close, but I would argue 180/6, which allows him to have the first $30M annual salary but also allows the team off the hook when he reaches age 37, an age at which the performance will surely have dropped off.

Best, Bob K