Wednesday is the deadline Albert Pujols has set for negotiating a new deal with the St. Louis Cardinals.  If the sides are unable to reach a deal by then, it will have to wait until the end of the season – and Pujols might opt to become a free agent.

Last year, I posted a May Fools Day article claiming that Pujols signed a contract extension with the Cardinals.  Obviously, Pujols’s demand were slightly exaggerated (the St. Louis Arch is not on the table), but not by much.  The parameters that have been kicked around are 10 years at $30 million per year.  I’m not going to get into a debate about whether athletes are overpaid, but instead look at the issues surrounding this particular deal.

You might think the biggest problem is the money.  Sure, $30 million per year is some serious cash, but it’s been fairly apparent for a number of years that Pujols would ask for this kind of money.  He has established himself as one of the best – if not THE best – players in the game, and Alex Rodriguez has set the market for the über-elite at $25-$30 million per year.  It certainly wouldn’t surprise me to see the Cardinals sign him to a deal paying $30 million per year.

The real sticking point is the length of the deal.  Pujols wants a ten year deal.  When the deal expires at the end of the 2020 season, Pujols would be nearly 41 years old.  That’s not old in human terms, but it is ancient for a baseball players.  As you look down the rosters of MLB teams, you’re only going to encounter a few guys on the downside of 40.  Even the players who are still around at 40 have seen their skills diminish greatly – an effect of the aging process.  Pujols plays first base, which isn’t as prone to dramatic drop-offs as middle infielders or catchers – but the odds of a 40 year old Pujols making a run at the MVP aren’t likely.

What this boils down to is that the 2011 version of Pujols at $30 million might make a lot of sense, but paying $30 million for Pujols in 2020 – even after accounting for fact that inflation will likely erode the value of that salary – might not.

So, then, why don’t the Cardinals simply sign him to the 10 year deal and then cut him when his skills erode?  Because baseball contracts are guaranteed.  Once the player signs a deal, he’s going to get the money – unless he opts to retire.  You can’t simply wash your hands of the deal after a few years, a la the NFL.

So, then, what’s the answer?  I personally think that vesting options are the way to go.  Make maybe 6 years of the deal guaranteed.  After that point, if Pujols reaches certain levels of performance, an option for the next year is automatically triggered.  This protects the Cardinals from a situation where Pujols has declined to the point of being a platoon player, while at the same time getting Pujols maximum value if he stays healthy and productive.

Many observers have said that Pujols is worth more to the Cardinals than he is to any other team, due to the fact that he is such a huge fan favorite in St. Louis.  I have always agreed with this sentiment.  However, a recent suggestion has made me re-think this.  The suggestion was that the Cubs – who have 1B Carlos Peña on a  1 year contract – might make a run at Pujols.  This move would strengthen the Cubs at the same time it weakened their hated rivals – and would turn the rivalry even more bitter.

One interesting, yet overlooked issue … the Cardinals could opt to offer Pujols arbitration at the end of the year.  In fact, they would need to in order to receive compensation for losing him as a free agent.  If the Cardinals offer and an Pujols accepts, it would set the stage for an extremely interesting arbitration hearing.

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Kosmo is the founder of The Soap Boxers and writes on a variety of topics. Many of his short stories have been collected into Kindle books.

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