My in-laws are diehard Cardinals fans. (Yeah, I know; feel free to run me out of town on a rail at your earliest convenience.) When Joey Votto’s mega contract extension was announced earlier this week, my father-in-law posted this to Facebook: “200 million for Votto makes Pujols at 254 look almost reasonable.”
That got me thinking. Last year, three fabulous first basemen—Votto, Albert Pujols, and Prince Fielder—called the NL Central home. It was such a rare glut of talent that Pujols, far and away the greatest player of his generation, didn’t even make the All-Star team. This off-season, all three of those players received new contracts worth more than $200 million. Votto, who had two years remaining on his previous contract, stayed with the Reds. Fielder and Pujols left their teams (as well as the division and the league) as free agents.
It’s worth pausing to emphasize the size and length of these deals. Before these three $200 million contracts, there had been only two in Major League history—and both of those were signed by Alex Rodriguez. And at roughly a decade in length, these deals take the players into their late 30s or early 40s.
You could make a compelling argument that all of these contracts are bad ideas, that no one player is worth that much money, that toward the end they’ll all be far past their primes. I tend to agree with this. But that’s not what I’m interested in here. Instead, the question I want to answer is this: Among these titanic contracts, which is the best deal for the team? Let’s take a look.
Joey Votto turned 28 last September. For the purposes of this comparison, we’ll lump the remainder of his current contract in with his 10-year, $225-million extension. That means that the Reds owe Joey $251.5 million over the next 12 years, an average of roughly $21 million per season. He will be 39 in the final year of his contract in 2023. 2023!
Prince Fielder will turn 28 in May. The Tigers owe him $214 million over the next nine years, an average of just less than $24 million per season. He will be 36 in the final year of his contract in 2020.
Albert Pujols turned 32 in January. (We’re going to ignore the nasty accusations about the accuracy of his birthdate.) The Angels owe him $240 million (the $254 million figure was from earlier rumors, although he can increase the value of the contract through various incentives) over the next ten years, an average of $24 million per season. He will be 41 in the final year of his contract in 2021.
In this category, there is no contest. Pujols has accomplished far more in his career than the other guys. Albert is a three-time MVP and has finished second in the voting an equally impressive four times. His 445 career home runs are more than Votto (119) and Fielder (230) combined. His slash stats (.328/.420/.617) are far superior. And his career WAR is more than four times higher than those of his counterparts (Pujols, 88.7; Fielder, 19.6; Votto, 19.4). Put simply, Pujols is an all-time great, on a level that Votto and Fielder cannot match.
Between Fielder and Votto, it’s a closer call. Fielder got an earlier start, so he’s ahead in the counting stats (runs, home runs, runs batted in). On the other hand, Votto’s slash stats (.313/.405/.550) are better than Fielder’s (.282/.390/.540). It’s surprising, at least to me, that Votto has a better slugging percentage than Fielder, who seems like more of a masher. Factor in Votto’s far superior defense, and I would actually give him the edge over Fielder at this stage in their careers.
But here’s the problem: While these contracts may reward the players for their previous accomplishments, it is their future performance that will determine whether the deals were worth the money. Albert’s MVP season in 2008 didn’t do much for the Angels. And it isn’t necessarily an indication of how well he’ll play in 2018.
We might have a better chance at forecasting how these guys will do over the next few years by looking at only the past few years. If we consider just the last three seasons, Pujols is still clearly the best. But during the past couple of years, he’s fought through some injuries and his numbers have taken a hit. His offensive numbers dropped across the board between 2009 and 2010, then again between 2010 and 2011. This makes sense. Generally, baseball players have their best years in their late 20s, then tail off through their 30s. While a one-or-two-year bounce back is possible, the Angels should expect Albert’s numbers to continue to trend downward. The good news is that a slightly worse Albert Pujols is still better than just about everyone else.
Votto had a solid year in 2009, but missed some games while dealing with depression and anxiety after the death of his father. He won the MVP in 2010 and had another outstanding year in 2011. Fielder was great in 2009 and 2011, but struggled in 2010, when his batting average dipped to .261 and his home run total fell off sharply. These two are right in the middle of their primes, so the Reds and Tigers can conservatively expect three or four more peak years from them. Still, there are concerns. Votto has only played four full major league seasons, a pretty short track record. Fielder, as mentioned, has been somewhat inconsistent from year to year.
We’ve already hinted around this, but it remains the elephant in the room. By taking the players into their mid-to-late 30s or early 40s, these contracts stretch beyond the ages at which baseball players are historically most productive. Baseball writer Joe Posnanski recently did an analysis of how players perform as they get older. He made a list of every season with a WAR of 6.0 or higher (an MVP-discussion-type season) by players since 1901 and charted them by age. There were more than 100 such seasons by 25-year-old players. The same is true of players at age 26, 27, 28, and 29. The peak was age 26, when 115 players produced a 6.0 WAR or higher. But things start to fall off at age 30, when just 79 players had such excellent seasons. At age 32, it’s down to 68 players. Then 31 players at age 34, 12 players at age 36, and six players at age 38. Only one 40-year-old, Willie Mays in 1971, has produced a 6.0 WAR.
So what does that all mean? Well, it’s a strong indication that by the end of these contracts, the teams are going to be paying bloated salaries for players who are no longer stars. It’s possible that salaries will jump another time or two between now and then, so that $20 million a year won’t seem quite so outrageous. But $20 million is $20 million.
Obviously, the Tigers are in the best position here. They get Fielder for the second half of his prime. And he’s got a decent chance to be an elite player through a majority of the deal. As mentioned above, a dozen players have had great years at age 36, so Fielder could play well for the entire length of his contract. Still, it’s unlikely.
Likewise, the Reds still get to enjoy more of Votto’s prime. But because his deal stretches on for so long, he’s going to be very old by the time it’s finished. It’s not impossible that he could have a great season in the final year of his deal at age 39. But he’d be just the second player to ever do it. The first was Barry Bonds, who may have had some unnatural help.
Pujols’s age presents two problems for the Angels. First, they’ve already missed his best years. But second, he’s going to turn 36 halfway through the contract. And as we’ve established, only a handful of players have had great seasons beyond that advanced age. If Pujols has a 6.0 WAR season in the final year of his contract at age 41, he’ll be the first player ever to do so.
When I started this, I suspected that Votto’s contract would come out on top. He’s younger than Pujols and better than Fielder. But now I’m not so sure. The shorter length of Fielder’s contract is a big advantage. And while Pujols is certainly coming down the mountain, it was a very tall mountain. He could still have some great years.
Still, I’ll say this: The Reds were not choosing between signing Joey Votto to a cheap five-year deal or signing him to a monstrous 12-year one. (And they obviously weren’t choosing between Votto, Pujols, and Fielder.) They were choosing between keeping Joey and losing Joey. The Cardinals and Brewers decided that keeping a star player at all costs wasn’t worth the investment. They might be right. Then again, come October, they might wish they had a player like Joey Votto.