the prophet of mistakes

Shortly before pitchers and catchers report, baseball news in St. Louis is pretty quiet. The looming pujols contract deadline weighs heavy on the collective mind.

I doubt that I have anything interesting to say about the value we should expect in the contract, or any sound analysis to add to what's already been said. The groundrules are fairly clear: the club is going to start negotiating for a contract length of 6 or 7 years, and pujols and his agent will start at 10. The club will start at an AAV of $25-26m, while pujols and his agent will aim at $30-$31m. Most of this is more common sense than any inside information.

I really doubt that anyone beyond the principals in the negotiation has much insight into the substance of the negotiations. That has not prevented reporters and bloggers and general sports know-it-alls from making broad declarations about how the negotiations are going, how close the parties are, and what's going to happen. These collective opinions probably are more confusing than illuminating. Everybody has a guess, and none of the guesses seem very educated.

I have no inside information. I do have some consoling points to make, which are fairly general, but worth considering. More important, I will try to show my work in doing so, so you can evaluate whether you think I am full of crap or not.

First point: the club negotiated a long-term contract with Matt Holliday just last year. The club clearly knew that Albert's contract was coming up. It would be reasonable to assume that in completing Holliday's long, expensive contract Bill DeWitt was consulted. It is also reasonable to assume that DeWitt and co. specifically considered how much they could pay Holliday and still make payroll with a reasonable Pujols contract.

While that doesn't mean Pujols has a blank check to write whatever contract he likes, I would assume the club left leeway for more than just its opening lowball offer. DeWitt's (assumed) involvement suggests that DeWitt is onboard with making sure some reasonable range of salary demands can be accommodated, including by raising payroll.

To make the same point in negative terms: if the Cardinals didn't discuss the upcoming Pujols contract with DeWitt during the Holliday negotiations, that would have been stupid. If the Cardinals made only allowances for a lowball offer to Pujols - say, $25M AAV and 6 years - that would have been stupid. I don't always agree with the front office, but I think we can reasonably infer this.

Second point: while I am not a negotiation master, my limited experience suggests that when two parties negotiate without any third party involved, they tend to end up remarkably close to the exact midpoint between their initial offers. A reasonable midpoint based on the guessed opening offers above would be 8 years and $28m AAV, for a total of $224M. That would make Albert the best paid player in the NL.

 

What screws up negotiation is when a third party gets involved. If negotiations go to November, Pujols will be able to bring back offers from other teams and compare them: e.g., if the cubs offer Albert 10y/$300M, the Cards will feel pressure to meet it. Conversely, if no clubs come forward with better offers, Albert will lose some of his leverage. Right now, neither Albert nor the Cardinals know what interest other clubs will have in November or how much they'll offer. They just know that Albert could seek more offers in November.

Last point: I think the recent, very limited peek behind the negotiation veil is a hopeful sign. The two parties went back to the table after a significant hiatus. I don't think the release of that tidbit was accidental, and I suspect it wouldn't have been released unless the parties were pretty close. The actual negotiation process does not have to be long, especially where Albert can't play one team against the other.

If the issue is just AAV and years, you could do the bulk of negotiations in an afternoon. If the club is going to do more in the way of deferred salary and elaborate options - which seems likely - then it will take a few days of work. There's just not much to talk about if you're worlds apart in terms. You can't have a conversation if one party sticks to 10 years and the other won't budge off 6, and you wouldn't tell the press if you were stuck at those points. If they're working, they've found some common ground, enough to justify active talks.

 

The real wild card is whether Albert sees enough advantage to getting out on the open market. If albert is stuck on getting the best contract in baseball history and needs a 10-year, $290M contract, he may think the only way he gets it is in free agency, with competing bidders.

Alternately, if he thinks the Cardinals are not competitive enough, and wants to go to a perennial contender, he might like to see what's out there. The answer to this question seems doubtful for Albert: the Cubs, the Jays, the Angels, the Dodgers seem to be flawed clubs.  They'd all be contenders with Pujols, but I don't know that any would be more likely to make the playoffs than the Cardinals.

The big question then is whether Albert wants to make absolutely sure he's bigger than A-Rod - in years AND in AAV. That is the million-dollar - or maybe $300M - question. I have no answer to that one. Only time will tell.

 

Back in the Fold

Jim Edmonds signed a minor league deal with the Cardinals yesterday. A curious move in many senses, for a ball club with a surfeit of left-handed outfielders.

The move makes the most sense from a nostalgic point of view. Allowing Edmonds to retire a Cardinal seems very appropriate.

On the ballfield, it's very hard to assess what edmonds has left, both offensively and defensively. Conventional wisdom is that he has lost a couple of steps, probably making him best suited to a corner outfield spot. He may well still have something offensively. He put together a .368 wOBA in 272 PAs last year, following a .353 wOBA in 400+ PAs in 2008 and sitting out 2009.

Problem is, Matt Holliday is not going to get a ton of rest, and Berkman is functionally a left-handed hitter. Edmonds would see his best chance if Berkman struggles to produce offensively or becomes intolerable in the field. Otherwise, he's going to be fighting for time in a fifth outfielder role with Jay or Chambers.

He is almost certainly a better hitter still than either Jay or Chambers, unless his age regression comes on with a vengeance this season. It's hard to gauge his remaining defensive talent in the small samples of his decline phase. While he put together a 15.7 UZR/150 last year, he also had a -23 UZR/150 in 2008. His post-St. Louis clubs have all insisted on playing him in center field.

Edmonds is probably something of an upgrade on either Jay or Chambers. His signing - leaving aside his St. Louis connection -- is another symptom of the love for hiring aging vets. It's also worth noting that the 40-man roster is full. That means Edmonds, like Snell or Batista, only makes the squad at the expense of someone expendable (Mr. Samuel, I would be nervous, if I were you). As spring training progresses, keep this in mind.

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