The St. Louis Cardinals, Allen Craig, & the Cost of Major League First Basemen

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

By allowing Albert Pujols to leave town and extending Allen Craig, the Cardinals appear to have avoided the payroll sinkhole so often found at first base.

On Friday, the St. Louis Cardinals announced that they had signed first baseman Allen Craig to a five-year contract extension with an option for a sixth year. The deal bought out all of Craig's arbitration years and potentially two years of free agency. Azru wrote yesterday, comparing Craig to one Jose Alberto Pujols. Dan has also penned a couple of posts, including this one containing the deal's particulars.

In 2012, Craig hit for a .307 batting average (BA), .354 on-base percentage (OBP), and .522 slugging percentage (SLG) for the Cardinals. In Anaheim, Pujols hit for a .285 BA, .343 OBP, and .516 SLG. Craig out OPS'd the future Hall-of-Famer .876 to .859. His Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) of .374 was also a pit higher than that of Pujols, who posted a .360 wOBA. Even adjusting for park and league effects, Craig was slightly better with a Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) of 138 to Pujols's 132.

For some perspective, Pujols's numbers were somewhat deflated by a .282 Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) while Craig's were puffed up a bit by a .334 BABIP. As Azru noted in the above-linked-to post, ZiPS forecasts Pujols to be better than Craig in 2013 based largely on the projection that both players will see their BABIP regress toward the MLB average of around .300. Craig's will drop, Pujols's will rise, and their offensive numbers will follow suit.

Even after taking BABIP into account I can't help but feel that the Cardinals dodged a bullet by letting Pujols leave town for an enormous contract with the Angels and then signing Craig to this deal.

The five guaranteed seasons for Craig will cost about 13 percent of the 10 guaranteed years for which the Angels signed Pujols. Now consider the fact that Craig will be 32 in the final guaranteed year of his $31 million deal while Pujols was 32 in the first year of his $240 million contract. El Birdos have guaranteed Craig $1 million more for the entirety of his deal than the Angels of Anaheim will pay a 41-year-old Pujols in 2021.

The Cardinals' signing of Craig bucks a league-wide trend of paying a premium to first basemen. Pujols is not the only player at the position to receive a mammoth deal. Mark Teixeira, Prince Fielder, Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez...the list of highly paid first-sackers is a long one. MLB clubs are willing to pay top dollar for traditional "run producers." In fact, over the past several seasons, they have paid more dollars per Fangraphs Win Above Replacement (fWAR) on average at the position than any other save relief pitchers.

At this blog and others, folks often like to evaluate contract signings based on the free-agent value in dollars of one fWAR on the open market. At Fangraphs, Matt Swartz has put together some interesting posts examining MLB contracts through the prism of fWAR. In his February 12, 2012 post, "Positional Differences in the Price of WAR," Swartz created a wonderful chart that is recreated in part below.

Matt Swartz's Dollars Per Fangraphs WAR by Position (2007-2011)

Position

Number

2007-11

$/WAR

2007

$/WAR

2008

$/WAR

2009

$/WAR

2010

$/WAR

2011

$/WAR

C

116

$4.2

$7.9

$6.4

$4.4

$2.2

$3.3

1B

132

$6.0

$6.1

$6.2

$5.1

$5.6

$7.8

2B

80

$3.0

$2.8

$2.5

$1.5

$4.1

$4.1

SS

87

$3.5

$3.0

$4.3

$4.6

$3.2

$2.7

3B

109

$4.2

$3.6

$3.6

$4.7

$3.7

$6.1

LF

106

$7.1

$6.6

$6.7

$6.8

$5.3

$17.3

CF

51

$5.9

$4.9

$6.0

$6.9

$5.1

$8.2

RF

77

$5.7

$4.7

$7.1

$7.6

$4.0

$5.6

DH

39

$7.4

$4.2

$8.4

$16.3

$5.1

$11.0

SP

317

$4.7

$4.6

$4.6

$4.3

$5.5

$5.0

RP

321

$16.4

$9.7

$16.2

$26.0

$16.0

$19.3


The first thing that jumps out about this chart is how overpaid relief pitchers are by fWAR. After getting over the massive amount clubs pay for 1.0 fWAR of relief pitching, the next thing one notices is that first basemen are the most highly paid per fWAR of the position players, followed closely by corner outfielders. This makes me wonder if there is a connection between general manager John Mozeliak's desire to lock-up Craig, the first baseman/corner outfielder this offseason (to say nothing of Jason Motte's extension) as opposed to David Freese or Jon Jay. Have the Cardinals as an organization recognized what Swartz concludes based on his research?

It's clear that as you move to the easier end of the defensive spectrum, the more likely you are to be overpaid.

Is this why Mozeliak and DeWitt drew a line in the sand, refused to cross it, and drove Pujols to sign with the Angels? Is refusing to overpay for first basemen the newest of the new Moneyballs?

Whether the Cardinals have overpaid for Craig remains to be seen. However, it seems like a good bet that, in 2017 (or 2018, if the option is picked up), St. Louis will have at worse overpaid less for Craig than the Tigers will have for Fielder, the Yankees for Teixeira, or the Angels for Pujols. In fact, the most likely outcome is that Craig provides a fair amount of surplus value.

For Craig to be paid the 2007-2011 MLB average per 1.0 fWAR of production for a first baseman, he will need to produce about 5.1 fWAR over the life of the contract. Last year, he posted 3.1 fWAR in 119 games. Assuming good health for Torty's master and a bit of sprinkle power, it seems reasonable to expect that Craig will be producing surplus value as early as the second year of the deal.

If the Cardinals had signed Pujols, they would have engaged in the most typical of MLB gluttony: overpaying at first base. Last offseason, any potential Pujols extension seemed destined to become an albatross. Today, the Cardinals' deal with Craig appears equally as likely to become a golden eagle, soaring across the St. Louis sky as a symbol of the wisdom in building a strong farm system that feeds the big league team with cost-effective talent.

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