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Rehearsing the Albert Pujols deal

New, comments Fantasy Baseball page: Will tomcat009 and The MooCow please report to the front desk, or at least check the e-mail addresses they used to register for Viva El Birdos? A fantasy baseball invite is waiting. 


I can think of at least one fanbase that was following the Joe Mauer contract negotiations more closely than the Cardinals', and maybe two or three, depending on how closely the Yankees and Red Sox were already scouting him. But few teams have more in common with the St. Louis Machings than the Twins, who have operated for the last two or three years under the unshakable worry that Joe Mauer would eventually be calling a press conference to announce to a grateful press that he'd always wanted to be a [Yankee/Red Sock], ever since he'd fallen in love with the sweet swing of [Jorge Posada/Jason Veritek]. 

For Bill DeWitt it had to be a vaguely unsettling press release, like getting a message from Future Bill with a note attached saying "Only worse!" in his own handwriting. Eight years, $184 million will pay Mauer $23 million a year until he's 35, which is a lot of money and old for a catcher, respectively, but they couldn't not make this deal; there is being financially prudent and there is being the Marlins, and while the latter option might net two World Series victories nobody will be around to watch the second one. 

A deal that might not be financially perfect but is necessary to maintain the fanbase to which you've become accustomed—I've heard something like this before. 

One of the deals this contract most closely resembles is C.C. Sabathia's deal with the Yankees, which pays him the same $23 million from 2010-2015, and I think that's fitting; a long-term deal with Mauer has some of the same risks that come with extending a pitcher. He's most valuable as a catcher, but he's also at greater risk of injury, and the questions about when he'll move are going to float around until he finally does. (Like any good free agent pitcher, he's also coming off an incredible career year.) 

One thing definitely didn't come into play for Mauer, a St. Paul native who was probably miffed about Target Field being built in Minneapolis: a hometown discount. As teams look increasingly to lock young players up early and through their arbitration years, and grow more wary about overpaying second tier free agents, the first tier that's left become more valuable; once you realize Jason Bay isn't the same as Matt Holliday, it becomes more important to end up with Matt Holliday. Joe Mauer was the most valuable potential free agent this side of Albert Pujols, and he got paid like one; I can't imagine he'd have gotten much, if any, more as an actual free agent in 2011. 

Where does it leave the Cardinals and Pujols? Somewhat short of the two Alex Rodriguez superdeals, if that's any consolation. Pujols is better than Mauer, and as a first baseman doesn't have any further to slide along the defensive spectrum, but he'll also be four years older than Mauer when his contract starts. He's not better-enough than Joe Mauer, I think, to get a contract that runs until he's 42 and pays him an addition 50 or 60 million dollars. 

An eight year contract for Albert Pujols would—let's be honest, it will—take him through his age-40 season, which is no more reasonable than the Twins' recent acquisition of a 35 year-old catcher on a one year, $23 million deal. It's just how these contracts have worked lately—there is a little wish-casting at the end to make up for the fact that these guys are being undervalued in the prime of their careers by accepting even $23 million. Whatever you think of Fangraphs and its valuation of Pujols and Mauer, general managers, owners, and talk radio phone banks aren't prepared for the idea that a player can be worth $40 million in one year; until that changes, and some combination of team and player front-loads a shorter-than-expected contract for an incredible amount of money, there's no way around it. 

Of course there's a point at which the dollar value of a deal, whether measured by Fangraphs or the amount of angry letters to the editor it generates from local doctors, teachers, and firemen (and admirers of same), becomes secondary to the other concerns that become entangled with keeping Joe Mauer or Albert Pujols around. The Twins are opening up a new park, and they probably just sold a few more season tickets; certainly they quieted the inevitable post-stadium whining about opening up the BillPohlad, at least for the time being. 

The Cardinals, who have a larger baseball market and a longer run of best-satisfied-fandom-in-baseball upon which to draw, may not have as much to lose as the Twins if the Pujols negotiation gets contentious. But they have the same extracurricular benefits of a Pujols deal to think about, and because of that I can't see them getting any nearer a Hometown Discount. The Twins needed Mauer and the Cardinals need Pujols, and that's a difficult place from which to start negotiating.