Baseball is a numbers game, whether you're talking about home runs, on-base percentage or xFIP. It's also a numbers game off the field when it comes to players' contracts. Some deals are entirely predictable. Shin-Soo Choo, for example, will likely earn $3-4MM through arbitration next year; Carl Pavano will probably sign for about $10MM per season; Russell Branyan's likely in line for another one-year deal.
But most of the comparable players for Albert Pujols are in Cooperstown, not in uniform. So determining a fair price for the 30-year-old will be a unique challenge for Cardinals GM John Mozeliak and agent Dan Lozano. Quite simply, there is not much precedent for Pujols.
Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Howard signed contracts that could come up in talks between Pujols' representatives and his team. Both Rodriguez and Howard are former MVPs who signed long-term deals that begin with their age-32 seasons. Pujols, who has three MVP trophies on his mantle, will be 32 in 2012, which would be the first season of a potential new deal.
Howard, a tremendous player who isn't on the same level as Pujols, received $125MM for his age 32-36 seasons. Rodriguez, an all-time great who was arguably the best player in the game when he signed his extension, will make an average of $27.5MM per season (plus bonuses) for his age 32-41 seasons.
Rodriguez and Howard aren't perfect matches for Pujols, but few other contemporary players even compare. Baseball-Reference lists Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez and Juan Gonzalez as similar batters to Pujols through age 30. Seven Hall of Famers including Lou Gehrig, Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle fill out the top ten list of his most statistically comparable players.
In other words, Pujols is in select company. Not only is the nine-time All-Star and two-time defending NL home run champion one of the best players of his generation, he's one of the best players of all time.
A similar argument led Rodriguez to the two biggest contracts in baseball history. But A-Rod hadn't won a World Series with the Yankees or endeared himself to their fans when he signed his most recent contract.
Pujols, on the other hand, defines the Cardinals much like Derek Jeter defines the Yankees. The Cards developed Pujols after drafting him in the 13th round of the 1999 draft (when Mozeliak was the team's scouting director). Five years later, the Cardinals were in the World Series and in 2006 the team won its first world title since 1982.
Pujols means more to the Cardinals now than A-Rod did to the Yankees in 2007, but Rodriguez does have one considerable advantage over the Cardinals' 6'3" slugger: he plays a more demanding defensive position. Not only that, the Yankees have the option of working Rodriguez's bat into the lineup as a DH at the end of his deal, but the Cardinals will have to play Pujols on the field for the life of his extension, even if his now-stellar glovework deteriorates.
As tempting as it is to compare Pujols to Rodriguez, Howard and various historical players, it doesn't make much sense to do so. The Cardinals don't have as much money as the Yankees and the sides could get creative with incentives and performance bonuses to ensure that the star first baseman stays put. Not much is certain about Pujols' demands or the Cardinals' willingness to spend, but we can say this: Pujols is on track to become an inner-circle Hall of Famer and it would not be unreasonable for him to ask for an Alex Rodriguez-like contract.