With all of the discussion surrounding what Albert Pujols may earn in free agency this winter, the common factor that everyone counted on was that Pujols would...well, continue to hit like Albert Pujols in his contract year. There was no reason to expect that 2011 would be any different from Pujols' usual superlative campaign, given his history of good health and incredibly consistent performance.
Though 46 games into 2011, however, the Machine hasn't yet kicked into full gear. Entering Saturday's action, Pujols had seven homers and a .266/.338/.412 line. These are above-average numbers (a 109 OPS+) compared to the average player but they're far below Pujols' career norms. To give you an idea of how amazing Pujols has been in his career, his current .751 OPS is a whopping .290 points below his career 162-game average of 1.041.
Pujols has been a bit unlucky this year (a .260 BABIP) and in all likelihood, the slugger's final 2011 stats will be close to his usual Cooperstown-level standard. But for a player that is hoping to sign a historic free agent contract this winter, any drop in form is a big setback. Suppose, for a moment, that Pujols doesn't heat up and he finishes the season with a .750 OPS -- what would such a performance do to the "Albertageddon" market this offseason?
Though Pujols' record of production and durability is almost unmatched in baseball history, one average year drops his price tag considerably. Suddenly, more teams consider the wisdom of giving a mammoth deal to a player who turns 32 next season and who might already be on the decline. With a .750 OPS season, Pujols' target suddenly goes from the heights of matching Alex Rodriguez's record deal with the Yankees to trying to match Adrian Gonzalez's seven-year, $154MM deal with the Red Sox. Even with a poor season, Pujols should still be able to match Gonzalez's contract given that teams like the Cubs and Nationals could be in the bidding this winter and both teams have a history of overpaying for veterans they really want.
Oddly enough, a weak season would probably increase the chances of Pujols staying in St. Louis. While Pujols undoubtedly would be confident of a return to form in 2012, he also doesn't want to spend his final years in a new city being booed as a contractual millstone around his new team's neck. In St. Louis, even if Pujols does decline, he'll always be a local hero. The Cardinals reportedly offered something akin to a nine-year deal worth $200MM last spring, and I could see the Cards making a new offer with a roughly-similar average annual value (say, $20-$25MM per season) but only for five or six guaranteed years. With an offer like that plus the bonus of being a St. Louis icon for the rest of his life, Pujols could very well accept and choose to try and rebound in a familiar environment.
Another intriguing possibility is that Pujols might go in the other direction and take on more risk in the wake of a letdown year. What if Pujols looked for a one-year, $28.5MM deal this winter? It would give Pujols a chance to prove himself worthy of a multiyear deal, give agent Dan Lozano bragging rights at topping the average annual value of Roger Clemens' $28MM contract in 2007, and it would considerably increase the list of potential suitors. Even if Pujols faltered in 2012, he'd still have one year's worth of a big payday under his belt, and given his career achievements, could still find something like a two-year, $40MM deal in the 2012-13 offseason.