Albert Pujols was last an elite player in 2012, or in the first season of the 10-year, $240 million contract he signed with the Angels in December 2011. Even that 2012 season would have ranked as the worst of his career after 11 top-tier Hall of Fame campaigns with the Cardinals.
He last had a positive on-field impact in 2016, or midway through his deal.
Pujols’ past five years evoked Don Mattingly’s final five Yankees seasons — the hand-eye coordination remained stellar, but the ball just stopped coming off the bat with the same impact. Mattingly had a degenerative disk in his back that would not allow the same viscous torque as at his Hitman best. Mattingly hit enough, continued to field at an elite level and served as a clubhouse wise man and, thus, remained a good player, though far off his prime.
For Pujols, the calendar just won. He is 41 now, two months older than Rays starting pitcher Rich Hill for the oldest player in the majors this season.
During the past five years, Pujols’ once terrific baserunning and defense vanished and he posted an OPS-plus of 85 (or 15 percent worse than league average, factoring in ballpark and hitting environment). The only players allowed to reach 1,900 plate appearances from 2017-21 to have worse were: Rougned Odor, who was dumped in a trade from the Rangers to the Yankees; Alex Gordon, who retired after last season; Elvis Andrus, who was part of a dump trade from the Rangers to the Athletics (think about Texas’ middle infield production for years with Odor/Andrus) and Atlanta’s Dansby Swanson, a high-end defensive shortstop.
The Angels said Pujols wanted to continue as a regular first baseman. But Jared Walsh is proving his 2020 production was no fluke, and the Angels want him to play his natural first base, not outfield. Also, Shohei Ohtani needs to be the DH pretty much daily. So for Pujols, it was just a matter of the date when Angels owner Arte Moreno would accept the obvious, that Pujols was no longer a productive player; and would eat what was left of the contract Moreno had championed. That came last week, when Pujols was designated for assignment.
He wants to continue his career. Perhaps a team will see lingering value, maybe as a draw. But it is possible that when Pujols popped out against Tampa Bay’s Hunter Strickland in the ninth inning Tuesday, he took the last at-bat of a 3,253-hit, 667-homer career. As the uncomfortable endgame came for Pujols, did teams involved with mega-long contracts — like the Mets with Francisco Lindor, the Dodgers with Mookie Betts and, heck, even the Angels with Trout — wonder about a time in the future …
How could the Tigers not? Pujols is the greatest hitter of this century and Miguel Cabrera is his co-pilot. But Cabrera was benched Thursday amid an 0-for-27 streak. He is hitting .098. During Detroit’s rebuilding, the organization hoped Cabrera could offer a few upbeat moments as he chases 500 homers/3,000 hits. But at 489/2,872 entering the weekend, Cabrera looks, at best, like he will limp to milestones.
Cabrera, who turned 38 last month, is making $30 million this year and is owed $64 million for 2022-23. So, as with Pujols, this feels like it is just about the date at which Tigers ownership reaches comfort with releasing a historic player and eating what remains on a contract.
The Yankees, for example, released Alex Rodriguez in August 2016 with just more than $27 million left through 2017. To fill that roster spot, the Yankees promoted a prospect named Aaron Judge, a reminder that opportunities can be missed when a team does not accept the sunk cost of a faded legend.
This is a moment to note, as always, that the fault of the long contract that goes badly is not with the player, but with the team. Clubs know the general history of these deals are not pretty, yet continue to sign players to long mega-deals. The hope usually is the player will be so valuable on the front end that they will earn the total dollars. But most often, as with Pujols, that turns out not to be, and it isn’t as though the organizations willingly eat the money on the back end in acceptance that they were structured to derive value in this way.
There have been 23 players who received contracts of $200 million or more, including Cabrera and Pujols. Here’s a look at those deals:
- Seven have been traded, two have been released, two have been suspended for a year for PED use amid the contracts and two did not play for more than a year of what was left on the deal. Of course, A-Rod fills up the Bingo card. First, he still has two of the 11 largest contracts ever despite being out of the majors for five years. His first deal — 10 years, $252 million with the Rangers — was traded. His second included a year’s suspension (like Robinson Cano) and a release. And like Prince Fielder he had more than a year left without playing again.
- In all seven trades, the team moving the $200 million-plus man took on a bad contract, sent money to the acquiring team or both. The Yankees, for example, got $67 million from the Rangers along with A-Rod and $30 million from the Marlins along with Giancarlo Stanton, plus Miami took the two years at $22 million still owed Starlin Castro.
- The top four contracts — Trout, Betts, Lindor and Fernando Tatis Jr. — came via extensions, not free agency. Boston (Betts) and Cleveland (Lindor) traded stars before their walk years, and the acquiring teams (the Dodgers and Mets) signed the mega-deals. As we are seeing with Pujols and Cabrera, contracts that extend into a player’s late 30s or early 40s are riskier. Betts will be 40 when his contract ends and Trout will be 39 (both are fantastic athletes who might age well). The Padres’ contracts with Tatis and Manny Machado will take them through their age-35 season.
- The mega-deals for pitching aged better than those for hitting. Gerrit Cole still has seven-plus years left and, so far, so great. Clayton Kershaw’s seven-year, $215 million Dodgers deal included four top-five NL Cy Young finishes in five years before he opted out. Max Scherzer’s seven-year, $210 million pact with Washington concludes this season and is in the conversation for the best contract ever (five top-five Cy finishes, two wins and a championship). Zack Greinke’s six-year, $206.5 million pact was traded by Arizona to Houston, but he has been a durable, excellent pitcher throughout.
David Price has not pitched as healthy or as well during his seven-year, $217 million pact, but he was outstanding in 2018 to help the Red Sox win a title. Stephen Strasburg was brilliant in 2019 to help the Nationals win it all, and Washington shunned his dubious medical history to sign him for seven years at $245 million. In the first two seasons, he has made just four starts with a 7.80 ERA.