Pujols among MLB’s most underpaid players

Will Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols(notes) get a 10-year, $300 million deal on the free agent market this winter? It’s tough to say. Pujols is baseball’s premier hitter of the last decade, but he also plays a position that’s deep in offensive talent and, at 31, he’s off to a slow start this year (.248 batting average; .743 OPS). He’ll surely get a great deal, but many teams figure to shy away from paying him megabucks until he’s 40.

But while projecting ahead is tricky, putting the recent past into perspective isn’t. Even though he made $16 million last season, enough to place him among the top 2 percent of MLB wage earners, Pujols stands as baseball’s most underpaid player for 2010. With his typical monster year (1.011 OPS, 42 homers, .312 batting average), Pujols rightfully should have earned almost $44 million.

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Slideshow: Baseball’s 10 most underpaid players

The most underpaid players at some of the other positions: Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks(notes), Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal(notes) and Toronto Blue Jays catcher John Buck(notes).

To determine the most underpaid players we turned to “Baseball Prospectus’ ” Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) scores, which use myriad statistics to weigh a player’s productivity compared to the expected production of a minimum salaried rookie. In 2010 the average player in Pujols’ service class – past the six-year free agency threshold – earned $534,318 for every VORP point. Quick perspective: All-Star level players tend to have VORP scores that range from the 30s to the 60s – some of last year’s tallies included Ryan Howard(notes) at 34.1, Alex Rodriguez(notes) at 36.1 and Ichiro Suzuki(notes) at 30.9. Cy Young Award winners Felix Hernandez(notes) and Roy Halladay(notes) were a cut above, both topping 70.

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But Pujols topped them all with a VORP of 81.8. Some quick number crunching shows that at $534,318 a point, Pujols’ 81.8 carried a value of $43.7 million, or $28.1 million more than the Cardinals paid him. So who’s to blame him if he goes for the jugular this winter?

We calculated baseball’s most underpaid player at each position on the diamond. Players were measured against only those in their own service class, the better to avoid apples and oranges comparisons among veterans and younger players. Milwaukee’s Weeks put up a 49.6 VORP for a paltry $2.75 million, while Furcal, who batted .300 with 22 stolen bases despite missing some time with injuries, scored a 39 VORP for $8.5 million.

One caveat: while we based all figures on 2010, we omitted some players who cashed in with new contracts in 2011. Jayson Werth(notes), Carl Crawford(notes), Joe Mauer(notes) and Adrian Beltre(notes) fall into this category – all were bargains last year, but not anymore. Leaving off Crawford and Werth left room in the outfield for Toronto’s Jose Bautista(notes) (69 VORP; $2.4 million, though less service time than other stars) and the Yankees’ Nick Swisher(notes) (37.6 VORP; $6.7 million).

The list:

1B. Albert Pujols (STL)
2B. Rickie Weeks (MIL)
SS. Rafael Furcal (LAD)
3B. David Wright (NYM)
OF. Jose Bautista (TOR)
See the full list

Slideshow: Baseball’s 10 most underpaid players

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Updated Wednesday, May 11, 2011