Nobody wants to ask the question. Today is a day of celebration for the St. Louis Cardinals, and everything else can wait. Matt Holliday(notes) agreed to return to St. Louis, where for the next seven years he'll play left field and earn $120 million. The Cardinals got their bopper. Holliday got paid. All is well with the world.
But the big question. Oh, it lingers in the darkest part of every Cardinals fan's head and in the nightmares of Cardinals management. Nobody wants to ask the question today, tomorrow or otherwise because they're afraid of the answer.
Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols celebrate clinching the NL Central.
(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Comparison of the Cardinals' Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols 2009 statistics.
Yes, the greatest hitter today, on his way to being one of the greatest of any day, is due to hit free agency after the 2011 season. Pujols isn't even 30, and he is already a lock for the Hall of Fame. He has won the last two National League MVP awards, three altogether. He is this generation's answer to Ted Williams: hits for power, hits for average, takes walks, doesn't strike out and punishes the ball with such frightening frequency that pitchers would take a felony charge over pitching to him. One pitcher, in a moment of brutal – literally – honesty, said: "I'd rather punch a priest than pitch to him."
Thankfully, no clergy have been harmed as Pujols treks toward baseball immortality. Already he has achieved such in St. Louis, his legend so large that he and Stan Musial share the mantel as greatest Cardinal ever. In nine years, Pujols has imprinted himself on a franchise in the way so few do. New York has Derek Jeter(notes). Seattle has Ichiro Suzuki(notes). St. Louis has Albert Pujols.
Jeter and Ichiro signed deals that paid them as much for who they are and what they mean as how they play. That St. Louis must compound what Pujols deserves as a hitter with his iconic stature is the sort of whammy unseen since "Press Your Luck" aired.
Because while Holliday is a great player – with agent Scott Boras' great work somehow leveraging the Cardinals into $17 million a year long-term when the market for Holliday was more zygote than full-term – he does not, cannot and will not mean what Pujols does to the Cardinals. That is no insult to Holliday. Just a testament to Pujols.
So now the fun part. Just how much is Albert Pujols worth to the St. Louis Cardinals? It's sort of like asking how much the Mona Lisa is worth to the Louvre: It's impossible to put a proper dollar figure on it; you just know it would look odd anywhere else.
Among other athletes, top-end baseball players are the most well-compensated, and it's not really close. In the NFL, a contract isn't a contract so much as concurrent one-year terms of indentured servitude. In the NHL and NBA, restrictive salary caps limit earning potential. LeBron James is entering free agency this offseason in his prime, and at most he can make around $125 million over six years – and that's only if he re-signs with Cleveland. Joe Mauer(notes) will get at least $25 million more if he takes a discount from Minnesota, and for Mauer's overall greatness, he still isn't in Pujols' ZIP code.
The only such player is Alex Rodriguez(notes), whose 10-year, $275 million deal going into his age 33 season was a function of New York Yankees largesse. A-Rod's previous contract, a $252 million deal he opted out of, was a yet-unmatched outlier itself. Jeter's $189 million was the closest to it.
Surely Pujols can argue he is worth more. In 2001, the year of Pujols' debut, the Cardinals had $123.3 million in revenue and lost $5.1 million, according to Forbes' calculations. Today, they rake in $195 million in revenue – 10th in baseball, up from 14th nine years ago, and nearly a 60 percent increase – and have operated at a profit for the last four seasons.
When Pujols was a rookie, Forbes said the Cardinals were worth $243 million. In less than a decade, they've doubled their value: $486 million.
Much of this, of course, is due to baseball's savvy financial maneuvers during the 2000s. And the Cardinals deserve credit for extending Pujols through 2011 when he was arbitration eligible for the first time. Never before and never since had a player entering his fourth season received a contract as big as Pujols' seven-year, $100 million deal with a team option in 2011 worth another $11 million.
The Cardinals' risk paid off with a World Series victory in 2006, which would've been Pujols' final year before free agency. Had Pujols entered the market as a 26-year-old coming off a World Series run and with numbers comparable to Williams and DiMaggio and Foxx and Greenberg, he would have shattered Rodriguez's record.
He can still approach it. Does Pujols ask for $30 million, to match Rodriguez's average salary with home-run incentives? Or does he try for 10 years, knowing he could break whatever records Rodriguez sets? Maybe he'd prefer a shorter deal with less money committed but a higher annual value – say, five years, $160 million?
Such is the catalyst for the night terrors in which Cardinals management sees a Pujols standing next to Hal Steinbrenner or John Henry or Arte Moreno, flashing his teeth and holding up a new jersey. The Cardinals chased Holliday to make themselves heavy favorites in the NL Central and plug a gaping hole in their lineup. They also did so to satiate Pujols, to show him that the grass on the other side looks like it's been sprayed with Roundup.
Here's the truth: The Cardinals checked with Pujols, whose preference was to re-sign Holliday but who wasn't exactly keen on burning down the franchise for it. If the Cardinals signed Holliday with the intention of keeping their payroll at $100 million with a new contract for Pujols, they'd better hire Enron's accountants.
This is a huge commitment, and the Cardinals are banking on enough financial stability to pay both. There's no sense in giving Robin $120 million unless they're sure they can pay Batman what he wants. And yet we know that markets shift, that revenues can dry up, that stuff happens, and that nothing – not even for the most important Cardinal since Stan the Man – is truly guaranteed until ink hits paper.
St. Louis bit hard and swallowed deep and risked the future of its franchise Tuesday night. After months of negotiating with the toughest agent in the business, the Cardinals got Matt Holliday. They can sleep deeply.
Only for one night, though.
Now comes the really hard part.