Deja vu all over again.

The St. Louis Cardinal organization is dealing with a situation this off-season that has a very familiar ring to it. Between reading stories about the Twins’ off-season moves (or lack thereof), you may have heard that the Cardinals have a certain superstar a year from reaching free agency that they are trying to negotiate a contract extension with before the 2011 season gets rolling.

Albert Pujols, at age 31 as of today (HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ALBERT!), is a bit older than Joe Mauer, is certainly more of a power hitter than the Twins’ catcher, and playing first base is certainly not as difficult to do well as catching is, but make no mistake… Cardinal fans are every bit as concerned about the unthinkable possibility of Pujols leaving St. Louis as Twins fans were about Joe just one year ago.

While it’s true that Pujols is not a “home grown” player, the way Mauer is in the Twin Cities, Cardinal fans nonetheless consider him their own. He was drafted by the Cardinals in the 13th round of the 1999 draft and has never played for another organization.

Can Cards afford Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols?

The Cardinal and Twin organizations are similar, as well. While the teams don’t publicly release revenue figures, they both fill their new stadiums for almost every home game and, you would think, would generate similar revenue streams. Accordingly, they spend about the same amounts on their Major League payrolls.

If you have trouble imagining how the Cardinals could possibly let Pujols walk away as a free agent, imagine for a moment if the Twins were only just now having to negotiate an extenson with Mauer… on top of the current year’s payroll levels.

The Cards still owe Matt Holliday $17 million a year through 2016 and they will be paying Kyle Lohse over $12 million for each of the next two seasons. Pitchers Jake Westbrook and Adam Wainwright will both be earning between $8-9 million in 2012, as well. And Pujols isn’t the only potential free agent the Cardinals have to deal with… Chris Carpenter will earn $15 million this season and it won’t be cheap to retain his services next year, either.

Last year, Mauer and the Twins knew that it was important to get a deal worked out before the season started so everyone concerned could avoid the distraction that an unresolved contract status would cause during the season. Likewise, Pujols and his agent have made it clear they are not interested in letting negotiations drag on in to the season.

The Cardinals face a difficult challenge. A player’s value is really determined by two primary factors… what other players of similar ability are making and how competitive the market for his services will be on the open market. In this case, however, Pujols really has no directly comparable players in terms of age and performance. Some have suggested he should be compared with Alex Rodriguez at the time A-Roid got his most recent contract extension with the Evil Empire. Others have pointed out that Pujols plays a much less “valuable” defensive position than Rodriguez.

On the other hand, many of the biggest spending teams in baseball are pretty well set at first base for the next few years. Mark Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez and Ryan Howard aren’t likely to be going anywhere for a while. Would teams like the Mets, Cubs and Angels alone really drive Pujols’ price up to the $30 million range?

I ultimately expect the Cardinals to re-sign Pujols before Opening Day for something around $26-27 million per year for about 8-9 years. That’s about $10 million more per year than they’re paying Pujols now and you have to wonder whether it means they’ll be saying good-bye to Carpenter next year and possibly even mean trading away one of their other high-dollar starting pitchers. In other words, once they’ve satisfied Pujols, will they be able to continue assembling a competitive team around him?

Does that question sound familiar? It should.

Even with Jim Thome back in the fold and the anticipated return of Carl Pavano, the Twins have done very little to improve their team in 2011. I’m sure they feel the new middle infield of Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka is an upgrade over JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson, but that remains to be seen and isn’t guaranteed, by any means.

Why haven’t the Twins done more? You don’t have to look far to find out. This season is when Mauer’s new contract kicks in and he’ll be making about $10 million more in 2011 than he did last season and it’s not unfair to question whether the extra money going to Mauer is going to keep the Twins from being able to surround him with championship-level talent. See?… I told you the questions should sound familiar.

Some Twins fans have been critical of Mauer and/or the Twins for giving him the contract he signed a year ago. They seem to expect that the contract should guarantee MVP-level stat lines every year of the deal. That’s neither reasonable nor fair. While there’s no question that Mauer didn’t have the same kind of year last year that he had the season before, it’s not like Mauer sat the year out.

With the Pujols situation in mind, it’s interesting to ponder what the market would have been for Joe Mauer if the Twins had not been able to reach an agreement with him last March. It’s unlikely the Twins would have immediately traded Mauer during Spring Training so you have to figure the situation would have unfolded one of two possible ways:

What would Yankees have paid Joe?

First, the Twins might have traded Mauer at mid-season. But keep in mind, Mauer was dinged up and not playing particularly well going in to July (remember the bunting incident?). Would the Twins have been able to get anything approaching a good deal in return for Mauer? One would assume that Wilson Ramos would not have been traded to Washington if the Twins had been looking at losing Mauer, so would the Twins have still been competing for a Division title without Mauer? What would fan reaction have been… would the experience of a new stadium have been enough to keep fans filling Target Field, even when it became clear that it wasn’t enough to motivate the Twins to keep their home-town hero?

Maybe the Twins would have kept Mauer and made their run. Assuming the media distraction of having to answer the, “would you like to play here next season?” question in every city on every road trip wouldn’t have negatively affected the results on the field, maybe the Twins would have continued on toward their AL Central championship. Then what? Is there ANY team on the “big spender” list that you wouldn’t imagine making a strong play for Mauer on the open market? If the Steinbrenners are willing to give a set-up relief pitcher $12 million a year, what do you think they’d have thrown at a catcher in his prime with batting titles and an MVP award already on his resume?

Mauer’s “down year” in 2010 might have dropped his value to the Twins, but I doubt it would have mattered one bit to any other team bidding for his services.

Will Albert turn his back on Cards?

It’s fair to ask whether the Twins could have put $23 million to better use by adding high-quality players at two or even three other positions for the money that is going to Mauer. But given the situation with a new stadium and the revenue bump that comes with it, the organization literally had no choice but to make sure Joe Mauer stayed a Twin for the foreseeable future. Whether the Twins ultimately can afford to surround Joe with championship caliber team mates remains to be seen.

The Cardinals are faced with a similar situation. They risk a considerable fan backlash if they don’t offer whatever it takes to keep Pujols in Cardinal red. It will be interesting to see if they make the same decision the Twins did or whether they’re willing to say “no” to their superstar and let him walk away next year.

- JC

4 thoughts on “Deja vu all over again.

  1. Great post. I have no doubt Mauer would have commanded $25 million, minimum, on the open market. Maybe even a couple more, just based on the fact that quality catching is at a premium, even for the Red Sox and Yankees.
    Would be great to see Albert stay in St. Louis. Hopefully the organization follows the script from the Twins’ negotiations, keeps their mouth shut, and just gets the deal done. We all can approximate the annual salary within a couple million, and they just need to agree on years.

  2. I hope he stays, too, AW, if only for my mother’s sake (she’s a Cardinals fan).

    It’s a bit disturbing, though, to read the Pujols is looking to max out on the pay. If it’s true that he really is going to hold out for a record payday, it may make more sense for the Cardinals to say, “forget it… we’ll talk at the end of the season.” If they’re going to have to pay him as though he’s already a free agent, why not wait and see what kind of year he has at age 31? If it takes $30 mil for 9-10 years to sign him now, will it really take any more than that 11 months from now? He’ll be 32 when the next contract STARTS and the Cards don’t play in a league with a DH.

    By the way, I’d have felt the same way if Mauer had been insisting on ARod money a year before hitting free agency. Paying a player as though he’s already a free agent even though he’s a year (and a possible injury or bad season) away from actually being one is just not good business… you need to get a bit of a discount off of “market value” for it to make sense. The Twins got that from Mauer (though not as much as I’d hoped they would) but it remains to be seen whether the Cardinals will, as well.

  3. There is something I like about superstar players staying with their team for their entire careers. As free agency continues to be part of baseball, there are more and more start that leave their hometown teams.

    As happy as I was for Mauer to stay in Minnesota, I would be equally as happy for Pujols to stay in St. Louis. St. Louis is the best baseball city that I have had the fortune of visiting. Pujols is a once in a lifetime player and he should always be a Cardinal.

    Good post.