Albert Pujols is likely done for the year with a foot injury, and the Los Angeles Angels, who sit nine games out of the last American League playoff spot, may be starting to regret handing out that mega-deal to the aging slugger just two years ago.
Pujols is still statistically an above-average player. Yet given the enormous financial commitment the Angels made to lure him away from St. Louis — 10 years and $240 million — the team was expecting far more than just decent production.
In his prime, Pujols made a strong case for being one of the best hitters in the history of the game. He won three MVP awards while with the Cardinals, hitting 40 or more home runs in a season six times while always posting a batting average comfortably above .300. Even with his recent downturn, Pujols still ranks eighth all-time in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage.)
Going forward, however, Pujols looks to be heading toward a long, painful decline that will make his massive contract an albatross for L.A. for years to come.
Pujols' production has declined steadily since 2009, the year he won his last MVP trophy. His batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage have all fallen every single year since then, as has his home run output.
While Pujols was worth a superb 8.7 wins in 2009, per Fangraphs' WAR, he was worth less than half that — 3.7 — last season.
L.A. should have seen this coming. Copious analysis has shown that players peak in their late 20s; the 33-year-old Pujols was already over that hump when the Angels threw all those millions at him.
Yet that's the standard price of business in baseball, where the contract structure all but ensures players enter free agency for the first time when they are at or just past their peaks. Teams vying for the best free agents routinely shell out bloated contracts that, in their closing years, are nothing less than absurd. Just look at the Yankees' debacle with Alex Rodriguez.
That will be especially true of Pujols and his back-loaded contract. Pujols is making $16 million this year, but that sum will increase every year for the remainder of its duration until 2021, when Pujols is due $30 million.
The going rate for a win in baseball — essentially, the market rate for what a team should pay a given player based on how many wins that player adds — is somewhere between $5 million and $6 million this season. Pujols has been worth 0.7 wins this year, meaning he should, even using the high end estimate in that idealistic baseball world, be making less than a third of his current salary.
Put another way, Pujols has been roughly half as valuable as Blue Jays first baseman Adam Lind this year. But Lind, with his $5 million salary, is costing Toronto one-third what the Angels are paying for Pujols.
"[Pujols] was a four-win player in 2012, and even in this pumped-up market, you don't pay someone $25 million a year until a player's early 40s when you're starting at that level," Grantland's Jonah Keri wrote earlier this year in naming Pujols' contract one of the worst in the game.
That was before Pujols fell off a cliff this season. And with eight more years to go on his deal, it's hard to imagine him reversing that slide so sharply that it makes these last few years worth it for L.A.
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