All off-season, with apologies to Cliff Lee, the biggest story in baseball was the contract negotiations between Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals. Baseball fans all across the country made up their minds rather quickly on whether or not they thought Pujols or any other athlete was really worth such a large amount of money. But with all of the talk about the numbers, one of the things rarely talked about in baseball circles was the numbers that we all had at our disposal and how that should effect the Cardinals upcoming decision on the greatest baseball player of our generation.
The Cardinals were bought by Bill DeWitt Jr. in 1995 for the nice, even, amount of $150 million dollars. A big investment of course, but one that has certainly proven to be a wise one. Forbes ranked the Cardinals at the end of last year as being worth $518 million dollars. That is a 245% increase over the last 17 years and means the team is worth $368 million more today than it was when DeWitt purchased them, or am increase of $21.6 million a year. Struggling to make ends meet is not something I think the Cardinals ownership is going to have to worry about for the foreseeable future and while that should be an assumption, it's also important to note just how much money this team is worth today compared to when the team was sold in 1995.
Team worth is only half of the picture though when it comes to crunching the numbers for the owners over the past 16 years. Forbes has done a wonderful job of compiling enough information for every team that they are able to tell us what the operating income (or profit) is for each team on a year-to-year basis. I looked back to the end of 1996, the end of the first year of ownership, to see just how the Cardinals have performed financially each year. Surprisingly enough, there have been a total of 5 years where the Cardinals lost money, including a staggering $11.1 million in 2004. But since 2006, things have turned around dramatically with the team posting earnings of $14.0, $21.5, $6.6, $12.8 and $19.8 the last 5 years. Since 1996 the team has made a total of $71 million dollars, an average of $4.4 million a year and an average of $14.9 million the past 5 years.
Right now, the Cardinals are paying Pujols 16 million dollars a year. Assuming the Cardinals make the same amount of money as they did on average the past 5 years, they would be right at breaking even for the year. The goal for any business is evident; to make money. Owners of a sports team though, and especially a team with fans like the Cardinals, are expected to compete. The DeWitt family has shown that they are willing to spend money to do that in the past so this certainly isn't a Florida Marlins situation. What could the Cardinals do to try and mitigate the blow of a 30 million dollar contract?
Lance Berkman is under contract this season for 8 million dollars and Kyle Lohse for 12 over the next two years. Adam Wainwright is scheduled to make 9 and 12 million in team options over the next two years but with his injury this year, you might be able to convince him to take a small pay cut. He's making almost 7 million this year so if you could get him for that over the next couple years you would have to consider that a success. Those are the most obvious options for saving money when it comes to the team and if you replaced Berkman and Lohse with guys that made 5 million a piece, that would still be a 10 million dollar difference once those two are off the books.
Also, in the years from 2006 to 2009 the Cardinals have averaged 43,767 fans per home game, or 3.5 million fans each year. The Cardinals fans love Pujols unconditionally and would hate to see him go, and I think it would be more than fair if the Cardinals added just one dollar to each ticket as a “Pujols tax” to help with the burden of such a large contract. If you did that, the contract would run the team 26.5 million a year and while that is still a massive amount, it certainly looks a lot more manageable then 30 million. And if you were going to pay any baseball player, wouldn't it be Pujols?
In his first 10 seasons he has never had less then 30 home runs or 100 runs batted in. He ranks in the top 15 all time in both OPS and adjusted-OPS and is most likely going to finish among the top 10 position players in the history of the sport. I could go on and on about his accomplishments but everyone that enjoys the game of baseball has heard time and again how he stacks up against the greatest players to ever play the game. What Pujols has achieved to start his career is unprecedented and if he can keep to the level of play he is accustomed to over the next 5 years he will be off to the best start ever for a baseball player. He would have 2850 hits, 1780 runs, 640 doubles, 612 home runs, and 1845 RBIs after 15 years. That would put him 42nd in hits, 18th in runs, 9th in doubles, 7th in home runs, and 11th in RBI's all-time, placing him ahead of many of the greatest hitters to ever swing a bat.
Even so, how are the Cardinals going to be able to pay such a high salary and still be competitive? Well for comparisons sake, the average salary of the top ten highest paid players in 2001 was 14.25 million and for this season it has ballooned up to 21.69 million, an increase of 7.44 million. Even if you only increase the number by 5 million which is below the average, that number would still be an average of 26.75 a year for a top ten salary guy. That number is very close to what the salary would be costing the Cardinals if they implemented the “Pujols tax” I mentioned earlier.
Finally, Alex Rodriguez is the player most closely associated with Albert Pujols. Both players have been huge successes since their careers began and Pujols is looking to take the title of highest paid baseball player that A-Rod has held onto since he signed that massive contract with the Texas Rangers. So in Rodriguez's first ten seasons, how much did he earn? From 1996-2005 he made $120 million dollars compared to $96 million for Pujols. Now remember that the $120 million is starting from 5 years earlier so it would translate to an even bigger difference. Pujols has been underpaid for his entire career. Combine that with all of the other data from above and honestly, I don't understand why the Cardinals wouldn't want to keep the best player in baseball, in their uniform for his entire career, no matter the cost.