DALLAS -- Is Albert Pujols better than Adrian Gonzalez? Maybe, maybe not. On its face, that is a question that can be debated, with different camps taking different views on the two superstar first basemen.
Is Albert Pujols worth $100 million more than Adrian Gonzalez? On that subject, there is no debate.
There were moments when it seemed fair to wonder about the wisdom of the Red Sox’ decision to move aggressively to trade for Gonzalez last winter, giving up three of their top prospects in the process. After all, the Sox were just one year away from having a chance at one of the greatest free-agent classes of first basemen ever, as Pujols, Gonzalez and Prince Fielder were all slated to hit the open market after the 2011 campaign.
Why not keep the prospects and make a charge at one of the players in free agency, when he would cost only money and a draft pick?
Now we know.
Pujols reached agreement with the Angels on a 10-year, $254 million deal that was announced on Thursday as the winter meetings wrapped up. That is exactly $100 million more than the Red Sox will pay to Adrian Gonzalez over the next seven years after the team signed him to a $154 million extension in April, four months after acquiring him in a trade from the Padres.
It is, of course, a bit misleading to view the difference as $100 million given that Pujols is under contract for the next 10 years (at an average annual cost of $25.4 million) while Gonzalez is locked up for the next seven (at $22 million a year). Still, that nine-figure bottom line is so striking that it cannot be ignored, either. Certainly, it helps to underscore why the Sox have zero regrets about moving to add Gonzalez last offseason rather than waiting to see if they could make a run at Pujols.
The Sox made their deal for Gonzalez -- and gave up three players whom they considered highly impactful -- for a couple of reasons.
First, there was the matter of the team’s longstanding crush on Gonzalez. Offensively, the Sox viewed him as the prototypical mashing first baseman, someone whose road numbers (away from the hitting graveyard of PETCO Park) suggested that he was as good a power hitter as any in the game, including Pujols. And defensively, Gonzalez was similarly elite, someone whose aggressive approach to his position can be game-changing.
Secondly, there was the matter of age. Gonzalez was 28 (going on 29) when the Sox traded for him, with plenty of his career prime ahead of him. In trading for him when they did, the Sox got an extra year of what should be the first baseman’s peak (at a bargain rate of $6.3 million in 2011, no less).
But, perhaps most significantly, there was the matter of the unpredictable nature of free agency. In trading for Gonzalez and getting the right to negotiate with him, the Sox would be able to hammer out a long-term contract in a controlled environment. There would be no other bidders; there would be no shifting market standards set by other contracts.
The Sox were leery of free agency, given that the possible entry of additional bidders can create a frenzied outcome. A year ago, for instance, no one predicted that the Marlins would be ready to go on an epic spending binge that has already seen them land Jose Reyes ($106 million), Mark Buehrle ($58 million) and Heath Bell ($27 million), while reportedly having made a bigger offer to Pujols than the $254 million he received from the Halos.
For that matter, almost no one foresaw Pujols leaving the Cardinals. And while the Angels were expected to open their wallets to get in the first base market, no one anticipated that they would set the market with the second-biggest deal of all time given their relatively conservative approach to free agency in recent years.
The opportunity to negotiate with Gonzalez in a controlled setting mattered to the Sox. They were able to define middle ground with one of the top first basemen in the game -- someone who, in a year in which his strength was diminished as he recovered from shoulder surgery, hit .338 with a .410 OBP, .548 slugging mark, .957 OPS, 27 homers and 117 RBI -- and reach a contract that was deemed fair by both sides.
Gonzalez has no beef with the fact that he will earn $22 million a year from now through 2018. He will receive only slightly less than the $22.5 million a year being earned by Mark Teixeira.
But it is safe to suggest that his deal looks rather incredible now in light of what Pujols earned. Based on normal career aging patterns, Gonzalez should be at or near the height of his powers in the next couple years, and then remain at an extremely productive level for the life of his contract. The idea of a great player remaining great through age 36, after all, is not far-fetched.
In baseball history, there have been 27 players in their age 36 seasons (the last year of Gonzalez’ deal with the Sox) who have had an OPS of .900 or better. There have been 87 instances of players in their age seasons having an OPS+ of 120 or better, meaning that those players put up an OPS that was 20 percent better than league average, a good indication of star-level offensive performance.
Compare that to the back end of Pujols’ contract. The mighty first baseman, whose face may one day appear on baseball’s Rushmore, will be 41 in the last year of his Angels contract. In baseball history, there are just five examples of players age 41 or older who played enough to qualify for the batting title and had an OPS+ of 120 or better. Only one player (Cardinals great Stan Musial) had an OPS of .900 or better at age 41.
In other words, the likelihood of Gonzalez remaining healthy and productive for the full life of his contract appears to be far greater than the possibility that Pujols will remain on the short list of the best players in the game for his entire deal.
One need look no further than Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez for evidence of that notion. He re-upped with New York on a 10-year, $275 million deal after a spectacular 2007 season in which he collected his third AL MVP award and launched 54 homers.
Since that season, in the first four years of his new deal, Rodriguez has seen his batting average, slugging percentage, OPS and OPS+ decline in every season. Once a perennial lock to play at least 155 games, he has been on the field for 138, 124, 137 and 99 games in the first four years of his deal -- numbers that make it simply impossible for him to perform at a level that would justify his contract.
Rodriguez has been a player whose production and value have been in steady decline since the first day of his contract. The Yankees gave him a huge deal at the end of his peak, and now, the last six years of his deal could represent a financial albatross.
Perhaps Pujols will buck such a pattern. After all, he is a luminary. Even so, it is impossible to ignore the fact that he is coming off a season that would have been exceptional by the standards of mortals, but in which, at age 31, he had career lows in batting average (.299), OBP (.366), slugging (.541) and OPS (.906).
As for Gonzalez? Despite the fact that diminished strength (presumably the result, at least in part, of a limited offseason workout program during his recovery from shoulder surgery) sapped his power in the second half, his move from PETCO to Fenway, from an anemic offense to a dazzling one, helped him to set new career standards in several categories. Gonzalez had the highest average, OBP and OPS of his career. He performed in a fashion that suggested a player who is in the middle of his best years.
It is unlikely that will remain the case for his entire tenure with the Red Sox. By the time 2017 and 2018 arrive, he will almost certainly demonstrate evidence of decline.
However, in all likelihood, the risks that his productive days will be over are far less for Gonzalez at the end of his contract than for Pujols at the conclusion of his.
That is not necessarily to disparage the Angels’ deal. Arte Moreno’s team had fallen behind the Rangers in the American League West. Despite the dazzling front-of-the-rotation pairing of Jered Weaver and Dan Haren, the Halos seemed unlikely to go toe-to-toe with Texas in the absence of some major additions. Pujols is that (as is left-hander C.J. Wilson).
But his deal suggests that the Sox have little to regret about their trade for Gonzalez. If the Sox had any misgivings about it, they might have contemplated a wildly creative deal to unload Gonzalez and make a run at Pujols. That never happened.
“That would have had to be pretty creative, given where we were,” Sox GM Ben Cherington said on Thursday. “You can throw all sorts of things against the wall, but when you start to think about making huge, fundamental changes to your roster to try to fit something in, usually the end result isn’t that good. I feel like we have a really good team that really just needs some good complements and needs to be put in a better position to win over a six-month stretch. That’s what we’re focusing on.”
When it comes to their first baseman, at least, the Sox need look only forward and not back. The team has had a fair share of questionable decisions in recent years. The trade for Gonzalez is not one of them.
Gonzalez is a cornerstone for the team for years to come. His production, for as long as he remains healthy, will be taken as something of a given.
There is a good chance that Gonzalez will be a better player than Pujols for the next seven years. But even if he is not, even if Pujols defies the decline that baseball history suggests is inevitable and outperforms his AL colleague, the difference will not be as wide as a nine-figure contract chasm would suggest.
The Sox' decision last winter was two-fold. They wanted to add Gonzalez, and they wanted to avoid the open market while doing so. One year later, it appears they were right on both counts.