Let's be honest: I don't think Arte Moreno cares too much about 2017 or 2018, let alone 2021, when Albert Pujols will be 41 years old and finishing up the final season of his 10-year, $254 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels.
Last week, ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski projected Pujols' numbers over the next 10 years. Szymborski's system predicts a fairly rapid decline for Pujols after the first four seasons. The Pujols defenders will rightly point out, however, that there have been few players like him in the history of baseball, that he doesn't drink and eats his vegetables and all that, and thus any projection system concerning Pujols will have a wide range of error.
So let's do this. Let's look at the most valuable first baseman or designated hitter since 1969 at each age, from 32 to 41, using Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement system. I'm using designated hitters for two reasons: Pujols will inevitably end up there at some point, and as you'll see, many of the "best" players at these ages have been DHs, not first basemen. Simply put: First basemen, even great ones, do not age well. At the end, we'll compare the total WAR of this method to Szymborski's ZiPS system.
Age 32: Lance Berkman, 2008 Astros -- 6.7 WAR (.312/.420/.567)
Actually, Edgar Martinez of the '95 Mariners was higher with 7.7 WAR, but he was primarily a DH that year. Martinez hit .356/.479/.628. It's perhaps interesting to note that Berkman and Martinez (you'll see his name a lot on this list) have higher career walk rates than Pujols. Berkman is at 15.5 percent for his career, Pujols at 13.1 percent. Martinez finished at 14.8 percent. If you factor in only unintentional walks, the difference is even greater. Pujols' walk rate declined in 2011 to a career-low 9.4 percent. Some of that was due to a big drop in intentional walks, but he was also more aggressive at the plate -- he averaged 3.65 pitches per plate appearance, his lowest average since 2004 and the second-lowest average of his career. Was it an anomaly, or the sign of a hitter with declining bat speed looking to "speed up" his bat by cheating a bit? One of the keys to Martinez being so successful late into his 30s was his extraordinary plate discipline. Pujols doesn't strike out much, but if he's cheating, that means he'll chase more bad pitches. And remember, walks create value in the form of on-base percentage. Pujols' .366 OBP in 2011 was 60 points below his career mark entering the season.
Age 33: Rafael Palmeiro, 1998 Orioles -- 6.2 WAR (.296/.379/.565)
From 1995 through 2003 (when he was 38), Palmeiro averaged 41 home runs per season. His average WAR over that span was 4.1. The potential edge Pujols has over Palmeiro is batting average -- Palmeiro hit .285/.380/.556 and was helped by playing five seasons in Texas. On the other hand, Palmeiro had 90-plus walks in a season five times over that 1995-03 span. Pujols walked 61 times in 2011.
Age 34: Mark McGwire, 1998 Cardinals -- 7.2 WAR (.299/.470/.752)
Well, needless to say this one comes with a big asterisk. Look below and you will see the overall values of the best first basemen are starting to tail off quite rapidly.
Next five: Edgar Martinez (6.2), Eddie Murray (5.6), Carlos Delgado (3.8), Jeff Bagwell (3.8), Don Baylor (3.7)
Age 35: Mark McGwire, 1999 Cardinals -- 5.5 WAR (.278/.424/.697)
Thome makes the next five list below. He's one of the best hitters of the past 25 years, but from age 32 on, Thome had just two seasons with an offensive WAR of 4.0 or greater (ages 32 and 35). He's a different kind of hitter than Pujols, of course -- lower average, more strikeouts, more walks. But through age 31, he was hitting .287/.414/.567. From age 32 onward, he's hit .264/.388/.542. Thome is actually a kind of a best-case scenario: He has maintained much of his value as a hitter, although he's had issues remaining completely healthy.
Next five: Edgar Martinez (5.0), Jim Thome (4.6), Al Oliver (4.3), Todd Helton (4.2), Wally Joyner (4.2)
Age 36: Paul Molitor, 1993 Blue Jays -- 5.7 WAR (.332/.402/.509)
We're starting to see more designated hitters now. Molitor, Martinez and Hal McRae were all DHs.
Next five: Edgar Martinez (4.6), Rod Carew (4.4), Will Clark (4.1), Hal McRae (4.0), Jeff Bagwell (3.5)
Age 37: Edgar Martinez, 2000 Mariners -- 5.7 WAR (.324/.423/.579)
Now it's getting even more extreme: Only Andres Galarraga played first base of the top six guys here. The point is: Pujols will have to continue to hit like Martinez and continue to play first base to maintain his WAR above 5.0. Martinez hit .324 at 37. Pujols' batting averages the past four seasons: .357, .327, .312, .299.
Next five: Andres Galarraga (5.4), Frank Robinson (4.7), Ellis Burks (4.0), Paul Molitor (3.3), Brian Downing (3.1)
Age 38: Edgar Martinez, 2001 Mariners -- 5.5 WAR (.306/.423/.543)
Again ... a bunch of DHs, other than Willie Stargell, who had a nice late-career push at ages 38 and 39 (hitting a combined .287/.367/.559 over those two years, although offering little on the bases or in the field).
Age 39: Paul Molitor, 1996 Twins -- 3.4 WAR (.341/.390/.468)
Molitor had an amazing late peak: From ages 34 through 40, he hit .320. Again, a totally different type of hitter and athlete than Pujols -- smaller, faster, much more athletic in the traditional sense of speed and agility.
Next five: Edgar Martinez (2.8), Willie Stargell (2.3), Brian Downing (2.1), Frank Thomas (2.0), Dave Parker (1.9)
Age 40: Edgar Martinez, 2003 Mariners -- 3.5 WAR (.294/.406/.489)
Look how low the WAR totals are getting. These aren't players who offer much value at this point in their careers.
Next five: Brian Downing (2.5), Harold Baines (2.3), Paul Molitor (1.4), Pete Rose (1.4), Reggie Jackson (1.3)
Age 41: Brian Downing, 1992 Rangers -- 2.5 WAR (.278/.407/.428)
If Pujols is still playing in the final year of his deal, he'll have to defy the odds of Father Time to remain an asset for the Angels (and by asset, we mean you'll have to ignore his salary). Downing is the only first baseman/DH to produce a WAR above 0.1 at age 41 since 1969.
OK, the final tally:
Szymborski's ZiPS: 32.4 WAR -- 32 wins above replacement level
Best players at each age: 51.9 WAR -- 52 wins above replacement level
What's interesting is that currently a win on the free-agent market is worth about $5 million. Take $254 million and divide by $5 million, and you get ... 50.8 wins.
So, if Pujols matches the production of the best player at each age since 1969 for the next 10 seasons, his on-field value will actually match the contract Moreno gave him. As great as Pujols is, I don’t see that happening, especially considering the signs of decline the past four seasons (his on-base percentage has also fallen from .462 to .443 to .414 to .366). Also consider that -- to put this delicately -- at least a couple players on these lists had some unusual aging patters to their careers in the midst of the steroids era.
If Pujols helps deliver the Angels a World Series title or two in the next few years, Moreno will be happy. And yes, Pujols provides value in more ways than just wins on the field -- the Angels reportedly sold 1,000 season-ticket packages after the Pujols and C.J. Wilson signings were announced. No doubt Pujols jerseys and T-shirts will be extremely popular in Orange County this summer. But you can’t deny it remains extremely likely that the back end of the deal will be a major albatross for the Angels.