With the specter of baseball's best hitter becoming a free agent after the 2011 season looming, one of the bigger questions teams will have to answer in the coming months is whether Albert Pujols is actually worth the 10-year deal he's reportedly seeking. Long-term megadeals have been a pretty mixed bag over the years, and 10-year contracts have been pretty rare. But in the 2000-01 offseason, both Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter signed guaranteed 10-year contracts, and Manny Ramirez signed an eight-year deal with two team options. So how did those deals come out? (For the sake of illustration, we'll imagine A-Rod never opted out of his original contract and Manny's options were picked up. And for those who don't know, different sites use different formulas to calculate wins above replacement. fWAR references the number FanGraphs generates.)
Somewhat surprisingly, all of those deals look pretty good in hindsight. And Manny's looks even better if you discount the past two years, which makes sense since they weren't guaranteed in the contract.
Ah, but there's a catch. As you can see, all of those contracts were given to players who hadn't turned 30 years old yet, and A-Rod was almost absurdly young when he hit the free-agent market after the 2000 season. Pujols, on the other hand, will be 32 years old in the first year of his next contract. So how have those three players fared since they turned 32?
At this point we can probably discount Jeter and Manny as comparisons. They've combined for just three seasons of being worth 7 wins or more, a bar Pujols has crossed an amazing nine times! In fact, Pujols has been worth at least 7 wins in every year of his career except 2002, when he put up a still-very-good 5.7 fWAR. Pujols has been worth at least 8 wins five times, a level of production neither Jeter nor Ramirez has ever reached. So while they've certainly had great careers, neither Jeter nor Manny are really on the same level as Pujols.
And that's just as well, because A-Rod is the real cautionary tale here. In 2007, a 31-year-old Rodriguez had the best offensive season of his career, hitting .314/.422/.645 with 54 home runs. Three seasons later, a 34-year-old A-Rod hit just .270/.341/.506 and was worth just 3.9 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. In between, Rodriguez suffered a hip injury that required offseason surgery and cost him the first month of the 2009 season, and he just hasn't quite looked the same since.
The real lesson here is that you just don't know what's going to happen to people in one or two seasons, let alone over a decade. Professional athletes get injured, especially athletes north of 30 years old, and that's something any team thinking of making such a long commitment to Pujols will have to consider. That's not to say Pujols will get hurt, that his balky elbow will require major surgery, or that he doesn't have four or five Hall of Fame-caliber seasons left in him. Saying there's risk involved in a deal isn't the same as saying that making such a deal would be a bad idea. After all, there's some level of risk involved in just about every deal that's for more than one or two years. Good deal makers can find ways to work around that risk by doing things like front-loading the value of the contract. Those investments aren't necessarily bad ones, you just can't have too many of them at one time and you need to find ways to structure the risk within your organization.
But above all else, don't make the mistake of thinking that just because Pujols is currently one of the best hitters in baseball history means that it can't change very quickly. A lot can happen in a decade.