Albert Pujols, the free-agent game changer

Both Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder -- and their agents -- will have decisions to make this offseason. Jeff Curry/US Presswire

Branch Rickey once said "Baseball is a game of inches" and that is true. It is also a game of decisions and unpredictability. Hundreds and thousands of decisions over the course of a season by players, managers, coaches, owners and everyone involved in the game ultimately produce a baseball season no one could ever anticipate. Every year the beautiful, unpredictable seasons we witness begin with the offseason free-agent market.

This year, the biggest name is Albert Pujols. At 31, it's his first foray into the free-agent market.

Imagine if, after his first four seasons in the majors, instead of signing a seven-year extension in 2004 for $111 million, Pujols had instead signed a shorter deal.

October 30, 2007.

As expected Albert Pujols has filed for free agency. The Cardinals have fired general manager Walt Jocketty and new GM John Mozeliak’s first task will be to sign Pujols to a monster long-term deal. This will not be an easy task, even though he's coming off the fewest home runs of his career (32) and his RBI production dropped to a career-low 103. The Yankees and Red Sox do not have first basemen locked into long-term contracts. They could make a move for Pujols ...

When Pujols signed that seven-year contract, he said he wouldn't give the Cardinals a discount. Now, looking back, considering the number of wins he brought to St. Louis, that contract is perceived as quite a discount.

"There’s something about that first bout of money," said Vince Gennaro, author of "Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning in Baseball" and a consultant to major league teams. "We’ve seen Ryan Braun and Evan Longoria do it. In this case, [Dan Lozano, agent for Pujols] probably could have gotten Albert his 30 or 40 million and then looked for the kill -- whereas, he took a much, much, bigger security blanket."

If Pujols had signed a four-year deal following the 2004 season, he would have been eligible for free agency at the age of 27, which is where Prince Fielder is now. At the age of 27, Pujols had six All-Star Game appearances, one MVP award, one Rookie of the Year award, two World Series appearances and one World Series championship. In the same categories, Fielder has three All-Star game appearances and two top-three MVP finishes.

Here is a closer look at the first seven seasons for Pujols and Fielder (which includes a September call-up for Fielder), taking their average per 162 games:

Pujols: .332/.420/.620, 42 HR, 128 RBIs, 88 BB, 67 SO, 167 OPS+

Fielder: .282/.390/.540, 38 HR, 107 RBIs, 92 BB, 107 SO, 143 OPS+

Looking at those numbers, and factoring in Pujols' edge over Fielder in fielding and baserunning, you can see where the offers he would have received would have dwarfed what Fielder will eventually get. An interesting dynamic with this year’s free agent class are the agents for Pujols (Dan Lozano) and Fielder (Scott Boras) and how they will manage the market.

"I’m envisioning Boras' whole selling pitch being: When have you seen a player of this caliber come to the free agent market after his age-27 season?" Gennaro said about Fielder. "And that’s what Albert could have had -- exactly what he would have had -- if he went in 2007."

Baseball is a game of decisions and unpredictability. In 2004, Pujols choose long-term stability in the form of $111 million.

What if Pujols stays healthy and ages well for the next eight years?

September 3, 2019.

The view from the stands in 2019 hasn’t changed much from the Cardinals' World Series championship in 2011, the return to the World Series in 2012 and another title in 2018. That’s the beauty of baseball; once you’re sitting in the stadium watching the game, taking in all the sights and sounds, it’s timeless. Three trips to the World Series in nine years and yet St. Louis has never seen the hustle and bustle like it is witnessing today when Pujols could be entering into the 700 home run club ...

If Pujols averages his worst season in home runs (which was 32 in 2007), at the end of an eight-year contract he would be sitting at 701 career home runs. His worst single season hit total was 173, which would put him at 3,457 career hits. Pujols had his worst RBI year in 2011, with 99. If he matches that total every year for eight years he would be sitting on 2,121 RBIs.

The revenue stream for a ballplayer and a team when breaking records and joining milestones like the 3,000-hit club or 700-home run club is tricky to predict because it depends upon the market where the team resides. Which major league team can financially capitalize on these records and milestones?

"If he were doing that as a Yankee it would be frankly considerably more in terms of dollars for the team and probably personally for him than if he is doing it in a smaller market," Gennaro said. "Now, St. Louis is that sort of hybrid -- small in size but big in baseball. It really is a terrific baseball market."

If Pujols remains in St. Louis, the team would be in a strong position to capitalize on those milestones because of the dynamic pricing the Cardinals put in place in 2011.

"You think back to the Barry Bonds home run chase, what you saw was the StubHub folks in the secondary market going nuts for $1,000 seats when he got to 700 home runs," Gennaro said. "Now the Cardinals themselves can play in that game."

Reaching milestones for ballplayers only involve a handful of games but Gennaro says there are other ways for teams to capitalize on the records with merchandise and things of that nature. "I think the Cardinals are in a pretty good position with their rabid fan base," he said.

In defining what the market values in free agency Gennaro has completed extensive fan and consumer research with teams on the topic of star power, or marquee value.

"One of the things that I’ve seen is that fans personalize the team brand through its star players," Gennaro said. "So, the marquee value of a player has to do with his ability to create that bond between himself and the fan. I do think there is a clear residual value that a team maintains even after the player is gone. It is even greater when a player plays his whole career with one team and then walks off into the sunset as Stan Musial did."

What if the team who is willing to pay Pujols the most is the Cubs?

October 29, 2014.

Wrigley Field has always had its own mystique. All the Cubs fans who have lived and died without seeing a World Series championship, today is for them. The desire and the dream permanently hovering in the air above Wrigley for 106 years is no longer a bunch of hollow hopes. There are words, there are pictures which will try to capture this day as the Cubs have won the World Series, but you have to be here to feel it. It’s finally real. The two men who made this day possible, Albert Pujols and Theo Epstein, stand together holding the World Series trophy under the confetti ...

"There is the sort of double switch. The double hit," Gennaro said. "If [Pujols] leaves the Cardinals and joins the Cubs that’s the kind of thing that can really be an interesting game changer."

Pujols leaving the National League Central for another team in the American League or other divisions in the National League would have a lesser impact on the Cardinals then if he went to a division rival.

"The Cardinals are a fairly rational organization and they will choose to make this a financial decision," Gennaro said. "If you had a winning team without Pujols or a non-competitive team -- not a 60-win team, but a .500 win team -- that finishes in third or fourth place in the Central Division with Pujols, which would bode better financially for the Cardinals? Despite Albert’s attraction in value, I would have to say it would be the winning ballclub. I think one of the things you have to be sure of if you are St. Louis, if you are going after him, is that you have enough payroll space left over after you pay Albert to build a competitive team around him."

Gennaro believes it would not be wise for the team to now gravitate toward selling stars and not wins. Of course, the last thing the Cardinals would want would be for the rival Cubs to acquire Pujols. The reasons extend far beyond fan loyalty to financial implications for both teams. But baseball is a game of decisions and unpredictability. If, in 2014, that unpredictability takes the Cubs to their first World Series championship in 106 years because Theo Epstein engineered a run of winning baseball with Albert Pujols as the cornerstone, the story of Pujols would be complete.

Are the Cubs actually courting Pujols? Can they put together a plan to win a World Series without a player like Pujols? Can the Cardinals afford to let the Cubs have him?

A game of decisions.

Anna McDonald contributes to Page 2 and the Yankees blog It's About the Money. You can follow her on Twitter @anna_mcdonald.