The Measured Meter of Money: The St. Louis Cardinals and the Pujols Gambit

From Bryan Burwell’s column, “DeWitt rolls the dice,” in the St. Louis Dispatch:

The strategy that is unfolding is clearer than ever now. The Cardinals chairman is risking it all in the hope that Pujols and agent Dan Lozano are miscalculating Albert’s value in the open market. When informed that this was some bold chess move he was making, DeWitt shrugged his shoulders and allowed a thin smile to crease his lips.

“I don’t play chess,” he said, ‘so I wouldn’t know.”

This feels like a high school economics problem: baseball’s best player, Albert Pujols, wants an extension, and an historic paycheck to match his historic play. The team’s owner, Bill DeWitt, Jr., through a glib smile, calls what he thinks is Pujols’ bluff, lowballing the Machine and waiting, more or less, for the free agent market to prove him right. The conflict pits the racing pulse of Pujols-level talent against the measured meter of money. The World Series of another game, poker, proves over and again that the mathematician wins the game of chance, not the gunslinger. But audiences still clamor for the gunslinger, and the public calls DeWitt a madman for resisting the temptation of a massive emotional payoff that comes with the big signing.

DeWitt plays Russian roulette with one of the game’s icons while baseball fans flinch because it could happen to their team, and Cardinals fans gasp at the thought of losing baseball’s sure thing. In a column on the subject, Fanhouse writer Ed Price distills the matter to its most basic formula, claiming that “Cardinal Nation is left to choose sides, feeling either Pujols is greedy or the Cards aren’t taking care of their icon.” I, for one, would hope for a more mature view of the art of the deal than this dichotomous summation provides.

I’ve been known to watch the Bravo show “Million Dollar Listing.” It’s a “reality” show about real estate agents in glitzy Los Angeles, and it has a simple lesson that shines brightly through the high gloss and sports car sheen: you can’t beat the market. In the show’s common formula, an owner wants to sell their house for well over the market price. The real estate agent, who are the de facto stars of the show, tell the camera that there’s no way that the owner will get that much. The owner hems, haws, or harangues, but when it comes down to it the agent is always right, because they are the experts on the market, the number. The owner lowers their price, and the house gets sold.

Bill DeWitt

Bill DeWitt must watch the show, too, because he’s following the formula to the letter in his dealings with Albert Pujols. Fanhouse quotes him as saying that, “it’s hard to speculate what the open market really is,” but I don’t believe him. He knows exactly what he thinks the market is. Whether DeWitt is the delusional homeowner who wants a better deal than he deserves, or whether he is the realistic agent who knows what the home will bring, that will bear out when the negotiations pick up again and the real market comes into play.

Pujols, for his part, didn’t get to be a generational great by acquiescing to the demands of others, and his negotiating style plays out thusly so far. He told MLB.com:

“[I’m] not disappointed. Like I say, this negotiation, it happens. Two sides didn’t get together and get to an agreement. And that’s the way it goes. It’s negotiation. You can’t get disappointed. You know why? Because I still have another chance after the season, and maybe we’ll get something done then.”

Those are the words of a realist, and in this case realism means understanding what a rare commodity he is as a player, and trusting the market, just as DeWitt does. Million Dollar Listing taught me that there is usually a number, and it might be somewhere in the middle and it might not, but the various factions come to learn what that number is one way or another.

The Cardinals brass claim that they want to both pay Pujols and have enough money left over to put together a good team. This sounds to me like bargaining bull, as there isn’t a player worth more than Pujols, and a team that loses him quickly has a lot of ground to make up in the lineup. He alone is worth ten or so $3 million players (though you’ll have to check with Fangraphs to learn if that’s really true, it certainly to my eye seems the case).

Of the whole thing, Pujols himself put it well: “It’s a zoo,” he said. It’s an appropriate metaphor for the argument that I’m advancing, because a zoo is a sort of ordered chaos. It can be a little stinky and a feast for the senses, but there’s an underlying balance that dictates what happens from one day to the next. The lions and the tigers have got their number–whether it’s pounds of meat per meal or square footage of a pen–just like the Cardinals and Pujols have theirs.

Passions would dictate that the Cardinals should pay Pujols whatever he asks. It would be a blameless victory for Pujols and everybody else. But baseball’s recent history suggests that the painful decisions of today can pay off down the road. A-Rod left Texas and the Rangers had their best season ever a few years later; the Giants defied logic with a series of mediocre, aging free agents and they won a World Series.

A few months ago I argued that Derek Jeter should stop worrying about money and worry more about his legacy with the Yankees. A few parallels were drawn between the two situations, based on their import to the identity of each franchise. This is a stretch. Pujols is prime time, and Jeter is the late late show. Where the Jeter situation was highly emotional, the participants in the Pujols negotiations seem intent on rational, reasoned discussion in front of the public.

I suppose that the measured emotional responses from each side–excluding Cardinals fans and bloggers, one of whom called the ordeal albertageddon— are appropriate, too, give that the players include a God-fearing man-mountain who puts up huge numbers with little chit-chat, and a Midwest franchise that wins World Series and contends every year without marking up the cultural map too much. It’s a tame zoo, this St. Louis menagerie, more aviary thus far than lion’s den on the national scene. Come November, the predators may yet come out to prey.

Links:

Dave Cameron addresses the issue of one player’s dollar value compared with multiple players making the same cumulative amount of money.

3 Responses to “The Measured Meter of Money: The St. Louis Cardinals and the Pujols Gambit”


  • The introductory quote/title made me think of the German soccer player who described his sport as like chess but without dice.

  • First off, ha!

    Second, it is interesting to invoke a “bold chess move” when talking about negotiations, because I think many people, myself included, would have no idea that a bold move was actually being made if I were watching or playing a game of chess.

    In this day and age, I think a no-limits hold ’em reference would have been more functional. I’m all in!

  • Nicely put, Ted.

    As both a stat-head and a poetry-head, I think Pujols is worth way more than 10 $3 Million players. Because it’s tough to find playing time for 10 players on a baseball team, because of all that crazy “marginal value of win” stuff, and because of the mythological value of Pujols compared to replacing him with 10 mere mortals.

    A Homerian Analogy: I’d rather have Achilles himself than a whole unit of his myrmidons, not because his myrmidons are not excellent fighters, but because without Achilles, the Iliad doesn’t get written. Maybe that’s not quite true of baseball: without Pujols, the book would still get written… But it would be a very different book. Perhaps the better analogy is a question: what happens if Achilles fights for the Trojans? How much would Agamemnon give to prevent that from happening?

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