On February 18, 2004, I broke the story of an event that was unprecedented in Major League Baseball. Albert Pujols agreed to terms on a seven-year, $100 million contract extension with the St. Louis Cardinals that would expand to $111 million if the eighth year option was picked up by the club.
It was a different world in 2003-04, a post-Mark McGwire period in which Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa were the reigning kings of MLB. Yet Pujols was finally elbowing his way up to the summit. The first baseman earned his first National League batting title in 2003, finishing second to Bonds in the Most Valuable Player vote and was preparing to cash in.
After making $900,000 that season, a record for a third-year player, Pujols had become arbitration eligible for the first time. As the Cardinals’ 2004 training camp prepared to open, he and the club were heading toward a showdown – an arbitration hearing that might have brought him a then-record haul for a fourth-year player.
Pujols had formally requested $10.5 million, while the Cardinals were offering $7 million. Rumors at the time included the player having turned down a five-year, $55 million offer from the club prior to the filing.
Instead of arguing their cases in front of an arbitration panel, the two sides agreed to a contract that was unheard-of at the time. The new deal would not only buy up Pujols’ three arbitration-eligible seasons, but his next four and potentially five free agent-eligible years as well.
It began a practice that is now common with emerging stars – a long-term contract that provides financial security very early in the player’s career in return for a commitment to remain with the team well into his free agent-eligible years. The annual value of such a deal is typically more player-friendly in the initial years but becomes more advantageous to the club in the later seasons – assuming the youngster continues to produce, of course.
Some believe the Cardinals “owe” Pujols in his next contract because that 2004 deal has paid him under market value in recent seasons. I wonder if those same individuals if put in Pujols’ shoes would have given the money back had he been unable to perform as expected? I think we know the answer.
For his part, Pujols realized both sides benefited from the contract and held no bad feelings about it. As recently as two springs ago, he said this:
“When I signed my contract I was really happy with what I got.”
On February 18, 2004, I learned that the two sides had come to agreement before it had appeared elsewhere. That evening, I posted an article that included the basic years and money at The Birdhouse, the predecessor of The Cardinal Nation on Scout.com. I then gave a heads-up to Jayson Stark of ESPN, who independently verified my story and took it to the national audience the next day. The press conference pictured above was held on the 20th at the Cardinals complex in Jupiter, Fla.
As the entire baseball world knows, seven years later, here on February 18, 2011, there is no new Pujols contract to announce.
That eighth-year option which seemed almost a footnote in 2004 has now become all-important. It is the only thread that formally binds the now-31-year-old to his only major league home. It will hold for at least one more summer before Pujols reaches free agency for the first time in his professional career.
Likely someone else will break the news of Pujols’ next contract, but certainly Cardinals fans hope the message will again originate from someone who covers this team and not another.