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What if Pujols follows Helton’s career trajectory?

During Friday night’s St. Louis Cardinals telecast, the two first basemen, Albert Pujols of the Cardinals and the home Colorado Rockies’ Todd Helton, were pictured chatting at first base by the FOX Sports Midwest cameras.

Broadcasters Dan McLaughlin and Ricky Horton stepped aside from calling balls and strikes, spending a fair amount of time discussing how much Pujols has admired Helton over the years. Six and a half years older than Pujols, Helton became a full-time major leaguer in 1998. Pujols’ rookie season followed in 2001.

The two stars may have been first and most closely linked in 2003. That season, Pujols won his first National League batting title, edging Helton by the closest margin in league history – just .00022.

The Friday in-game discussion made me think about Helton’s career trajectory and whether Pujols might follow.

One of the most feared hitters in the game in the early half of last decade and a Colorado icon, Helton logged five consecutive All-Star appearances from 2000-04 and picked up four Silver Slugger Awards for hitting excellence from 2000-03.

Before Helton reached free agency, in March 2003, the Rockies gave him a nine-year, $141.5 million contract with the tenth year including a buyout option. The deal covered the 2003-12 seasons, corresponding with Helton’s ages 29-38. It was structured in such a way that his salary would not drop in the later years of the contract.

Todd Helton
Year Age Games HR RBI Awards Salary Multi-year Renegotiated
1998 24 152 25 97 ROY-2 $190K
1999 25 159 35 113 $750K 4 yrs/$12M
2000 26 160 42 147 AS, SS $1.3M
2001 27 159 49 146 AS, SS $4.95M
2002 28 156 30 109 AS, SS $5M
2003 29 160 33 117 AS, SS $10.6M 9 yrs/$141.5M
2004 30 154 32 96 AS $11.6M
2005 31 144 20 79 $12.6M
2006 32 145 15 81 $16.6M
2007 33 154 17 91 $16.6M
2008 34 83 7 29 $16.6M
2009 35 151 15 86 $16.6M
2010 36 118 8 37 $16.6M $10.6M
2011 37 $19.1M $9.6M
2012 38 $23M* 2 yrs/$9.9M $4.9M
2013 39 $5M
2014-23 40-49 $13.1M deferred
* or $4.6M buyout w/3% interest

As the above table clearly indicates, after the first two years of the deal, starting in 2005, Helton’s power and RBI productivity took a considerable nosedive – just when his salary was approaching its highest annual levels. Helton was 31 years of age when his performance dropoff began.

Later, in 2008, Helton missed considerable time due to back problems that have popped up again since. There were also whispers of PED use, vehemently denied, the Colorado altitude and post-humidor effect and other factors one could suggest as excuses/explanations.

Say what you will, but the bottom line was that Helton was no longer an offensive force, but was being paid like one, and would be for years to come.

Though Helton bounced back a bit in 2009, by 2010, the two parties returned to the bargaining table. After four seasons at $16.6 million, his contract was re-negotiated downward to more accurately reflect his reduced contribution.

Helton received a guarantee for 2012 and a 2013 extension, replacing a never-to-be used $23 million option and buyout for 2012. His annual salaries for 2010 and 2011 were reduced by over $15 million in aggregate from the amounts the original deal called for.

However, Helton will recover most of what he gave back in deferred money. He will recoup $13.1 million plus interest during the decade of his 40s.

Perhaps this will enable Helton to remain with the Rockies until his retirement day, an unusual occurrence in today’s free agency-powered game. He is clearly a player whose impact extends beyond the white lines.

What can the St. Louis Cardinals learn from Helton’s story?

Obviously, nine or ten-year contracts are risky. Even if the player isn’t hurt, performance can drop in an unexplainable manner, never to return.

Some players, especially franchise ones, aren’t after getting all the money they can possibly earn – at least at the time. Helton was under no obligation to re-negotiate his contract with at least two seasons to go. Though it didn’t happen right away, his salary was eventually brought into a more reasonable range. That gave his team’s owners more flexibility to pay others. The player spread his earnings over a longer period of time and got two more years tacked onto the end of his deal.

If Pujols’ struggles continue all season long in 2011, might it signal the beginning of the career decline that Helton also experienced in his age 31 season?

Would the Cardinals (or any other club) offer him less in free agency as a result?

Even if Pujols returns to St. Louis and signs the expected mega-deal, what if declined productivity occurs over a long enough period to be considered more than a slump?

Would Pujols later re-negotiate his deal for a lower annual salary? If not, would he at least accept less immediate money?

Of course, no one knows how relevant and real this could become, but it is certainly worth considering.

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