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A Prince in Detroit

Now let's be clear: Evaluating contracts that have yet to start is risky business. Every team in baseball is 0-0 and it's Jan. 24. No one "won" the offseason. And no one knows how Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder will perform over the next decade or so.

A Prince in Detroit

Ryan Howard has less competition as the top first basemen in the NL with Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder now in the AL. (AP file photos)
Ryan Howard has less competition as the top first basemen in the NL with Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder now in the AL. (AP file photos)

Now let's be clear: Evaluating contracts that have yet to start is risky business. Every team in baseball is 0-0 and it's Jan. 24. No one "won" the offseason. And no one knows how Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder will perform over the next decade or so.

Track records say that, yes, Pujols is the greatest active hitter. What about four years from now? Or seven? Or 10? Fielder is 27. Does that mean a longer term is better for a player like him? What about his body holding up for the duration?

So there will be plenty of judgments rendered in the coming days about how The Great First Baseman Shuffle of 2012 transpired. And those will mean exactly nothing.

But now, at least, we can put the contracts along side one another and have a basis for comparison.

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A. Pujols: 10 years, $240 million
P. Fielder: 9 years, $214 million
M. Teixeira: 8 years, $180 million (began in 2009)
A. Gonzalez: 7 years, $154 million
R. Howard: 5 years, $125 million

When the Phillies signed Howard in April 2010, Ruben Amaro Jr. set the market, eclipsing the $18 million per season the Yankees gave Teixeira. Once Pujols signed for 10 years at the winter meetings, Amaro scoffed at the idea that he would have been better off waiting it out.

"There would be three of those guys out there looking for 10 years," he said the winter meetings in December.

But once Pujols signed, it looked like Fielder's market had evaporated. ESPN's national baseball writer Buster Olney floated the idea Tuesday morning of Fielder accepting a one-year deal and going back on the market in more favorable conditions next winter. Speculation centered on the Dodgers — a franchise currently in bankruptcy — entering the sweepstakes. A fake Twitter account that misspelled Jon Heyman's name spread a fake report that Washington had signed Fielder.

Then, 112 days into free agency, Scott Boras pulled the absolute greatest magic trick yet. Detroit, seemingly bidding against itself, signed Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million deal.

That's not to say there wouldn't be people who would trade Howard's five-year, $125 million deal for Fielder's nine-year, $214 million pact. (Because there are, and they'd make a rational argument.) Howard's average annual value is the highest among the aforementioned first basemen. But his deal is also the shortest in length.

The Pujols and Fielder deals have/will be viewed favorably because we are talking about superstar sluggers. But the best analyses have come with the caveat that any long-term deal can turn ugly, especially when we are talking about decade-long contracts.

No doubt, five years and $125 million could prove to be an albatross the Phillies have difficulty shaking. Just because other teams signed rich deals doesn't devalue the fact the Phillies will pay Howard $25 million for each of the next five years. It's an expensive deal and Howard's decline in production serves as an ominous harbinger. Then again, without a Gray's Sports Almanac, we cannot talk in absolutes.

Ultimately, the Phillies picked the shortest term to invest their money. We will know in a decade, not today, whether that was wise.


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Matt Gelb Inquirer Staff Writer
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