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The Slow, Painful Death of the First Base Mega-Deal

First ballot hall-of-famer and noted Lidge destroyer Albert Pujols ended his days in St. Louis on October 28, 2011 with World Series glory with the help of then normal age baseball player Nelson Cruz‘s outfield defense. Pujols would go on to sign a 240 million dollar contract with the Angels to definitely be their best player and certainly not be overshadowed by some guy from south Jersey who got less than 10 showcases, that’d be ridiculous. In any event, another one of the best first basemen in the game, Prince Fielder, would sign his own 214 million dollar contract with Detroit that same offseason to be the second best first baseman on his team behind Miguel Cabrera, more on him later. The Cincinnati Reds had their own MVP caliber first baseman at this point in Joey Votto, and after seeing Pujols and Fielder’s massive paydays, they paid a premium of 225 million to keep him in Cincinnati for another decade.

Now you may expect three guys on 700 million dollars of combined guaranteed money to maybe win some awards, maybe be pretty good at baseball, and who knows, maybe win a ring or two, these front offices certainly did. And in 2012, all 3 of them were pretty good at baseball, posting OPS numbers exceeding .850 with Votto’s OPS exceeding 1.000 in 111 games played. As for awards, all of them would receive MVP votes and Fielder won a Silver Slugger. Needless to say, all of these front offices probably felt pretty good about their mega-deals, after all, the Angels, Tigers, and Reds were all pretty good that year. However, there were a couple of drawbacks to two of these mega-deals despite the production, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols were overshadowed by the American League’s two best players, Miguel Cabrera and that guy from South Jersey who were locked in an MVP race for the ages. They were great, but getting paid that much to be the second best player on a team isn’t exactly a good look.

In 2013, all of these players got worse, with their OPS+ numbers dropping around 20 points, and at a position where hitting is everything, that’s alarming. It is worth noting however, that they were all still good, they were all still positive WAR, above average OPS+ guys who provided value to their team. Despite this, given the amount of money they were getting, these deals weren’t aging the best, especially considering that these contracts, especially Pujols’, were slated to increase as these players aged, so even if an organization got 6 good years out of a mega-deal, they still had to pay most of that money to an aging, sub-par player. It also didn’t help that Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera were still really good at baseball. Directly following the 2013 season, Detroit decided to trade Fielder for Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler. Maybe the Tigers wanted to dump the contract, maybe they just wanted a second baseman. In any event, the mega-deal was in new hands. Of course, the Tigers, having just committed to Miggy at first base, signed him to an eight year, 248 million dollar deal activating in 2016 to stick around. He rewarded them with yet another great season where he posted a solid .895 OPS, 5.1 rWAR season, all-star caliber, but human, unlike his absurd 2013 conquest of the league. As for the others, Votto got injured in what was already shaping up to be a subpar season by his standards, Pujols was solid (albeit nowhere near as good as he was with St. Louis), and Fielder regressed to league average offense with Texas, which isn’t exactly great for a guy who relies on offense to provide value to his team.

2015, much like 2012, was a great year for the first-base megadeal in that all four of the guys on these contracts were at least solid, above average offensive players, with Votto being elite, getting on base an absurd 46 percent of the time and placing third in that year’s MVP voting. In the midst of all this good baseball from highly paid first basemen were the Orioles and their own star first baseman Chris Davis, who was coming of a 2015 season where he hit 47 home runs and was worth 4.9 rWAR despite striking out 209 times that year. As such, the Orioles gave Chris Davis a seven year, 161 million dollar extension going into 2016, including some Bobby Bonilla-esque deferred money until 2037, a year where I’m fairly certain Davis will put up zero wins above replacement. Most of these guys continued to be solid, if not great in 2016, putting up similar numbers to 2015. However, tragedy struck for Prince Fielder that year, as in the midst of a bad season, he suffered a career ending neck surgery after 319 home runs, the same as his father.

For most of the guys who were left, 2017 is when things went from the edge of disaster to disaster, Pujols had an OPS+ of 80 as a first baseman and DH, if he was anyone else he would’ve been demoted or cut, but since he was Albert Pujols he got to start. Cabrera on the other hand was just slightly below average, the only problem, he made 28 million to be a negative WAR player on just the second season of his extension. Detroit only got one good season. Chris Davis found himself in a similar situation where he regressed to below replacement level baseball in the first year of a long, expensive contract, making over 21 million for negative value. It wasn’t all doom and gloom for these guys however, as Joey Votto was fantastic in 2017, hitting over .400 in the second half and nearly beating out 59 homer Giancarlo Stanton for the National League MVP. This performance was concerning, but in many cases shrugged off considering that all of the underperforming players were great in the past and that they would probably be great again. Despite the optimism, Pujols was still bad in 2018, and Chris Davis went from bad to worse with a season where he got on base just 24 percent of the time and had an OPS+ under 50. By the second year of a seven year deal, Davis had essentially become unstartable. However, before an injury, Miggy was raking, posting an electric .843 OPS by the standards of overpaid first basemen, but he didn’t play after mid-June. Even the seemingly ageless Votto regressed a bit as he went from being an MVP candidate in 2017 to merely an All-Star in 2018, not like that’s a bad thing, but it’s not a great sign of things to come.

By 2019, all of these deals with the exception of Davis’ were reaching their second halves, and things weren’t getting better. That year, Pujols found himself in the 35th percentile for xWOBA, Votto in the 63rd percentile, and Miggy in the 49th percentile. They were average and below average, and making tens of millions of dollars while doing it. While those may be bad, they don’t compare to Chris Davis landing in the 12th percentile for xWOBA and the 1st percentile for xBA as a qualified hitter. Despite a season of terrible play, the Orioles still brought him back out there enough to warrant being a qualified hitter. That is the baseball manifestation of the sunk cost fallacy and a damaging one at that. Even outside of Davis, this is the kind of production expected from a player on the brink of retirement that’s just kept as a starter for sentimental value, but all of these guys still had two seasons left on their deals at this point with no signs of improvement.

In the shortened 2020 season, Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera were miraculously around replacement level, albeit in an extremely small sample size. However, the main issues arise with Albert Pujols, whose OPS+ decreased to 77, with him somehow playing in most of the Angels’ 60 games despite this. As for Davis, he had a negative OPS+, and that’s not really supposed to happen, but in his 16 games, Chris Davis did, and then the Orioles finally pulled the plug. In 2021, Albert Pujols was in his last contract year with the Angels, and he probably wanted to stick around a retire with the team that gave him so much, monetarily that is. However, by May 6, with Jared Walsh and Shohei Ohtani taking playing time at DH and First Base, Pujols was cut. Pujols would then sign to be a bench bat for the Dodgers. Maybe it was to ring chase, maybe it was for convenience, but he’ll likely retire an Angel. As for Votto and Cabrera, they’re still okay enough to hold down a spot in the lineup, but both of them still have significant time left on their deals with no end to their regression in sight. Chris Davis is out for the season, but Baltimore won’t likely give him playing time ever again as their window will likely open as his contract expires. All in all, the first base mega-deal is dead, and it only took 5 players to kill it.

Sam Hicks-Jirkans

I'm a writer focusing mainly on the Cincinnati Reds and any player or set of players I find interesting. You can find me on Twitter at @sam_hicksj

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