Yes, at this point Albert Pujols deserves to be the highest-paid player in Major League Baseball.
On the other hand, it is not the fault of Pujols' employers, the St. Louis Cardinals, that the current titleholder in the salary category has a history of being overpaid.
What matters to those of us who watch the game could be on-base percentage, slugging percentage or, more recently, Wins Above Replacement. But what matters in the world of player compensation is "average annual yield."
If you're Pujols, and you have reason to believe that you are the best all-around player in baseball, then you want to be paid as the best. That means getting more money, by one measurement or another, than Alex Rodriguez, third baseman of the New York Yankees.
And this means, of course, that the Cardinals are being asked to pay a New York salary with St. Louis money. The Cardinals can compete well above their market size, in part because their ultra-loyal fan base lifts that level. But they, like 28 other franchises, are not the Yankees when it comes to generating enormous revenues.
Pujols' current eight-year, $111-million contract, which now seems like a complete bargain for the Cardinals, expires at the end of the 2011 season. The Pujols side of this discussion has asked for a deadline of the beginning of Spring Training to get a new deal done. That will add a certain element of suspense to the next few weeks. From the standpoint of Cardinals fans, the notion of Pujols going free-agent at the end of this season, and then possibly going elsewhere, is unthinkable.
The problem started, not only for the Cardinals, but for all 30 Major League franchises, when the Texas Rangers gave Rodriguez a 10-year, $252-million deal prior to the 2001 season. That was a previous ownership in Texas. Part of the thought was that the more A-Rod was paid, the more people would want to see him play. He would be sort of a baseball tourist attraction, like an ancient pyramid or a fabulous palace.
Nope. When that previous Texas ownership found itself in bankruptcy court last summer, court documents indicated that one of the prominent people to whom millions were still owed was, gee whiz, Rodriguez.
But the Yankees subsequently upped the ante even further with a 10-year, $275-million deal for A-Rod. That sets the bar for both contract total and average per year, in this case $27.5 million.
Now, over in the American League, Twins catcher Joe Mauer had the best year of his life in 2009, and was the AL MVP. A terrific young catcher, a three-time batting champion, and a St. Paul native, some people thought that Mauer could "ask for A-Rod money." Instead, Mauer asked for Mark Teixeira money. And he got it, $184 million over eight years. He is a local hero in the Twin Cities, because he is a great player, but also because his contract is viewed as less stratospheric than it could have been.
But Pujols has a run-production track record that is beyond duplication in the current generation of players. Rodriguez had mammoth seasons in the past, but his production is now trending downwards. His admission that he took performance-enhancing drugs while playing for the Rangers does nothing to elevate his relative status. Pujols, meanwhile, is at the peak of his powers, and he has made himself into a Gold Glove defender. As we speak, there is no better player in baseball than Pujols.
Both sides of the Pujols negotiation have done an admirable job of keeping the actual figures out of the public eye, even with all this money at stake. Still, a journalistic consensus has formed around some numbers.
It is thought that Pujols is seeking roughly $28-30 million per year, an amount which would, of course, exceed A-Rod's annual take. It is also thought that the Cardinals do not want a contract any longer than seven years, because Pujols will be 32 when the new contract begins.
If we allow these goals to meet roughly in the middle and award Pujols a deal that averages $28 million per year over seven years, we get a contract that would make him the highest-paid player ever on an annual basis. But it would leave him far short of the total $275 million package that A-Rod has.
What if Albert wants both, the biggest annual yield, and the largest total compensation? It is easy enough for the rest of us to say that he shouldn't want that much, especially since he is playing for the Cardinals and not the Yankees.
Recent external events have not hurt the Pujols cause. Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers just signed a $15.5-million deal for 2011. Fielder is a first baseman with a lot of pop, but he is not the all-around hitter, nor the defender, that Pujols is.
One year ago, the Cardinals gave a seven-year, $120-million deal to Matt Holliday -- again a talented hitter, but not remotely a player of Pujols' overall caliber.
Would a $196-million, seven-year deal represent a hometown discount? To the rest of us, of course, those numbers are from a different galaxy. But the rest of us do not see A-Rod's money as the standard by which a contract might, unfortunately, be judged.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.