TIP FOR PUJOLS, FIELDER: CHECK RON’S WAY

By Murray Chass

October 31, 2011

He just had the worst year of his 11-year career, he had 1 hit in 19 at-bats in six of the seven World Series games and he turns 32 years old in January.  Is this a free agent some team would want to sign, let alone sign for $200 million or more?Albert Pujols 225

Considering that he is Albert Pujols, yes, there are teams that will want to sign him now that he is a free agent, though not many because few teams feel they can afford the kind of contract Pujols will demand.

Pujols and fellow slugging first baseman Prince Fielder are the stars of this year’s class of free agents. Their off-season decisions are of unusually high interest because both players have spent their entire careers with their club, Pujols 11 years with the St. Louis Cardinals, Fielder six and a third years with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Neither player has publicly disclosed his intentions. Pujols has said nothing at all about his impending free agency since spring training, which he designated as a deadline for signing a new contract or cease talking about it until after the season. His silence on the subject extended as recently as the aftermath of the Cardinals’ World Series triumph over Texas Saturday night.

Fielder, on the other hand, provided a hint of his plans in a television interview during the playoffs earlier this month.

“I’m signed for this year, but being real about it, it is probably the last year,” Fielder told TBS.

Fielder, who is four years younger than Pujols, didn’t say where he would prefer to play, but there seems to be no doubt that he will change addresses before next season.

He has at least two reasons for doing so. The Brewers apparently aren’t prepared to pay what he would want to stay in Milwaukee, and his agent is Scott Boras, who in his free-agent negotiations takes no prisoners but takes every last dollar he can wring from a team desiring his client.

The Boras factor could become even more significant than usual in the Fielder negotiations. Given the size of his ego, Boras may try to get more for Fielder than Dan Lozano secures for Pujols. That’s not likely to happen, but it wouldn’t stop Boras from trying.

Fielder and Pujols both are expected to surpass the $180 million Boras gained for Mark Teixeira three years ago. Depending on the accuracy of the reports, the Cardinals might have offered Pujols $200 million for eight years last winter, but he rejected it.

The annual average of $25 million of that deal is what the Philadelphia Phillies gave their slugging first baseman Ryan Howard in a five-year contract extension, effective next season. Howard agreed to the new deal in April 2010.

Pujols has been reported to want to be the highest-paid player in history. Perhaps that’s why it has been written that he wants a $300 million contract since that would exceed the $275 million the New York Yankees gave Alex Rodriguez for 10 years when he opted out of his $252 million contract four years ago.

Pujols and the Cardinals were both in a difficult position before last week, but with the Cardinals’ winning the World Series, they are in an even trickier situation.

How can the Cardinals let Pujols leave after their second World Series triumph with him in six years? How can he walk away after the second World Series triumph in six years?

Prince Fielder 225Although the Brewers have won no World Series with Fielder, the same questions apply. How can he leave and how can they let him leave? Along with Ryan Braun, Fielder has the heart and soul of the Brewers.

Each player, of course, is entitled to get as much money as he can in a contract negotiation, especially as a free agent. Some players, however, let their egos – or their agents’ egos – get in the way of an intelligent decision.

One agent has stood out for not letting that happen. He is Ron Shapiro, a Baltimore lawyer, whose contracts for Kirby Puckett and Joe Mauer with Minnesota and Cal Ripken with Baltimore stand out for their unusual nature. All three stars could have gone elsewhere for more money but preferred to stay where they were.

It was not a coincidence that Shapiro was the agent for all three. Players choose agents for different reasons. Some choose Boras because they know he will get them every last dollar available. Those who opt for Shapiro know he will get them a fair deal, if not a bank buster.

Interestingly, when Rodriguez as a younger player was deciding on an agent, the two finalists in his consideration were Boras and Shapiro.

“I don’t begrudge anyone doing what they do by going into the market looking for the most money,” Shapiro said in a telephone interview, “My concern going in is that I come out with a good deal for my client. Maybe it was lucky I drew guys who truly appreciated where they were and just wanted to be treated fairly financially.”

Shapiro said that before he begins contract talks for anyone he explores what the player’s goals are in life. “We invest a lot preparation time before we get to the telephone,” he said. “Sometimes it takes an enormous amount of time to get to dialogue with the team.”

“Once they make clear to me what their goals are, including financial goals, I know what I’m dealing with,” he said. “It’s far more challenging to negotiate a deal for a client who doesn’t play the market than one who goes to market and lets people throw offers at you.”

Puckett, the Twins’ superstar center fielder, was the first notable Shapiro client to forgo free agency and stay home. He did it for a 5-year, $30 million contract, passing up the opportunity to earn an additional $1 million or more a year from the Boston Red Sox.

Ripken didn’t receive offers from other teams because no one believed he would leave the Orioles. He nevertheless got a 5-year contract for $32.5 million, which Shapiro recalled was briefly the largest contract up to that time.

“We started a year before free agency,” Shapiro recalled. “We worked on it for 333 days from start to finish. We wanted something close to market value.”

Mauer, the Twins’ ultra-talented catcher, was the most recent stay-at-home Shapiro client, agreeing to an 8-year, $184 million contract ($23 million a year) in April 2010, a season before he would be eligible for free agency. It was a stunning signing for the Twins and heralded a new era for them in their new park.

“Joe wanted to stay,” Shapiro said. “He ended up with up with a contract that was the biggest ever signed outside New York City. It was a negotiation over money but temporized by other values. It’s not ‘we’ll stay and take whatever you give us,’ but ‘we want to be treated fairly. We don’t need what bigger market teams might pay.’”

As a free agent last winter, Mauer might have reached $30 million a year. A catcher with his skills rarely appears. But he opted to stay at home – literally; he’s a St. Paul native – and decided that he could make it on $23 million a year.Ron Shapiro 225

“Joe said this is more than any catcher or anyone outside New York has made,” Shapiro related.

The agent pointed to additional benefits a player can gain by staying in one city. “With Cal,” he said, “look at the benefits he has derived from staying in Baltimore in business, the community, the city. Kirby, too. When he went down, look at the support he got.”

I asked Shapiro what advice he might give to a young agent about keeping a client in one city. “It would be tempting to wind up with the biggest contract’” the veteran agent said, “but roots in the community plus what you have could exceed the value of the contract.”

Some agents, Shapiro said, feel that by getting a client less money they might hurt their reputation “in the eyes of others by following that approach.” “They feel they generate business by getting big contracts,” he said. But, he added, “It worked for me and worked for my clients.”

Shapiro wanted to clear up one other matter, and that involved institutional pressure on agent to produce big contracts.

“It’s a common misnomer,” he said, “that the union pushes agents to get the most money. I never had pressure from the union to get more money.”

QUIET MCGWIRE WIELDS BIG STICK

Dave Duncan has been a pitching coach, most of the time Tony LaRussa’s pitching coach, for so long that there are probably few people in baseball who remember when he began in that role. There is, however, no better known coach in Major League Baseball than Duncan.

Mark McGwire Coach 225The team that LaRussa and Duncan directed to the World Series championship last week, though, has a coach whom little has been heard about. Mark McGwire served as the Cardinals’ hitting coach for the second season this year, and you would hardly know it.

Even though McGwire appeared in uniform for every one of the Cardinals’ 179 games this year, he seemed more like a registered member of the witness protection program. How someone so large can become invisible is as neat a trick as anyone can pull off.

In only two years on the job, McGwire has become as good at his job as Duncan is at his. For a guy who slugged 583 home runs, many of them apparently chemically aided, McGwire became a good hitter and a student of hitting.

He was reluctant to take the St. Louis job, concerned that his public presence every day would subject him to constant questions and ceaseless harassment about him and steroids. But LaRussa, who managed McGwire in Oakland and St. Louis, including the last four and a third seasons of his playing career, prevailed upon him to join his staff.

McGwire did and did not become a baseball spectacle. Rather, he became a productive member of LaRussa’s staff, passing on tips to young players and veterans alike that he learned in his study of hitting. LaRussa was wise for offering McGwire the job and urging him to take it, and McGwire was wise to accept.

WILL RANGERS RISE IN 2012?

World Series history has not been kind to the Texas Rangers’ franchise. In its 11 years in Washington, D.C., and its first 38 years in Texas, the franchise did not put a team in the World Series. In the last two years, however, the Rangers have played in the World Series.Josh Hamilton 225

But they lost both times, the second time last week when they squandered two opportunities to win in the most excruciating manner imaginable.

In the ninth inning of Game 6 and again in the 10th the Rangers were one out – one strike – from winning their first World Series. They never got the third strike or the third out, lost limply the next night and wound up as World Series loser for the second successive season.

The poor souls became the 10th team to lose two Series in a row. That the Rangers will have their hands full trying to get to the Series a third straight year is evident from history.

Only the first three teams that lost two consecutive Series made it back for a third Series in a row, and only one, the 1923 New York Yankees, won in their third straight attempt. The 1909 Detroit Tigers and the 1913 New York Giants lost yet again. The 1923 Yankees beat the Giants in six games for the first of their record 27 World Series titles.

In the wild-card, division-playoff era, the Rangers will find it difficult to return to the 2012 World Series. Maybe that one will have the Seattle Mariners and the Washington Nationals.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.