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Is Signing Albert Pujols A Dumb Move?

Albert Pujols, the St. Louis Cardinals superstar (and longtime scourge of my own Cincinnati Reds), must be feeling pretty popular this week. On Monday, the Marlins reportedly offered him a ten-year contract worth over $200 million—enough, they hope, to peel him away from St. Louis, which offered him a nine-year contract worth $195 million at the start of last season. The Cardinals are scheduled to meet with Pujols today, and it’s likely they’re preparing for a bidding war. Is a decade-long investment in Pujols worth it?

Maybe not, according to a 2008 paper by two economists. Examining the phenomenon of “shirking,” in which a player underperforms because of guaranteed long-term job security, the authors found that “long-term fixed-salary contracts do provide a significant incentive to shirk.” This isn’t universally true, of course: Players who sign long-term contracts at a younger age “largely play up to expectations” because they will probably have to sign another contract at some point in their career. But for older players, the shirking effect is strong: “When we consider players who are not expected to sign a subsequent contract,” the authors report, “these incentives lead to a large and statistically significant reduction in performance compared to expectations.” That might be worth keeping in mind when negotiating with Pujols: At 31, he isn’t exactly a spring chicken.