Mission Impossible IV: Signing Albert Pujols

A hitter’s swing doesn’t get any sweeter than this.

Unless you have been living on the moon for the last month, you know that Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals have been trying to hammer out a long-term contract extension.  Pujols, not wanting to be distracted by contract talks during the season, set a deadline of the first day of Spring Training to get a deal done.  After that, he said, he would not conduct any contract negotiations until the 2011 season had ended.  Well that day came and went with no deal struck between the two parties.  The Cardinals have refused to disclose the details of the offer they did make, but it is believed to be somewhere in the neighborhood of eight years and $200 million  There were also whispers that the contract would allow Pujols to acquire an ownership stake in the franchise once he retired, but that has not been confirmed.  However, it looks like whatever offer the Cardinals made, it wasn’t enough to entice Pujols.  And so we prepare for, possibly the most sought after free-agent since Alex Rodriguez, to hit the open market.

So the question becomes, is Albert Pujols worth the ten years and $300 million he is allegedly asking for?  Well, let’s take a look at the numbers.  Pujols average career line is below:

R H 2B HR RBI BB K AVG OBP SLG OPS
119 190 43 41 123 91 65 .331 .426 .624 1.050

 Wow.  Those numbers, to say the least, are staggering.  The guy AVERAGES an MVP season over his entire career.  Obviously the counting stats (HR, RBI et al) are fantastic.  But take a look to the right at the triple slash line: .331/.426/.624.  The guy gets on base nearly 43 percent of the time.  In baseball, arguably the most valuable offensive tool is the ability to NOT make an out.  This guy only makes an out about 57 percent of the time.  In a league where the average OBP in 2010 was .325, that is beyond great.  It’s otherworldly.  His .624 SLG% (’10 MLB average was .403) also indicates that when he hits the ball, he hits it hard.  Very hard.  His walks have actually increased later in his career as pitchers have started trying to pitch around him routinely.  To say the least, he’s a monster.  The type of hitter we haven’t seen since…

R H 2B HR RBI BB K AVG OBP SLG OPS
117 146 29 44 107 141 70 .317 .483 .684 1.167

 Those two stat lines look pretty similar right?  Lots of power, very good average, excellent OBP, big time SLG% and an excellent K/BB ratio.  Well that my friends is the average line of Barry Bonds over his first 12 years with the Giants.  Say what you will about the man, his alleged PED use and his callous personality, but the fact remains he was one of the most feared hitters, if not the most feared, in modern baseball.

So why do I make this comparison you ask?  Simple.  Because these types of dominant, game changing hitters, Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols being two of them, can make the rest of your lineup largely irrelevant.  Take a look at the lineup from the 2002 Giants squad that Bonds led to the World Series.  The only other name that jumps out at you is 2B Jeff Kent.  But even Kent’s production was largely the product of hitting behind Bonds and his ridiculous .582 OBP.  He made guys like C Benito Santiago, SS Rich Aurilia, 3B David Bell and RF Reggie Sanders look like competent hitters.  And if you take a look at those guys’ career numbers, they weren’t exactly world beaters when they weren’t playing in San Francisco with Mr. Bonds.

The same goes for Pujols in recent seasons.  He’s made offensively limited guys like OF Ryan Ludwick, C Yadier Molina, 2B/OF Skip Schumaker, OF Chris Duncan and OF (and former pitcher) Rick Ankiel look like competent (and in some cases good) hitters.  He’s the type of guy who pitchers consider walking with the bases empty.  That is the ultimate respect and one that only the greatest of the great receive.

So again, why is this all important?  Because the Cardinals main reasoning for not upping the ante to Pujols is that they won’t be able to fill out a solid roster around him with the remaining money they have laying around for payroll.  Let’s just say the Cards and Pujols settle on a yearly salary around $27.5 million (the exact midpoint between the $30 million Pujols is allegedly requesting and the $25 million that the Cards allegedly offered).  St. Louis’ 2010 payroll was just under $94 million (11th in MLB).  Clearly, this is not what you would call a “small market” franchise as they sit four spots above the mean.  This isn’t the Florida Marlins or Pittsburgh Pirates if you follow.  So assuming the Cardinals keep their future payroll around the same level, that leaves them with about $66.5 million per year to fill out the rest of the roster.  That’s plenty to fill the pitching staff and a lineup card that might as well be made up of young players and low-priced free-agents, as long as they are penciled in around Pujols.

So here is where I really have a problem with how the Cards have handled this whole situation.  It’s not like this snuck up on them.  They knew it was coming.  Imagine Cardinals GM John Mozeliak driving down the interstate last summer.  He looks to his right and sees one of those big green mileage signs.  The sign reads “Albert Pujols Free-Agency: 2 years, Matt Holliday Free-Agency: Next Exit”.  He knew this was coming last year.  And what was his first order of business?  Re-sign LF Matt Holliday.  Really?  Matt Holliday is a nice player, but he’s a complementary piece.  He’s not “the guy”.  He’s Jeff Kent to Pujols’ Barry Bonds.  He proved this in his time in Oakland.

Knowing he is not Brian Cashman, Theo Epstein or the GM of some other team with an unlimited budget, he should have made damn sure he had the financial bandwidth to re-sign Pujols before he even thought of throwing money at Holliday.  Instead, Mozeliak basically allowed himself to be backed into a corner by Holliday and his agent, Scott Boras, while no one other than the Mets (who eventually signed Jason Bay) was really legitimately bidding against them for the outfielder.  Mozeliak should have said, “Look we really want you back, but Albert is the best player in the game and we need to make sure we can lock him up first.”  Boom, done deal.  What if Holliday told them to go lick pavement, you ask?  So what?  The list of players who have experienced great seasons hitting behind or in front of Pujols is not a short one: Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, Ryan Ludwick, JD Drew, Edgar Renteria, Larry Walker and Holliday, among others.  They could have easily found another bat to replace him (Lance Berkman who they signed this offseason anyone?).

So here the Cardinals sit, ready to lose probably the greatest hitter of our generation to free-agency.  And what do they have to show for it?  Matt Holliday.  As the guys from the Guinness commercials would say, “Brilliant!”

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5 Responses to Mission Impossible IV: Signing Albert Pujols

  1. Josh Ferrari says:

    Love the article man, but I’ll play devil’s advocate to make it interesting. One thing we didn’t talk about was the fact that Albie is the ripe age of 31 at this point in his career. As we know, with age comes injuries, declining performance (which in Albert’s case would make him just a “great” player and not a “phenomenal” player), and the occasional early onset of Alzheimer’s. I agree with you 100% that the Card’s should have made Albert priority number one during the off season, but I can see where the ten year, $300 million dollar supposed request might have been a bit off putting.

    Let’s tackle the injury topic first. Albert may be one of the most healthy players in all of baseball up to this point in his career. He’s had 1 season where he hasn’t played in at least 150 games, and that season (2008) he played in 148! In baseball, where the season literally lasts longer than the Spanish-American war, injuries are a part of the game. Albert has managed to minimize them, and in my mind, there isn’t much cause for concern there.

    Lets talk next about declining performance. When we talk about old age in baseball, the most notable name in recent history is Julio Franco. During the years of 2002 – 2005, when Julio was 43-46 years old, he averaged 26 bombs and 160 RBI’s per season! And if we get into the triple slash line, we’re looking at averages of .291/.364/.426! It’s as if Julio put the sands of time back in the top half of the hour glass. And if it’s safe to compare Albert to Barry, when we compare Albert’s averages to Julio’s averages at the same age…there’s no contest. Using the logic that Albert is in just as good, if not better physical condition than Julio was, his longevity should play out nicely.

    It’s probably not necessary to bring up the Alzheimer’s argument, unless we want to throw out the idea that John Mozeliak may be experiencing some early warning signs. How you forget about the best player in baseball becoming a free agent, and the fact that you should prepare to shell out some dough to keep him a Cardinal is beyond me. John, it may be time to get evaluated my friend…

  2. Ross says:

    Well played sir. I will say that while the article is largely in favor of paying the man, I could whole heartedly understand if the Cards did not want to commit roughly a third of their payroll for the next decade to one player. I’m not so much against them not re-signing him, as I am against them not re-signing him because they are “tapped out financially”. Like I said, if they are going to sit here and say they don’t have the resources to bring him back at that price, then they should have thought of that before they gave Matt Holliday 7 years and $120 million. That contract will severly hamper their ability to bring back Albert and what good is Holliday without Albert? Without Pujols, this team is easily behind Cincy and Milwaukee in that division and possibly even behind the Cubs.

    Yes, injuries and performance decline become worries, but other than nagging elbow injuries for a few years, Pujols has never experienced a significant injury in his major league career. And as you said, even with the elbow, he still played full seasons. Unlike pitchers, hitters are not so predisposed to injury and loss of ability with age, so the length of the contract becomes more tolerable. He’s also the type of player who should age well, probably losing some bat speed at some point (which will decrease his power), but he should still hit for an excellent average with a ton of RBI’s and a great OBP.

    Figuring the sides meet somewhere in the middle, an 8 or 9 year deal at about the $27.5 mil per year ($220-247.5 total) I mentioned seems appropriate. And if the Holliday contract keeps that from happening, Mozeliak is going to go from being looked upon very favorably by his peers, to being the village idiot at the winter meetings next year.

  3. kevinjfisher says:

    this article is definitely better than Mission Impossible II and III.

  4. Bill says:

    Perhaps an even trade bringing Ryan Howard back to his hometown, would solve Mozeliak’s problem and give the Fightin’s the right hand bat they sorely need. Howard’s locked up at $20 mill in each of 2012 & 13 and $25 mill each for 2014-2016. The Cards can afford that. Of course we’ll need to unload Blanton and his $8.5 mill to convince Ruben and the Phillies brass to bite on this one.

  5. Ross says:

    You know, I knew Howard’s contract was bad, but I had no idea it was this bad. Not only does it include everything you mentioned above, but he has an option for $23 million in ’17 as well that has a $10 million buyout on it. Wow! That’s a minimum 6 years, $145 mil left on that deal. It’s contracts like this that make Pujols justified for requesting $30 mil per year.

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