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:
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…
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!”