The Final Pujols Piece

Okay, well... I guess I'll address the elephant in the room on my return to the Blitz.

To those telling me to appreciate everything Albert Pujols did as a St. Louis Cardinal and not be angry, I say, "Don't tell me how to feel!"  

Dude left for an extra $4 mil a year.  Exactly what he said he wouldn't do.  

I guess he meant an extra $4 mil wouldn't matter much, as long as he was making more than Ryan Howard.

Pujols is apparently insecure about his standing as the best hitter in the game, and felt the need to have a contract befitting of it.  A status symbol.  A fiscal validation of where he stands amongst his peers, even during tough economic times.  I'm sure he wanted some back money for his prime years he played under market value too, even if it meant leaving the comfy confines of St. Louis.

Pujols, and more so his agent -- sleaziest of the sleazy -- Dan Lazano, were very hung up on the 10-year and $200 mil markers as starting points in the negotiations.  It was never about what would be a great contract for Pujols, and something the Cardinals could afford, it was always about what Team Pujols wanted and a national news-making contract.  

It was never about finding a creative way to pay Pujols what he deserves while remaining in St. Louis. Therefore, I refuse to put any blame on the Cardinals front office.  And if he wanted a 10-year contract, moving to the AL was in his best interests. 

It's another reminder as a Cardinal fan, of the limitations a market like St. Louis faces when going up against the greater Los Angeles area.  These are the rare instances where a difference between a top-ten payroll and a top five comes to light.

For baseball as a whole I was hoping for a market correction.  This was a chance for a player viewed as the top hitter to get a contract that could help erase the Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Howard mistakes. Maybe it could have created a new ceiling.  A new bargaining chip for owners to point at, to say, "the best hitter makes $22 mil a year, and your guy isn't as good as him."

Though I'm sure that's just wishful thinking.  Agents would still write off the contract Pujols was offered by the Cardinals as "below market" or a "home town discount," and would have pointed at Pujols' age as the reason he didn't command the money their client deserved.

Arte Moreno made all that a moot point anyway.  An owner previously scorned by big-name free agents, whose condemnation of the out-of-control, MLB, free-agent market was obviously a sour-grapes rationalization of an owner who couldn't reel in the big fish.

In Pujols' defense

First of all, Pujols will really be turning 32 this January.  Unlike other Dominican or Latin-born players that were revealed to be older than their documentation suggests, Pujols is a U.S. citizen.  Passed with flying colors on the exam too.  

The documentation to get a work visa or green card is easier to fake.  But being approved by the United States government to become a citizen, who will quadruple check all inaccuracies or inconstancies in a player's route to the states, is much more difficult to do.

Also, Pujols was not signed in the Dominican.  He was already in the states.  He had no need to fake his age to get signed.  His family moved to the states when he was 14.  He could have faked his age to make sure he could have played high-school baseball and get a scholarship.  But I don't think so.  He could have been in high school at any age.  He didn't get much exposure in high school anyway, and attended a junior college.

Yes, I was burned by his word once.  But unfortunately the United States government couldn't investigate his word like it does an immigrant's documentation.  

Second of all, Albert will continue to be "The Great Pujols," as his former manager Tony LaRussa referred to him, for at least six or seven more years.  I'd expect him to hit .300 in a season five to six more times.  I'd expect him to hit 30+ HRs in six or seven more seasons.

Many have pointed to his three-year slide in production as signs of decline.  But if you watch all of his games like I have or look at the advanced metrics, you'll see an odd pattern that doesn't normally fit the problems of an aging player.  

Normally a great player in his mid-to late 30s maintains their walk ratio and plate discipline.  But that's what's declined the most with Albert recently.  He's swung at pitches out of the zone more often. 

Taking walks, not expanding the zone, being patient, and not trying to do too much have always been the keys to Pujols' success.  It's what gets him in trouble on the base paths as well.  

Plain and simply, he's been pressing to put up massive power numbers to get this massive contract.  He even sported a leg kick at points this year, which I've only seen him do before in a home run derby.  Now that this contract situation is over, he should be more patient at the plate.  Though he may press again early this coming season to prove himself to a new fan base. 

Pujols' baseball peers are a select group.  Players like Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Stan Musial are the players he truly compares to at this stage of his career.  

DiMaggio and Gehrig remained productive through age 35 before injuries and illness stopped them respectively.  Aaron, Musial, and Mays were productive through age 40.  Williams remained productive through age 39 and had a big bounce-back year at age 41. 

So the potential is there for Albert to remain very valuable to the Angels from ages 36 through 42.  But let’s not confuse valuable and productive with the gaudy numbers that deserve being paid $25+ mil per season.  Even the greats with whom Pujols production matches or exceeds right now, saw a decline in their power numbers and games played in their later years.

So Pujols will make the first six to seven years of this 10-year contract to seem worth it.  But boy will things get ugly at the end.  Those last three-four years could make things awkward for the new Angel in Anaheim, and he could find himself having to approve a trade to one of the teams on his list who can deal with is big salary.  The Yankees and Red Sox are of course the assumed destinations.

Moving forward

It still feels weird as a life-long Cardinals fan to know Albert Pujols will not be in the Redbirds' line up this year.  It's still surreal and hard to believe, and I'm just now moving past the angry stage.  

But in the short term the Cardinals can afford something they haven't been able to lately or in the future, and that's veteran depth right now.  It's a little to late for them to get involved in signing a big free agent from this year's bunch, but in the next season or two, I can seeing them signing a big-ticket player again.  

I don't expect them to spend $20 mil on one player.  Pujols was a special case.  But I would expect them to spend $17-$18 mil on one or more players, while staying within their $110 mil pay roll.

It's a new day for the Cardinals and Cards fans.  No more worrying about the biggest bat being pitched around, no more cloud of whether or not Pujols will be resigned, and no more surly star controlling the club house.  

It will be hard to replace the best bat in the game, but the Cardinals have a capable offense.  More importantly, they have a stockpile of major-league arms.  They've won with him, they've won with out him.  The latter is the new challenge ahead, and the Cards front office feels up for the challenge.

© Tim Fitzgerald 2011