Does Albert Pujols Need to Face DH Reality to Avoid an A-Rod Contract Repeat?

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Does Albert Pujols Need to Face DH Reality to Avoid an A-Rod Contract Repeat?
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Angels signed up for a 10-year commitment worth $240 million to bring Albert Pujols aboard in December 2011. Based on how the first year went, there's a pretty big question mark looming over the next nine years of the agreement.

There are also dark clouds, for the Angels are surely aware that the only other 10-year, $200-plus million contract in baseball has turned into a total disaster. They should fear the possibility of Pujols going the way of Alex Rodriguez, the New York Yankees' $275 million albatross.

Relax. Pujols isn't going to become like A-Rod off the field, where Rodriguez is a magnet for negative buzz. He could easily become like A-Rod on the field, though, as Rodriguez is not the first player in history to be rendered a shell of his former self by old age and wear and tear.

There's one way the Angels and Pujols can at least try to avoid an unwanted A-Rod transformation: regular action for Pujols in the DH spot.

Given the circumstances, it should happen. And sooner rather than later to boot.

Pujols didn't have a bad season in 2012 by traditional standards. A .285/.343/.516 slash line with 30 homers is excellent for most guys. Most guys, however, aren't Albert Pujols, who already ranks among the greatest right-handed hitters ever. For him, those numbers look like a warning sign.

Another warning sign is the state of Pujols' body. He had knee surgery over the offseason and is now dealing with plantar fasciitis in his left foot, according to Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times.

Pujols' body isn't totally broken yet, but it's clearly not as strong as it used to be. To this end, the DH spot can offer some refuge.

For now, the man himself is open to the idea, but also skeptical.

Norm Hall/Getty Images
Pujols isn't really "old" yet, but he's certainly not getting any younger.

"I'm too young to be a DH,'' Pujols told Bob Nightengale of USA Today. "But if I have to do it, I have to do it. I just want to be in that lineup and help this organization to win. This is not me. This is about our ballclub, and to help this ballclub to win. If I'm limited to play the first two to three weeks of the season, I'll DH."

What Pujols should be asking himself isn't whether he's too young to be a DH. He should be asking himself whether he's too old to be an elite everyday first baseman. He's apparently not ready to do that yet, telling Nightengale that he's ready to play first on Opening Day.

"I feel like I could play nine innings right now,'' Pujols said. "I felt great, just like I was expecting to be.''

Pujols may be thinking that everything is going to proceed as normal in 2013. He'll be a relative mainstay at first base, he'll hit his usual 30 or so bombs and he'll compile at least a respectable OPS.

At his age, this would be a rare feat.

Pujols is heading into his age-33 season off a season that saw him make 118 starts in 154 games at first base, roughly 77 percent of his total starts. The list of guys who have started at least 75 percent of 150 or more games at first base at the age of 33 is pretty short, and it gets even shorter once you go looking for first basemen who put up 30 bombs and at least an .850 OPS.

Courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com:

Player Year GP HR OPS
Rafael Palmeiro 1998 162 43 .945
Jeff Bagwell 2001 161 39 .966
Mark McGwire 1997 156 58 1.039
Lou Gehrig 1936 155 49 1.174
Joe Adcock 1961 152 35 .861

A fine collection of players, to be sure, but the shortness of this list goes to show that what Pujols is looking to do in 2013 is not very common.

Not that Pujols should be too worried. He's an all-time great, and it bodes well for him that he played so well in the last four-and-a-half months of the 2012 regular season. He has it in him to become the next slugging first baseman to do just fine in his age-33 season.

But what the guys in the above table did in their age-33 seasons isn't the only thing Pujols should be mindful of. He should also be mindful of what they did after their age-33 seasons, which is not encouraging.

Pujols is under contract through his age-41 season, at which point he'll be on the books for $30 million (see Cot's Baseball Contracts). Excepting Lou Gehrig, who had a darn good excuse to call it quits when he did in 1939, none of the five guys in the above table made it as far as the age of 41.

Rafael Palmeiro came close by playing through his age-40 season in 2005, but he only played in 110 games and hit 18 homers that year. Besides, we know from his steroid suspension in 2005 and assorted other controversies that he probably didn't enjoy such a long career naturally.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Bagwell through his age-33 season: .969 OPS. Afterwards: .878 OPS.

Jeff Bagwell was also done by 2005, playing in only 39 games that year and hitting only three homers. He was only 37.

Mark McGwire, who has admitted to augmenting his career with steroids, was also done by the time he was 37 in 2001. He played in a total of 186 games in his last two seasons.

Joe Adcock played until he was 38 in 1966. By then, he had averaged only 108 games played over the previous five seasons. His age-33 season in 1961 was the last time he played in over 150 games.

All this is a reminder of one of baseball's most inconvenient truths: Ballplayers don't age well. Studies carried out by the likes of Mitchel Lichtman for Hardball Times and by J.C. Bradbury for Baseball Prospectus have shown that ballplayers peak somewhere between the ages of 27 and 30 at the latest. Pujols is already a couple years past that, and the writing is on the wall that he's not aging well.

The Angels and Pujols can either stay the course and hope that Pujols ages like Derek Jeter, or they can fear that the worst will happen based on what happened to the four guys referenced above and, of course, A-Rod.

Rodriguez is five years into the 10-year contract he signed after his age-31 season in 2007, and it's clear that his best days are behind him. Given the rate his body is crumbling and his numbers are declining, A-Rod's going to be lucky if he's still able to play in the last year of his contract in 2017.

And right about now, the Yankees should be wondering if maybe they should have started moving Rodriguez away from third base toward a role as a full-time DH several years ago. 

Take a look at A-Rod's workload and corresponding numbers from the last five seasons.

Year Age GP Starts at 3B % of GS at 3B OPS HR
2008 32 138 131 95 .965 35
2009 33 124 113 91 .933 30
2010 34 137 122 89 .847 30
2011 35 99 87 88 .823 16
2012 36 122 81 66 .783 18

In the seven years leading up to the 2008 season, A-Rod had played in at least 150 games every year. The injuries started to come in 2008 and kept coming between 2009 and 2011, yet the Yankees still kept playing him at third base on a full-time basis whenever they could.

His health didn't get better. Neither did his numbers. And now that A-Rod has not one, but two surgically-repaired hips, he's very likely damaged goods.

The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports
Says it all.

Based on what A-Rod did as a DH in 2012, it would have been worth the Yankees' while to have him DH more often between 2008 and 2011. Rodriguez DH'd 38 times last year and compiled a .307/.371/.467 slash line in those games. He managed a mere .258/.348/.416 slash line in his 81 games as a third baseman.

Hindsight can't help the Yankees now, but it could help the Angels. Based on how A-Rod reacted to regular action in the field as he got deeper into his 30s and how he took to DH duty in 2012, a DH experiment involving Pujols now rather than later should strike the Angels as a good idea.

Granted, Pujols himself seems to be on the fence about the idea, and understandably so given his track record as a DH. The DH spot hasn't tended to agree with him.

Pujols owns just a career .826 OPS as a DH, compared to a 1.026 OPS in his career as a first basemen. Most of his DH experience came in 2012, and it wasn't encouraging. In 34 games, he compiled a .246/.299/.433 slash line with only four home runs.

But for what it's worth, Pujols has spent most of spring training as a DH and has compiled a 1.011 OPS against what Baseball-Reference.com has measured as pretty strong competition. He also told Nightengale that he talked with Boston Red Sox DH David Ortiz about the nuances of the position and said he learned a thing or two about the special preparation that comes with the territory.

"It's definitely different," said Pujols. "It's not something your body is used to. I train my body to be on the field all of the time. When you try to teach your body something different, it's tough.''

Being the professional that he is, Pujols would presumably commit himself to mastering the DH position if the Angels were to outline a plan for him to play the position more often both in 2013 and in the years to come. It helps that they can reassure him that first base would be in good hands, as the Angels can play Mark Trumbo at first when Pujols is DHing

Is it time to start moving Albert Pujols away from first base?

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Before you object on the grounds that Trumbo's defense is lousy, know that he's actually a pretty good defensive first basemen. Per FanGraphs, Trumbo posted a 5.7 UZR and nine Defensive Runs Saved when he saw regular action at first base in 2011. 

There's another thing about Trumbo: He's not going anywhere anytime soon. He won't be eligible for arbitration until after this season, and he doesn't hit free agency until after 2016. The Angels can thus platoon him and Pujols between first base and DH for at least the next four years.

So based on what happened to the first basemen we looked at and what happened to A-Rod, trying to prolong Pujols' career with regular DH action is worth a shot. Based on Trumbo's presence and contract status, prolonging Pujols' career with regular DH action is also a practical idea.

Here's what it boils down to. The Angels and Pujols can be bold and choose to change nothing, and then hope for the best. Or they can err on the side of caution and start getting Pujols used to regular action at DH.

If he takes to it, then the next nine years and $228 million won't be a total waste.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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