It's hard to look at Albert Pujols these days without asking, "Man, what the heck happened?"
The last time we saw Pujols in St. Louis Cardinals red, he was standing tall at the top of the baseball mountain after a 37-homer regular season that constituted a bad year. He was also celebrating the second World Series victory of his career, having helped the Cardinals beat the Texas Rangers with a 1.064 OPS in the seven games.
The man was a baseball god.
Less than two years later, we're looking at Pujols in Los Angeles Angels red and what we see is anything but a god. What we see is an albatross, not to mention the latest case study of how albatrosses come to be.
What he goes to show is that, shoot, it really doesn't take much.
What's happening to Pujols on the field isn't the result of some sinister conspiracy. He's old and beat up, and he's playing like a guy who's old and beat up.
The exact number varies depending on who you ask—and J.C. Bradbury of Baseball Prospectus and Mitchel Lichtman of Hardball Times are two good people to ask—but the conventional wisdom is that ballplayers peak around their late 20s, and that it's all downhill from there.
Pujols warned, in 2011 at the age of 31, that he wasn't going to be immune to this reality, and it's only become increasingly obvious since his arrival in Anaheim just how not immune to it he really is.
Even after he shrugged off a brutal start to finish strong, the 2012 season was still the worst of Pujols' career. After averaging a 1.037 OPS and 40 homers per year in his first 11 seasons, he could only manage an .859 OPS and 30 homers in his first season with the Angels.
This year, of course, has been worse. Pujols started the season strong with a .322/.431/.508 line through his first 16 games, but has since sunk to .169/.225/.310 over his last 17. He's grounded into more double plays (four) than he's hit home runs (three).
The pain hasn't helped. Pujols had knee surgery over the offseason and has been dealing with plantar fasciitis in his left foot from the get-go.
"I'm dying," he told Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times in late April. "It's hurting real bad."
An American League scout who spoke to Andy Martino of the New York Daily News put it bluntly: “He’s got bad wheels. I bet he doesn’t play more than 50 games at first this year.”
He may be right. The Angels have played 34 games, and Pujols has started at first base in only half of those. When he has played first base, he's posted a .616 OPS. When he's DH'd, he's posted an .828 OPS. The writing is on the wall that Pujols should be barred from first base until further notice.
Pujols isn't as broken as Alex Rodriguez, as the Angel at least still has two working hips and a pair of knees that have only undergone one surgery. But there's no denying that he's trending toward becoming a broken down shell of his former self, just as A-Rod is now with four full years still to go on his 10-year, $275 million contract.
The Angels may be wishing that Pujols' deal only had four years left on it. It has twice that many years remaining on it, and his is a back-loaded deal. The first four years (2012-15) the contract will pay him $75 million. The last four (2018-21) will pay $114 million.
So yeah, if you think Pujols is an albatross now, just wait until those four years come along. Not that it's going to be his fault, of course. It's not his fault now, mind you. I'm as distressed as anyone by his situation, but neither I nor anyone else can blame the guy for anything.
Pujols can't be scolded for getting old. He can't be scolded for getting hurt. And he certainly can't be scolded for being willing to sign a contract that guaranteed him $240 million. The only thing to scold is the process that resulted in Pujols' contract coming to fruition.
It was a two-sided process, with the Cardinals on one side doing things one way and the Angels on the other side doing things another way.
Brian Costa of the Wall Street Journal took a dive into the Cardinals' side of the process in an article posted earlier this week. Costa got Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak to admit that he was "down, depressed, disheartened" when Pujols signed with the Angels, but Mozeliak also highlighted how the Cardinals weren't as desperate to keep his star first baseman as the Angels were to steal him away. The story went a little something like this:
Mozeliak said several different contract structures were discussed in the final days of Pujols's free agency, but those proposals were never substantially better than that spring-training offer [reported to be worth over $200 million].
Two days before Pujols agreed to terms with the Angels, Mozeliak sent an email to Cardinals owner Bill Dewitt Jr. asking, in essence: Is it time to forget discipline and bid whatever it takes, given Pujols's importance to the franchise? But both men remained wary of committing so much to one player.
"In the end, it came down to business discipline versus emotionally driven negotiation," Mozeliak said.
As Costa pointed out, the Cardinals' discipline is paying off. Despite not having any big contracts at first base, Cardinals first basemen rank in the top five in MLB in both Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) and Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) since the start of 2012, according to FanGraphs.
Business discipline, meanwhile, is something that basically had no place in the Angels' decision to go as hard after Pujols as they did.
In an interview with GQ magazine last April, Angels owner Arte Moreno explained that the decision to go after Pujols had much to do with the club's new television contract: "We'd just signed an 18-plus-year [deal] through '30, we have no debt, and we have a payroll that gives us all the flexibility to make the decisions we want to make."
In other words: We suddenly had a ton of money on our hands, so why the heck not? That's fine, but vast sums of money are still best served being invested in players, and that's not really what Moreno did. Here's a telling quote from Moreno:
We had done homework on the type of person he was, you know a family guy, and where he was from, etc., etc. So I asked Dan [Lozano, Pujols's agent] if my wife and I could get on the phone with the player and his wife, if they were available.
And why was it important for Moreno's own wife to be a part of the conversation?
I think I had read a lot of the decisions they made were made together, with their family, with their four kids. And I knew that they met in Kansas City, and I had met my wife in Kansas City, and my wife had grown up in Kansas, and his wife was born and raised in Kansas City, and he went to high school there. And I just felt that there was a connection. So it was important for me to help them to understand how important community involvement was for us and that we really work hard to make sure this is a family environment.
Moreno's overture had the desired effect.
"What he made me feel in those phone calls I had with him was how bad he wanted me," Pujols told Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com in 2011. He added: "I'm like, 'How about this guy? I don't even know him.' And when I made that decision, he told me that I was his partner, and that means a lot."
Dan Lozano hit the nail on the head: "I think he was just able to touch a part in Albert's heart that not a lot of other people were able to get to."
What the Cardinals were concerned about was exactly how much they were willing to invest in Albert Pujols, the baseball player. Based on Moreno's approach to the situation, he was at least as concerned (if not more) with how much he was willing to invest in Albert Pujols, the person.
Somebody was going to pay Pujols eventually, of course. He would have gotten his $200 million contract one way or another, and nothing would have stopped him from slipping into the downward spiral that he's caught in now.
But once again, it's hard to ignore the parallels between Pujols and A-Rod (in this case) how both their contracts came to be. Moreno is very much responsible for the Pujols signing, as he took precedent over his baseball people to get it done (Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports wagged his finger at Moreno for this last month).
When A-Rod opted out of his contract with the New York Yankees in 2007, Bill Madden of the New York Daily News wrote that it was to general manager Brian Cashman's "great relief." But a few weeks later, Hank Steinbrenner went over the baseball people and gave A-Rod his monster contract to make sure he didn't get away, as told by Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News.
Going over the baseball people isn't a good idea. They know baseball, after all, and they know that stars are defined not by their names but by their numbers, from their batting averages to their ages.
The Yankees invested in a name when A-Rod was re-signed, and they're paying for it. The Angels did the same thing with Pujols, and they're only beginning to pay for it. This is how albatross contracts happen. All it takes is the influence of Father Time and a bold choice where there should have been a measured choice.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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