Boston Red Sox GM Theo Epstein made a remark late last week that likely drew less attention than it deserved, especially as the world gears up for Albert Pujols to hit free agency after the 2011 season.
In discussing the tactics that helped Boston sign free-agent Carl Crawford in December—despite rumors that Crawford would go to the Angels—Epstein mentioned that Boston scouted Crawford exhaustively throughout "the last three, four months of the season at the ballpark, away from the ballpark."
That is a significant thing to admit, and although I confess to a lack of intimate knowledge about the behind-the-scenes world of big-league scouting, I cannot imagine that this level of scrutiny is within normal limits of scouting intensity. Epstein and his staff undertook that colossal task because they were very high on Crawford, and because they knew it would take a sizable commitment of both money and intangible incentives to lure him to Boston.
No player in the history of the game has demanded this kind of scrutiny on par with Pujols, whom every team would love to have. He has a very real chance at collecting the biggest contract in MLB history, and the highest per-year salary is all but assured. Five or more teams will make serious pushes to land him.
Therefore, it is time for Jim Hendry to take a page from Theo Epstein's book on player evaluation and free-agent diplomacy. The Cubs are, almost without a close second, the top potential bidders for Pujols' services in 2012 and beyond. If it comes down to the money, Pujols will—not might or should, but will—be wearing a Cubs uniform on Opening Day next spring.
If Pujols has other boxes on his checklist, though, the Cubs may have some obstacles to overcome. How seriously does Pujols take the rivalry between St. Louis and Chicago? Does he enjoy playing at Wrigley Field? Are there any specific players he'd like to team-up with?
Most important of all may be this question: How badly does Pujols want to win more World Series rings, and will his perception of a team's commitment to winning swing his decision? If it will, Hendry might need to demonstrate Chicago's willingness to get aggressive as soon as possible.
Extending Matt Garza could be a good idea in this scenario. If the team senses Pujols will have little patience for a potential rebuilding project, they should also exercise Aramis Ramirez's club option for 2012. Ramirez is aging and declining at third base, but he remains the best short-term option for the team unless prospect Josh Vitters breaks out in 2011 and proves himself big-league ready at the hot corner.
Should an organization really allow the preferences of a potential free-agent to dictate its decisions this way? In this case, absolutely. So long as the Cubs know what decisions will legitimiately help lure Pujols, they should act within reason to make their club as appealing as possible.
Chicago is not as down and out of a franchise as some believe: Its farm system remains ready to graduate two or three solid contributors by the start of 2012, even after trading for Garza.
They also have solid vets like Ryan Dempster, Carlos Marmol and Ramirez alongside young stars Starlin Castro, Tyler Colvin and Andrew Cashner. Add a very sturdy supporting cast composed of low-cost regulars Geovany Soto, Marlon Byrd and Kerry Wood, and this team looks ready to take a step forward.
In a vacuum, the Cubs are not merely one piece away from winning their first pennant in nearly 70 years.
Of course, Pujols doesn't amount to merely "one piece." He is a difference-maker, a game-changer and any other hyphenated cliche the reader chooses. He counts as two pieces at once. With the Phillies getting older faster than they are getting better and the Giants facing the specter of expenses exploding over the next two years, the Cubs could easily be the team with the inside track to a title in 2012.
Another factor makes the stakes extraordinarily high in the potential pursuit of Pujols, and it calls to mind another snippet from Epstein last week.
"We covered him as if we were privately investigating him," said Epstein of Crawford. Similarly, the Cubs—and any other would-be investors—need to delve deeply into Pujols' past.
For years, the whispers have floated around baseball that Pujols, whose listed age is 31, is actually two or three years older than his birth certificate indicates. Obviously, this is not uncommon among Dominican players. Vladimir Guerrero and Miguel Tejada are just two of many high-profile players whose ages proved inaccurate under greater scrutiny later in their careers.
The question of a player's true age may never have been this important, though. Pujols is in line for a record-breaking contract that will last until he's 40. If he is in fact 33 or 34, his aging profile for the life of that deal looks far less appealing.
Consider: Pujols hit .312/.414/.596. Those are elite offensive numbers, but they are the worst in every category for Pujols since 2007. At 31, that mild regression is nothing to worry about. At 34, though, it could signal the start of an unpredictable decline. Which is the truth? The answer is critical to valuing Pujols as a free agent, and the Cubs—along with other Pujols suitors—ought to have one or more hired hands to spend the next nine months in the Dominican Republic, searching for any evidence of Pujols' true age.
If all these proposed evaluation methods seem a bit extreme, it's because they are. But then, the investment Pujols will require is extreme, too. This is the new world of baseball, and to survive in it, no team can afford to be shy.