Albert Pujols and Jim Hendry looked very friendly during batting practice prior to the first game between the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals this season, according to multiple reports. Naturally, that news has given a kick-start to dormant rumors about the possibility of the Cubs being actively interested when Pujols hits free agency this November.
On the surface, the possibility of Pujols and the Cubs having mutual interest looks more like an inevitability. Cubs first baseman Carlos Pena is under contract only through season's end. The Cubs have Kosuke Fukudome, Carlos Silva, John Grabow, Jeff Samardzija, Pena and either Ryan Dempster or Aramis Ramirez coming off their payroll at the end of the year.
As well, Pujols, who is seeking a contract to rival Alex Rodriguez's 2007 deal with the Yankees (10 years, $275 million), may not feel he can get his cash anywhere else.
Recently, though, a few creeping developments have given perfectly good cause for the Cubs to mitigate their interest. Hendry and Pujols may have looked very much interested in one another, but that does not mean the Cubs should put $240 million-plus on reserve to lock down Pujols. Let's take a closer look at the valuation process through which the Cubs will matriculate with regard to Pujols over the next few months.
The first set of considerations is the various components that make up Pujols' intrinsic value. Of those, the most important (and most stable) is his prowess at the plate.
Ostensibly, this is one of the top five players in baseball and perhaps the best all-around offensive force. Among active players, he ranks second in batting average, first in on-base percentage and first in slugging average.
That said, the start of this season will give the Cubs pause as they try to determine just how good a hitter Pujols really is at this stage. His .273/.343/.429 start would hardly be an unprecedentedly difficult stretch for most players, but in Pujols' case, there are real reasons for concern, if not alarm.
Several key indicators—walk rate, line-drive rate and others—have moved in the wrong direction. Pujols has swung and missed this season less often than ever before, but vexingly, he seems to have traded both power and sheer force in his swing for increased contact. He remains an elite hitter by projection, but at this point, there is rising uncertainty about his future at the plate.
For a half-decade, Pujols was the consensus best first baseman in baseball. His athleticism, though it never made him a good third baseman or left fielder, served Pujols well at first. It still does, but again, there are early signs of decline all around.
His UZR, an advanced and holistic defensive metric, fell to 1.5 runs saved in 2010 from a high of 24.7 runs saved in 2007.
It's well known that UZR, like all the defensive value statistics the baseball community has thus far created, can be susceptible to wild variation over a one- or even two-season sample. It would be incorrect to assume Pujols will continue this rapid degradation.
Still, the steady aging of those tools—his numbers were worse in 2010 than in 2009, worse then than in 2008, worse then than in 2007—suggests Pujols may be aging physically. If anything, his defensive woes confer more credibility upon his offensive struggles.
In this regard, Pujols remains a sure thing. He has never missed more than 20 games in a season, and he missed just five combined contests in 2009 and 2010.
It's hard to imagine he will keep up that pace into his late 30s or early 40s, but Pujols is not an injury risk on par with fellow iron man Prince Fielder, whose weight makes him a much less certain commodity.
If any one thing presents the most intimidating uncertainty in the Pujols sweepstakes, here it is. Pujols might be 31. That's his official age. Then again, he might be 32. He might be 33. He might well be 34. If that last is true, the downturn in his production since the start of 2010 is much more daunting than it appears.
Obviously, if Pujols really is pushing 35, a 10-year deal could be catastrophic for either the Cubs or Cardinals. Even an eight-year pact would be an iffy proposition. Heck, even if Pujols is 31, age is a meaningful consideration here. A 31-year-old first baseman whose defensive stats are in decline does not profile well for a long-term deal.
It's no secret: The Cubs' century-plus without a World Series title (and their six-plus decades without a pennant) has become a consumptive force, starving the organization of fan enthusiasm, revenue streams and general viability.
The malaise of the 1970s and '80s (the "Lovable Losers" era), the distraction of the 1990s (Sammy Sosa, Kerry Wood, et cetera) and the thrill of the 2000s (oh-so-close in 2003, 2007 and 2008) have given way to despondence and pessimism as the 2010s take shape.
The future is not without promise for the team, but the tone of Cubdom is muted. The situation is dire, even desperate. Times like these, not only in baseball organizations but in all organizations, cause moments of truth, cause turbulence, force the hand of those in power. That pressure might press the Cubs and Pujols together.
The relationship between Pujols and manager Tony La Russa has been a constant source of encouragement for Cardinals fans hoping the slugger will stay in St. Louis for the long term. Pujols has long venerated the veteran skipper, who has in turn supported Pujols at every turn.
This winter, though, there was the usual allowance of discussion about whether or not La Russa would return, and perhaps a bit extra. The time seems to be rapidly approaching when someone else will be in the dugout for St. Louis, and even if that would not chase Pujols away, it may be one of a few "push" factors guiding him away from the only organization he has ever known.
If the team decides to build around the red-hot Matt Holliday or elects to prioritize its thinning pitching staff, Pujols may not get anywhere near the offer he expects from his hometown team.
Who sets the market for Pujols? It sure seems like the idea of an Alex Rodriguez-caliber contract is off the table for now, since Pujols is at least 31 and his performance has followed a two-year downward trend.
Is Adrian Gonzalez's seven-year, $154 million deal the new baseline? More likely, Pujols would seek the $25 million per annum that Ryan Howard got from the Philadelphia Phillies last April, but over more than Howard's five years.
Prince Fielder could become a more prized commodity than Pujols by the time the two actually reach free agency, as he is (at least) four years Pujols' junior and a left-handed hitter.
One way or another, the market has to determine Pujols' value to some extent.
Cubs games at Wrigley Field became automatic sellouts from 2003-08, but by the middle of last year, the team started to see some backlash after two straight years of non-contention.
This year, the numbers are really down through 22 home dates, although admittedly part of the reason has been an uninviting schedule and even less inviting weather. Check out these average home attendance figures for the Cubs by season:
Three critical points follow from those data:
1. Cubs owner Tom Ricketts has made it clear he will run the team sensibly and on a budget, albeit an aggressive one, so any dip in revenue means a dip in payroll. Therefore, there must and will be a cap on what the Cubs can offer Pujols at current revenue levels.
2. Even at $25 million per year, Pujols could fit into a decreased payroll for 2012 with the newly streamlined Cubs.
3. Then again, Ricketts may believe Pujols could meaningfully boost attendance, thereby affirming the investment and maybe making it an even more important one than if the Cubs were already drawing 40,000-plus to the park every day.
Any long-term contract signed in the next few years must be planned and evaluated upon its signing, with a very complex context in mind: economic inflation.
Over the next several years, as our national economy naturally recovers from the setbacks of the past three, the United States is going to see inevitable price inflation throughout the economy.
This will grow out of increased demand as more and more Americans get back to work and therefore have new paychecks to spend; the anticipated actions of the federal government to stem the rising tide of our national debt; and general policies used by both governmental and private institutions to encourage economic growth during times when the natural inclination of hard-hit families is to squirrel away their money.
Consider the recently signed and much-maligned Ryan Braun contract extension with the Milwaukee Brewers. Braun signed on for five years and $105 million from 2016-2020, a contract that might seem outlandish. By the time 2016 arrives, though, it may well be that Braun's $21 million annual salary will look very affordable for an exceptionally talented hitter in a market that could well be paying that much for players more like Andre Ethier.
Therefore, any estimate on a deal locking up Pujols for the 2015 season or beyond (and it's hard to imagine he will settle for less than a six- or seven-year deal anyway) should factor in inflation of perhaps up to 10 percent. That number may seem gaudy, but it could be reality in the future baseball economy.
This is the point at which it becomes incumbent upon Hendry to meet with his entire brain trust, determine organizational strengths and weaknesses for the short- and long-term outlook and make a tough call: Are the Cubs a true contender in 2012?
Maybe. Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Matt Garza, Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner form a fair starting rotation, and the imminent arrival of prospect Trey McNutt could be both great insurance against injury and a terrific excuse to shop Zambrano, Dempster or Wells.
Starlin Castro is one offensive anchor. Brett Jackson, who should arrive as an everyday replacement for Fukudome by Opening Day 2012 at the latest, is another.
The team needs patches here and there but could seriously push the envelope in 2012 if it made a big-name acquisition. But Hendry must weigh the odds of success that year against the long-term prognosis.
Pujols is a much less sound investment than Fielder. The Cubs would be rolling the dice on one, two or three years of true elite productivity from Pujols. It would be a finite window, with taxing consequences for failure therein. It would be a gambit. Fielder would give the team a longer lens but a slightly smaller short-term bump.
Hendry and his scouting staff must decide how much they trust guys like McNutt, Jackson, TyRelle Harris, Robert Whitenack, Ryan Flaherty, Marquez Smith, Josh Vitters, D.J. LeMahieu, Matt Szczur and Hayden Simpson. Depending upon which ones they trust, and which they trust most, Pujols may or may not be the right man to pursue.
All things considered, then, what should the Cubs offer Pujols? One more slide!
I went over data from both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference to find the rough monetary worth of Pujols' projected on-field production over the lives of deals from five to 10 years in length. I used Bill James' Milestone tracker, as maintained on ESPN, to inform my projection of Pujols' career arc through his 30s.
I used comparable players by both similarity score and historical account to round out my projections, and I considered fiscal and economic factors, as well as strategic and emotional ones, from the Cubs' perspective.
Here is the step-by-step value compilation, with the final figure in bold at the bottom:
1. Projected Value, Batting Skills: $23.65 million per year
2. Projected Value, Fielding Skills: $-2.25 million per year
3. Durability (Concerns?): $1.00 million per year
4. Age Uncertainty: $-3.36 million per year
5. Value Added, Need to End Drought: $1.96 million per year
6. "Push" factors, St. Louis divergence: $-1.50 million per year
7. Market Value/Prince Fielder Scale-Setting: $-1.13 million per year
8. Attendance Incentives (Revenue Limitations?): $2.25 million per year
9. Inflation (Given as average, but indexed by year based on economic forecast): $2.06 million
10. Self-Evaluation: $0
Total Estimate: $22.68 million per year
Ideal Length: Six years
Total Value: $134.88 million
That will sound awfully low to some, but this was a math and economics question as I approached it, and neither math nor economics recommends long-term commitments to uncertain commodities with great raw value but little marginal value and a poor prognosis due to already being past their prime. Pujols is simply not as appealing an option for the Cubs (or really anyone, save perhaps the Cardinals) as Fielder in the derby to come this winter.