Joe Halverson recently wrote a solid piece discussing how rumors of an Albert Pujols trade make no sense, much like those surrounded Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners. Mr. Halverson links the two players and explains why Albert Pujols will not be traded this season.
However, as a fan of baseball (not a Cardinals fan, nor of any team potentially linked to him in free agency this coming offseason) and someone who tries to look at the bigger picture of Major League Baseball, its economic climate and landscape, I am hear to dispute that.
Felix Hernandez will not be traded. There, I said it. He is the best pitcher in the American League, won’t turn 26 until the start of next season and is under contract and team control through the 2014 season.
For Seattle to trade King Felix, they would have to be completely overwhelmed in a trade—imagine two to three times the value Texas got for Mark Teixeira from Atlanta a few seasons ago.
But Felix Herandez and the Seattle Mariners are in a much different position than Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals.
First let’s start off with the simple explanation most fans give as to why Albert Pujols will not be traded: Pujols himself has publicly stated that he will veto any trade the Cardinals present him with. Therefore he is not going anywhere, will remain in a Cardinal uniform through the end of the season and then we’ll see what happens in free agency. So there’s really no point in this article, is there?
Well, there is. How many athletes with veto power—whether as a 10 and 5 player or its written into their contract—have stated “I won’t accept a trade anywhere” and then turn around do that very thing when it suits them?
Albert Pujols publicly stating he won’t accept any trade has little value until the Cardinals actually present him with a trade destination and he turns them down. Until then, it’s just mindless media chatter.
Why would the Cardinals considering dealing the game’s best player, their most popular attraction, and the best right-handed hitter the game has seen in decades?
For a number of reasons.
Before the St. Louis Cardinals—or any other professional sports team—are a baseball team, they are a business. The object of that business is not to win World Series and throw parades in the streets, but to put people in the stands, sell tickets, jerseys, beers and commercial spots or TV and radio broadcasts.
The object is to make money first; winning comes second. (This point is indisputable; anyone who wants to try claiming such and such team chose winning over making money and “lost” cash to try to do it—please come with facts, that is the actual financial accounting of said team, not just some speculative report in the media from a source that has as little access to the clubs inside financial information that you or I do).
Albert Pujols is an investment in that business and has paid off handsomely for the Cardinals. Their return is as good as it gets in professional sports. Pujols has been the game’s best hitter since Barry Bonds retired, won a batting title, a couple of home runs crowns, two gold gloves, been a major cog in two World Series runs and is among the offensive leaders in practically everything every year. And Pujols has been paid very generously for those services as well. He’s made over $100 million in his 11 brilliant seasons with the Cardinals.
Speculation is that Pujols will be looking to more than double that figure in his next contract, with the possible starting point in negotiations even triple that.
Can the St. Louis Cardinals, Major League Baseball or even Albert Pujols, himself, expect that a player turning 32 before the start of next season to be worth up to three times the amount of money he made the previous eleven seasons when he was younger and had less wear and tear on his body?
No, it is not realistic. Pujols is a tremendous player. He’s had one of the finest first 11 years of a career that baseball has ever seen. However, it can almost be written in stone that his next 10 or 11 seasons will not be nearly as productive, not when he’d pass the 35 and 40 year milestones during that time.
Paying Pujols $30 million dollars (or more) per season when he’s 30 years old, the most feared hitter in the game and constantly leading many offensive statistical categories can be seen as reasonable by many fans and teams. However, paying a player that amount at age 38 or 39 when he is a shell of his former self will be disturbing.
The St. Louis Cardinals are a first-class organization. Housed in a relatively small market they have been run profoundly well for decades, never far away from competing for championships nor disappointing a loyal fan-base. Why would a team so efficiently run risk investing upwards of $300 million in a player they know will not be as productive as the one they spent $100 million one from 2001-2011? They wouldn’t, and that’s most likely why contract extension talks broke down this spring.
Pujols has a number in mind, wants to get paid what he feels he’s worth and will get it—either from the Cardinals or someone else. Because in professional sports us fans must have learned by now that it’s not about loyalty to the fans, to teams or even about winning. It’s about the almighty dollar, and that is what drives both players and teams to make the choices they do.
Of course there are some exceptions, but they are few and far between. And never about enough money—percentage-wise anyway—to be taken seriously.
The Cardinals know they will not be able to keep Pujols after this season. Oh, they may very well be capable of affording his $30 million-plus annual salary as Joe Halverson pointed out. He has cited Forbes for income-related issues, and while they do not have full-access, nor 100 percent accuracy, to the clubs finances, it’s an excellent starting point.
His next contract may fit within their financial structure and they may still profit—cutting costs elsewhere, perhaps—but the investment makes no sense even if they can afford it. Giving Pujols the contract he speculatively wants is bad business, and the Cardinals are not likely to do it.
What choices does that leave? Rolling the dice, keeping Pujols through the end of the season, and then offering him arbitration and hoping to re-sign him at a rate they feel works for them? Getting a couple of draft picks if and when he signs with another team? Or trade him to a team that gives them more value than a potential draft pick(s) can?
Exploring trade options makes the most sense for the team. Yes, they are in first place in their division and playing well. A trade of their best player would signal waving a white flag and throwing in the towel on another season in which the Cardinals are among the game’s best.
However, even Tony LaRussa and upper management must realize that even if the Cardinals hold on and win their division, they simply do not have the pitching to compete with the game’s best teams in October.
With Kyle Lohse anchoring the rotation, they stack up unfavorably against the Phillies, Giants, Braves, Yankees, Red Sox, etc. More than likely they’d lose any series against the top teams in baseball and then have to watch Pujols walk away for only draft picks.
I’m not underrating draft picks here, either. They are a great way to build a franchise. Tampa Bay and Minnesota have shown what teams can do when equipped with ammunition in the June draft.
However, those teams spent many years drafting near the top of the board, something St. Louis is not used to, nor would get the chance to when and if Pujols signs with another team. The not so guarded secret is that when a Type-A free agent signs with another team, the team losing their player is not guaranteed a first round pick.
If the signing team picks in the top half of baseball’s annual draft, their slot is protected, and instead only give up a second-rounder, along with baseball kicking in a compensation round pick between the first and second rounds. There is a big difference between the 10th pick in the draft and the 35th pick.
When Tampa Bay and Minnesota began building their franchises, they did so with top of the round picks like David Price and Joe Mauer—each Top 5 selections. A team can get lucky in the draft—Pujols in the 13th round for instance—but those are few and far between.
Most of the game’s best players are picked in the top half of the draft, and the Cardinals will not receive a choice there. The Cubs are rumored to be the front-runners for Pujols’ services after this season and if they do sign him, the Cardinals will be given their second round selection, not their first. Two picks in the draft after 58 of the best 60 players are taken just doesn’t sound fair for a player of Pujols’ caliber, does it?
That is why exploring a trade for Pujols makes the most sense for the Cardinals. They will take a hit—both on the field and with their fans. However, St. Louis is probably the only city that could get away with dealing their best player. They have arguable the best and most loyal fan-base in sports and have the luxury of having a team that that is constantly in contention.
Trading Albert Pujols, while an unpopular choice, will only continue the winning ways St. Louis has exhibited in its long history in baseball. The haul they will ask for—and be able to get—will more than outplay what they will receive as draft picks when Pujols inevitably leaves next winter.
There will be many teams lining up to trade for Pujols, even if its just a two-month rental. The Giants, Braves, Marlins, Yankees, Rays or Indians come to mind. All are in contention, all are in need of an extra push to help them to a possible World Series championship. Why would they risk the potential windfall a World Series Championship can bring them by deciding to hold on to prospects who are just that—prospects that may never pan out.
Pujols may very well spend the season in St. Louis, they may win their division and shock baseball (again) and win another World Championship and Pujols is convinced to stay in the only major league city he’s ever played for.
He may very well mean it when he says he will veto any trade, and the Cardinals may mean it when they say they have no intention of trading him.
However, until the trading deadline comes and goes without Pujols being moved, clubs can be expected to call St. Louis and inquire about his availability—it behooves the Cardinals to at least listen. No one knows what will come of those conversations until they come to an end.
Then the baseball world will know whether or not Pujols will be a Cardinal the entire 2011 season.