In 2006, I was asked if I would trade Vladimir Guerrero for Albert Pujols straight up.
Guerrero, who was 31 at the time, had taken the American League by storm in 2004, earning MVP honors in his first year in the league. He followed it up by leading the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to the AL Championship Series in ‘05.
Pujols had just come off his own MVP season, his first of three in the National League. At age 26, he had hardly approached his prime.
I said no. Without considering age, I wanted to keep the player who fit into the Angels' system perfectly, who was established in both the field and the lineup, and the player who was more affordable.
At this year’s Winter Meetings, a similar question was posed to the Angels and their fans: Would you trade Kendrys Morales for Pujols?
It was a question no one asked, but the Angels were ready with their answer. They signed Pujols to a 10-year, $254 million contract. They acquired a veteran slugger to all but replace their current star.
Morales was 26 when he emerged from the shadows of Guerrero and Torii Hunter in 2009 to become the unquestioned leader of his team’s offense. He finished fifth in the MVP race that season and was deemed a perennial contender for years to come.
But a broken leg ended the promising start to his 2010 campaign, and a slow recovery combined with additional surgery ended Morales’s 2011 season before it even began.
The Angels were counting on Morales to return to the lineup last year. This time around, new General Manager Jerry Dipoto isn’t taking any chances.
His acquisition of Pujols is a clear reaction, perhaps even an overreaction, to the Angels’ power outage last season. The team’s lack of home runs, hits with runners in scoring position, and even productive outs helped drown out any fervor about a return to the postseason.
Morales, the once-crowned king of swing in Anaheim, never took the throne in 2011. Now, a prince has come to take his place. And the king, or at least his future with the Angels, may be dead.
The 10-year deal Pujols inked with the Angels includes a full no-trade clause, which means he’ll be around awhile. And his guaranteed $254 million ensures he won’t be moved off first base until it’s absolutely necessary. No team wants to pay a DH $25 million per year, no matter what his royal lineage may be.
For better or worse, Pujols is the Angels’ first baseman of the future.
Morales, meanwhile, is still in his prime, has yet to reach his full potential, and will be out from under team control after next season. A player in his position has no reason or aspiration to become a part-time player, i.e. a designated hitter. Baseball players are a prideful breed and injuries or not, Morales will want to be given the chance to build on his past achievements.
He can’t do that as a DH, and he certainly won’t have to with Scott Boras as his agent.
Boras is notorious for leading his high-profile clients to seek big bucks in free agency rather than accept potentially less money with team-friendly extensions. The notable exception to that rule is, of course, Morales’s teammate Jered Weaver, who signed a five-year, $86 million extension against Boras’s wishes.
You can bet Morales will not do the same.
Both he and the Angels front office are waiting on pins and needles to see if he can make any sort of return to play, albeit for entirely separate and purely selfish reasons. The Angels want his bat in the lineup in pursuit of their second World Series title; Morales wants to showcase his talents for prospective suitors next winter.
The future is still undecided though. Pujols has yet to don his halo and Morales is still waiting for approval to resume baseball activities. Much will ride on the two first basemen and their 2012 performances.
If, however, Pujols approaches the kind of production Dipoto and fans are counting on, and Morales returns to near-2009 form, the Angels may well have traded their rising star for a super nova about to collapse into a financial black hole.