The Angels got their man. Albert Pujols could go down in history as the greatest hitter of all time—and into Cooperstown as an Angel. It all seems so strange. But the system worked—no one wants to say that this was a bad move in the long run for baseball. After all, isn't that what free agency is for—giving players the right to move where they want if someone is willing to pay them? The Angels won and the Cardinals lost—but there's more.
Are the Cardinals really committed to winning? How do they communicate this to their fanbase now? If someone is willing to pay more it could be said that the Cardinals just didn't want it enough. But what is it they want? A team payroll tied up in one player? Or a long term winning strategy?
Luckily St. Louis has a fanbase smart enough to know this. But a lot of other teams struggle conveying that they want to win, but they have to do it in a less than obvious way—through smart trades and player scouting.
St. Louis offered to pay $225 million over 10 years for Pujols (with a trade clause), a figure that many already considered to be too high for an aging player. Pujols grew increasingly frustrated that St. Louis wouldn't drop the trade clause, but why should they? It's not a sound strategy. Pujols is a once in a lifetime player, but you need 24 other players and a long view to make it work.
Does Miami even know what it's doing? They have two starting shortstops for opening day, neither want to move to third base. OK. Then there's the Pujols thing where they threw in a strong 10-year $220 million offer. This got everyone excited and next thing Angels owner Arte Moreno is reaching for his checkbook. No trade clause? Fine. Two-hundred and fifty-four million? No problem. This is fun.
Miami is like that guy at the blackjack table with money to burn, but he doesn't know how to play and it messes everyone else up. Is it fair? Sure. It might even be entertaining. You still want to punch him in the mouth.
After the LeBron James move from Cleveland to Miami, people have been talking about this in basketball all the time. Great players want to play in big markets, they want to be stars on the biggest stages possible. They want to make a big a splash as often as possible.
With the gravitational pull in basketball and baseball much stronger in large, coastal cities, what do the other 20 cities do to compete? Sure, you have teams like the Marlins who (used to) win by being lean and mean and smarter than other teams. You have teams like the Tampa Bay Rays celebrated for their player development and shrewd ownership.
But let's face it, you can't win the World Series if you don't make the playoffs, and postseason appearances are tilted heavily towards large-market teams. It was so expected that when Boston missed the cut they fired their manager.
It looks like Pujols would have left no matter what. But imagine if the Yankees or Red Sox had been involved? Would Pujols have made $300 million? Is Philadelphia's ridiculous contract to Ryan Howard—worth $25 million a year—to blame for overpaying Pujols? Why should Prince Fielder now get paid so much less?
The contracts handed out now are not based on future production during the contract, they are based as much on prior production which earns the signing team nothing (except ticket sales I guess). The Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies already have their premier first basemen, and so the thought was that the market favored the Cardinals. But all this really did was probably shave $50 million off of Pujols' contract offer—something ironic to me.
Those teams, and also now the Angels, can afford to throw money around. Teams like St. Louis have to be judicious and therefore lose talent even after they've discovered it.
I can't defend this with air-tight logic. I know players should be able to move and if a team wants to overpay for them, then that's fair as well in a free-market system. And yes, any one of us would do the same when talking about that kind of money. But the system doesn't seem to honor the fan at all, unless you live in a "big market" city with deep pockets. Then it's just a continuous stream of flashy high-priced talent.
To be a fan in St. Louis or Cleveland or other cities, you really have to be a fan of the organization itself and accept that the players who come in and leave are just commodities year after year. Still, this takes some of the fun out of it all. The game is enjoyed more when we care about the players. Sports marketing demands that we care, that we pain our faces, drink our beer and get passionate about it or go home.
This seems to work in the NFL where teams are competitive on a financial basis and therefore have equal chance of fielding an interesting and successful team. The system favors the league as a whole and therefore the fan.
In baseball, the system favors the individual player first, and ironically the fans lose.
I think it would have been intriguing had Pujols bucked the system and re-signed with St. Louis. He could have said to himself, the offer was more than fair. St. Louis has continually surrounded him with talent and given him a chance to win. I think he would have stood taller. But obviously I'm not surprised or even upset. He did what anyone would do. I did enjoy watching him play though.