10 Reasons the St. Louis Cardinals Were Smart to Let Albert Pujols Go
In 2009, U.S. News and World Report estimated there are 27 million general managers across all professional sports in the U.S., men (and women), who make a regular practice of assessing player talent, drafting said talent, and forming long-term strategies for their respective teams.
Of course, these are fantasy GMs but the point is made—the casual fan is a dying breed, and it is probably fair to say that Roger Goodell, Gary Bettman, David Stern, and Bud Selig would have it no other way. Interest in professional sports is higher than ever.
In that context, what a time to be a real GM in the globally-connected, instant-news, media-drenched world we live in, making real contract decisions with real implications for their organizations and fan base. A good draft sets your team up for the next five years. A bad contract assures your team is handcuffed, financially, for a decade.
No pressure, right?
The St. Louis Cardinals received a lot of criticism from analysts, columnists and baseball fans from all parts of the globe (and certainly from their own fan base) for how the historic Albert Pujols Free Agency Summit of 2011 went down.
Exactly how could they let a first ballot Hall-of-Famer walk away?
More to the point, how did the Cardinals even let things get to that point in first place? Some said the club should have re-signed him long ago, even before Ryan Howard signed his (still awful) 5-year $125 million extension with the Phillies.
Not one Pujols skeptic will lie to you and say they saw this coming—El Hombre batting .196 with just seven runs batted in the first 28 games for the Los Angeles Angels—but that doesn't mean there were not already many reasons for the Cardinals to say "adios" to their former cornerstone player.
Here are just ten of those reasons.
1. Pujols Was Already in Decline
When a dedicated adventurer summits Mount Everest, he or she will typically spend just 30 minutes enjoying the view at 29,000 feet and then descend, eventually returning to the base camp which sits 19,900 feet above sea level.
Mount McKinley, the United States' highest peak is barely taller than Everest's base camp at 20,320 feet.
This is what mere mortals like you and I (and Arte Moreno I'm guessing) see when we observe from afar Albert "The Machine" Pujols descending the peak and returning to base camp.
"Wow, is he still way up there?"
But decline is decline, my friends.
Yes, it is a bit gratuitous to include Pujols' 2012 stats here, but sometimes you just can't look away from a train wreck happening right before your eyes.
In 2008, at age 28, Pujols was clearly still in his peak and the numbers bore that out, but just two years later at the magical age of 30, his numbers began to decline. Last year, Albert did not reach a .300 batting mark (which not so long ago was assumed from Pujols) until September 16, less than two weeks before the end of the regular season.
And even more problematic, and perhaps indicative, was the steep drop in walks (61)—the lowest total of his illustrious career, leading to an ordinary on-base percentage of .366.
The Cardinals were not oblivious to this and signed 35-year-old Lance Berkman a full year before Pujols' free agency.
That move by Cardinals GM John Mozeliak became the catalyst to a championship season when Berkman was the Cardinals first-half MVP, All-Star, and finally named the National League Comeback Player of the Year.
As far as the Angels are concerned, even if Pujols recovers to have a decent season (.280-30-90) the showroom shine on their prize free-agent acquisition appears to have worn off as soon as it rolled off the used car lot.
Buyer's remorse, anyone?
2. Cardinals Had Talented Alternatives
First base is the current glamour position in baseball and became so during the PED era beginning in the early-to-mid-1990s. Traditionally, shortstop had held that title, but over time the first baseman has become the prime middle-of-the-order thumper on more teams more often than not.
In light of that, it is fascinating to see the massive contracts poured into first sackers that have all been, if not terrible wastes of money, terrible risks by their respective clubs.
Number one on the list is Mark Teixeira of the Yankees. While productive when actually hitting the ball, he only batted .248 last year with a pedestrian 2.9 WAR rating.
Ryan Howard's contract extension actually begins this year and he is yet to return from a heel injury suffered making the last out in the NLDS last year. And even before that stroke of bad luck, his batting average had declined in five straight years.
The good news for the Twins and patient Justin Morneau fans is that he already has as many home runs this year as he had all of last year. The bad news is that he is now sidelined with a sore wrist to add to his litany of injury woes.
The point is, there is one position in baseball that no organization should have few productive options for, at any level.
In St. Louis, the first base mantle has been passed to All-Star Lance Berkman (.301-31-94 in 2011) but if Big Puma can't be on the prowl, the Cardinals have World Series pinch-hit hero Allen Craig (.315-11-40 in 2011 in limited duty) ready in the wings.
Finally at Triple-A, slugger Matt Adams is quickly making a case for a late-season call-up. All Adams has done is bat at least .300 and slugged at least .523 at every stop in his still-emerging minor league career.
Regardless of salary, the Cards had more productive options than the aging Pujols.
3. Cardinals Were Able to Fill Multiple Needs
With Lance Berkman moving to the infield, the Cardinals had a vacancy in right field and already had an opening at shortstop as Rafael Furcal's agreement was complete. For less annually than Pujols received from the Angels, the Cards were able to sign a rejuvenated Carlos Beltran and re-sign Furcal to return at short.
Both have instantly been solid contributors despite the lengthy injury histories of both.
Furcal had terrible numbers in spring training, and wasn't very effective last year after coming over to St. Louis (his only highlight was hitting five home runs against Milwaukee for the Cards). But he's turning back the clock to 2008 and batting .330 with an on-base percentage around .400.
Beltran is playing up to his high-priced salary (.281-7-19) and with regular rest he should be able to provide the Cardinals with very good production all season. Beltran already has 1.0 WAR on the season and a 4.0 WAR year is entirely within reach.
4. Ten-Year Contracts Are Simply Insane
Honest Cardinal fans will admit they were actually more worried about Albert Pujols signing for ten years to remain in St. Louis than letting him walk. In his last year in St. Louis, two things became clear from the Pujols Camp—one, Albert wanted top dollar and two, he wanted a ten-year deal.
Cardinal ownership was already planning for that contingency, but they did blink briefly when they upped their deal to a 9-year, $198 million offer in January. Thankfully, Pujols was already insulted beyond reconciliation by the club's original five-year offer.
It was not all that long ago when a five-year guaranteed contract was considered irresponsible.
$100 million really doesn't buy what it used to.
Perhaps David Dombrowski, Jerry Dipoto, and Walt Jocketty never got the memo, but, Major League Baseball is testing players for amphetamines, steroids, HGH and many other pharmaceutical fountains of youth.
Just ask Ryan Braun...and see if his voice sounds higher than you last remember.
If these clubs were trying to emulate the Tampa Bay Rays and signed a core player to a contract that covered their age 21-30 seasons, that could almost be justifiable, and would also be far cheaper than giving a ten-year deal to an already established star.
Yet that is what's happening. Ten years is an eternity.
Sports dynasties come and go within ten years. That is two and half presidential terms. Entire global markets have crashed in less time.
Again, compared to a low-cost alternative at first base, these teams taking the plunge would be better off throwing themselves in prison for ten years because that is precisely what they are doing to their organizations—imprisoning them, held hostage by a deal for one player who is almost guaranteed to not give an equitable return on the investment.
And in Pujols' and Votto's case, the deals take them to or past age 40.
Perhaps the Reds hope the designated hitter rule is coming to the National League.
5. Better Team Chemistry
When the Cardinals' charmed 2011 season began with Lance Berkman in the fold, stories from local beat writers began to surface of a more relaxed clubhouse—more talking and less glaring from veteran players toward the young guys. The usually tight and cliquish clubhouse seemly changed overnight.
Fast forward to the end of 2011.
Lance Berkman was voted by his teammates as deserving of the Darryl Kile Award, given annually since 2003 to the Cardinal player who has earned the highest respect of his teammates.
Past winners include Mike Matheny (2003), Woody Williams (2004), Cal Eldred (2005), Chris Carpenter (2006), Russ Springer (2007), Adam Wainwright (2008), Skip Schumaker (2009) and Matt Holliday (2010).
It is somewhat telling, then, that Albert Pujols, whose stellar career has spanned the entire existence of this award, was never voted by his St. Louis teammates as deserving of it.
Draw your own conclusions.
6. Cardinals Can Keep Wainwright in the Nest
Outfielder J.D. Drew made up for years of frustrating, lackadaisical play and phantom injuries when he was traded by the Cardinals for a tall, lanky right-handed pitcher from the Atlanta Braves organization—Adam Wainwright.
All Wainwright has done in four full seasons is become a World Series hero as a rookie closer (2006) and finish third (2009) and second (2010) for the National League Cy Young Award.
Unlike whirling dervish Tim Lincecum, the 6'7", 230-pound Wainwright has the premium build and easy-throwing mechanics to be an All-Star pitcher for another five years.
With the great competitor Chris Carpenter nearing his twilight years, the Cardinals can lock up their new ace for five years to anchor the rotation into the second half of the decade.
I predict a new contract for Waino for 5-years, $105 million and it would not have been possible if Pujols had been re-signed.
7. Cardinals Don't Need Selfish Players
There is no question that Albert Pujols has been driven his entire career to be the best. But at times he seems to put personal achievements above the team.
Take the last week of 2011. After play on September 21, Pujols was batting .305 after a two-for-four day against the Mets (after going a perfect four-for-four the previous day). Pujols seemed in fine position to achieve yet another .300 season but he was sitting on 37 homers and 97 RBI.
Pujols seemed to press desperately in the last seven games in an attempt to reach 40 home runs and 100 RBIs. He produced a week full of pop-up, pop-flies, and weak grounders to third. He "helped" the Cardinals go just 4-3 as they barely sneaked into the postseason.
Over those last seven games, Pujols went 6 for 32 (.188) with 2 RBI, finishing at .299 with 99 runs batted in.
In his last couple years in St. Louis, Pujols also became notorious for running into outs on the base paths as well. And worst of all, after being a line-to-line slugger, he started pulling off pitches in every at bat, perhaps trying to generate some early bat speed to pull the ball into the cheap seats.
All that did is help Albert lead the NL in grounding into double plays.
8. Cardinals Did Keep Their MVP
Yadier Molina's transformation into the Cardinals most indispensable player was complete last year as he truly blossomed into an elite hitting talent at the backstop position.
Easily the best defensive catcher in baseball he for years had shown ability to hit for high average. Molina added serious thump to his already impressive resume by hitting 32 doubles and 14 home runs last season, his finest by far.
His slash line so far this year is proving last year's surge was no fluke (.296/.520.866).
The Cardinals clearly identified their most irreplaceable players and Albert Pujols was not one of them—Yadi most certainly was.
Yadier has shown incredible durability, brings intimidating defense, and is one of the smartest game-callers in baseball. By bringing middle-of-the-order production to the package, the Cardinals showed no hesitation in giving Molina a new 5-year, $75-million deal.
It's rather ironic that some were still critical of the deal that was "too long" and for "too many dollars."
Five years is still half as long as ten, last time we checked.
9. A Player's "Prime" Is Not What It Used to Be
It has always seemed odd to hear smart baseball people, scouts, or GMs talk about a player's prime as being between the ages of 28 and 32. Something just didn't seem right about that.
Advanced metrics have allowed us to compare far more data from across different eras of baseball on a somewhat level playing field. And on the whole we find that on average player performance begins to steeply decline at age 32.
Which begs the question—how smart is it to give massive money deals to star players based on past performance where the contracts essentially begin at the start of the players decline?
That was a rhetorical question, but you can answer quietly to yourself—it doesn't!
The thoughtful Joe Posnanski recently charted the best seasons based on the Wins Above Replacement metric and found that top player's peak ages are actually between 25 and 29.
Noticeable slippage occurs at age 30 and then really drops off at age 33. If Father Time always wins, how is this going to impact the Reds and Angels in the last seven years of their first basemen's contracts?
It's year one and Pujols is looking every bit of 32 years of age.
At least the Angels hope he's 32.
10. The Cardinals Are Thriving Without the Machine
There are franchises that are hated by many but respected by all. They always seem to combine talent, leadership, sometimes a little luck, and turn that mixture into championships.
The Detroit Red Wings come to mind, as do the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Yankees, certainly. And the Cardinals are right there with them.
Eleven championships, second only to the Yankees with more Hall of Famers enshrined than the Bronx Bombers, in fact.
St. Louis fans have their favorites, sure, but when it's all said and done, with the fans and with the organization alike, its all about the team win.
The Cardinals dropped two of three to the suddenly competitive Astros, yet the Cards still lead the majors in run differential. They are certainly relying on older talent this year more than usual, yet if a player goes down, there are other guys always ready to step up.
As Tony Cruz did last year when Molina was suspended.
As Lance Lynn is doing this year filling in for Chris Carpenter.
As Allen Craig will fill in for the injured Lance Berkman.
The Redbirds will keep rolling, perhaps to another World Series in 2012.