The St. Louis Cardinals’ front office finds itself in a very tough spot heading into the offseason. In his first 11 seasons with the Cardinals, first baseman Albert Pujols has by most accounts already established himself as one of the top 2 players in franchise history, with Stan Musial being the other. In that sense, it’s really hard for management to let Pujols finish out his career in another uniform. We’re talking about one of the two best players in 120 years of Cardinals baseball. Then again, the Cardinals and their fans are accustomed to winning. It’s hard to believe the Cardinals can pay Pujols the type of money he’s reportedly asking for (more than $200 million for a contract of 8-10 years) and continue to field a competitive ball club. I think it’s fair to say that most Cardinals fans want Albert Pujols to stay, but Cardinal Nation better be careful what it wishes for.
Albert Pujols is past his prime – This is not an opinion, it’s simply fact. Pujols is going to turn 32 years old heading into next season, and his average has gradually declined each of the past 3 years. He hit .357 in 2008, and that has fallen all the way to .299 this season. His home run total and RBIs have also fallen each of the past 2 years, from 47/135 in 2009 to 37/99 in 2011.
But those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. The best indicator that Pujols is in decline is the simple fact that opposing pitchers no longer fear him the way they used to. From 2005 through 2010, Pujols average more than 100 walks per season, with more than 30 per season coming intentionally. In 2011, Pujols drew only 61 walks (just 15 intentional). Pujols also set a career high for groundballs… which mean fewer line drives, fewer fly balls, and fewer home runs. All those groundballs led to a career high 29 double plays, which nearly set a National League record.
So Cardinals management and fans have to ask themselves: If Pujols is putting up these kind of numbers when he was 31, what will his numbers look like when he’s 35… 37… 40? Will those numbers be worth roughly 23-30 million dollars per season? One thing to consider is that the Cardinals offered (and Pujols agreed to) a contract of $100 million for the past 8 seasons. Was he underpaid? Maybe, but that’s not really anyone’s problem other than Pujols. He agreed to it, and he gave the Cardinals some great production in his prime. Do the Cardinals owe it to him to pay him more while he’s in decline?
Do Cardinals fans want historic moments or championships? – To be clear, I do think the Cardinals can continue to contend with Pujols in the short term. His contract will not hinder the team’s chances at a title in 2012 especially, considering they’ll have basically all the critical players returning from the 2011 squad plus starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, who will return after missing all of last season with an elbow injury. But once the Cardinals get into the middle to late part of the decade, it could get ugly. If Pujols is re-signed, the Cardinals will have him and Matt Holliday making a combined $45-50 million dollars in their late 30s. That’s nearly half of the team’s payroll (the Cardinals’ ownership group likes to stay in the $110 million range) for those 2 players, and you’d still need 23 more (including 6 starting fielders and 5 starting pitchers). Fans will likely have to revert back to the late 1990s mentality of heading to the ballpark to see history… as Pujols will likely be chasing his 600th… and perhaps 700th home runs. Maybe fans would be ok with that, maybe they wouldn’t be, but it’s likely what they’ll get if Pujols stays a Cardinal for an astronomical amount.
What Happens to the “Next” Great Cardinals First baseman? – I don’t think it’s a stretch to make this blanket statement on behalf of Cardinals fans: For 7 years, $120 million, Matt Holliday has thus far not been worth it. Well, they’re just going to have to deal with it, because for the next 5 years, like it or not, he will be the everyday left fielder, and make roughly $17 million dollars per season doing so. Now consider that Allen Craig is not due a significant pay raise for at least 3 more years, and made all of $414,000 dollars last year. That’s it. While it’s still unclear whether or not Craig can make it as an everyday player in the big leagues, it would be a shame to lose such a great, young, and affordable player because there’s no room for him in the Cardinals’ lineup. The same could be said for the first base position down the road.
The Cardinals have already shipped away one of their most promising young first base prospects in Brett Wallace. Wallace was part of the trade that brought Matt Holliday to the Cardinals back in 2009. In limited action with the Astros, Wallace has not quite found his comfort zone in the big leagues, hitting just .248 with 7 home runs. Maybe he never will find it, who knows. The Cardinals current top prospect at first base is Matt Adams, who hit .300 with 32 HRs and 101 RBIs in just 115 games for Class AA Springfield last season. Is he the next great first base prospect? Who knows. What we do know is he’ll never make it to St. Louis if Pujols re-signs. Now, if you asked me right now whether in 2017 whether I’d prefer a 37 year old Albert Pujols making $30 million or a 28 year old Matt Adams (or someone else) making less than $5 million, in the interest of fielding a competitive team I’d probably take Adams or another up and coming player. BUT… that would mean the Cardinals wouldn’t have Pujols in 2012-2015 when he’d likely still be doing quite a bit of damage at the plate.
In a perfect world, the Cardinals would sign Pujols for 5 years, $150 million. Pujols would get the $30 million a year he’s reportedly after, and the Cardinals could revisit things in the 2016 offseason and resign Pujols for a less expensive contract. That contract would still likely be a massive overpayment on the Cardinals’ part, but it wouldn’t be quite as bad as it could be at the same rate for the 2017-2021 seasons.
But unfortunately, it’s not a perfect world. The Cardinals will likely either grossly overpay for Pujols, giving him a contract of 7-10 years and $200-$300 million… or… Pujols will leave and finish his career somewhere other than St. Louis. Neither of those two choices is ideal, but if you had to take one of them, which would you choose? It’s really a matter of your head versus your heart. Your head says “we’re overpaying him, it won’t be worth it” while your heart says “I’d hate to see him in Cubs blue.”
Only time will tell how Pujols contract will saga will play out, but until it does, be careful what you wish for.