Albert Pujols, mercenary

I’m a Royals fan living in St. Louis, so my perspective on Albert Pujols has always been that he’s the one who got away. He went to high school and college in Kansas City, but somehow Royals scouts overlooked him. The Cardinals signed him, and he became a once-in-a-generation player. Even if he never plays another game in the majors, he’s a lock for the Hall of Fame.

Fans loved him, because, well, who doesn’t like a guy who hits .299 with 37 home runs and 99 RBIs in the worst year of his career? He’s always been detached and distant, but St. Louisans will forgive that for wins and numbers. He talked about being a Cardinal for life, but then St. Louis woke up on Thursday morning, drove to work, and found out on the rush-hour radio that he was gone, signed to the Los Angeles California Angels of Anaheim, the Tikki Tikki Tembo Nosa Rembo Chari Bari Ruchi Pip Pen Pembo of baseball.

Such is the plight of midwestern teams. Midwestern teams can develop good players, but live in eternal fear of losing them to New York, Boston, or L.A. The Cardinals have been more immune to this than other teams, in part because of their ability to acquire players, get them to fall in love with the fans, then give a hometown discount to stay.

Everyone always assumed Albert Pujols would give some kind of discount to stay. Up until this week, we heard talk of wanting to be a Cardinal for life, so everyone assumed that somehow, some way, Pujols and the Cardinals would find some middle ground and get a deal done.

Then the Angels came along, slammed $250 million on the table, and Pujols waited all of 8 hours to accept it. I always figured it would take more than that to pry him out of St. Louis. But it didn’t.

Every great player has to make a decision at some point in his career. There are a handful of immortals who played their entire careers with one team. Names like Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Ernie Banks come to mind. They’re long since retired but they’ll forever be associated with one team. Free agency made that a lot more rare, but several players in more recent generations did the same thing, and you hear their names the same way. Cal Ripken, George Brett, Carl Yastrzemski, and Robin Yount are revered as much for playing with a single team as they are for their accomplishments on the field.

Some players become mercenaries, and it all works out for them. Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, and Paul Molitor come to mind right away. Molitor arguably was better after he left Milwaukee.

Some players leave and they’re never the same. Carl Crawford was last year’s free agent prize, and played like a quadruple-A player all year. Bruce Sutter left the Cardinals after the 1984 season for a bunch of Ted Turner’s money, for which he pitched parts of three unspectacular seasons. Bobby Bonilla was a superstar when he left the Pirates to become the highest-paid player in the game at age 29, and he had four more nice seasons, but was never an elite player again.

Historically, the odds are about 50-50. And if Albert Pujols needs surgery on his balky right elbow in a couple of years, the Cardinals and their fans would have been more understanding than the Angels and their fans. If a 40-year-old Pujols hits .240 with 20 home runs for the year–a very real possibility–the Cardinals would have been a whole lot more understanding. For the Angels, that’s an albatross. For the Cardinals, it’s the twilight of a great career. And the first time Pujols goes through a prolonged slump, he’s going to have to learn how to adjust to hearing boos for the first time in his career.

I think of George Brett. He had his last great year at age 37, winning his final batting title. He played three more years, but he was a replacement-level player at that point. The Royals kept him because he was George Brett. Perhaps another team would have let him hang on until he got to 3,000 hits. The Royals kept him a year beyond that 3,000th hit, and when he hung it up, it was his decision, not the team’s. Carl Yastrzemski played until age 43, basically as a replacement-level player from age 39 on. When you star for one team for 15 years or longer, you get the benefit of the doubt at the end. The manager keeps writing your name on the lineup card when anyone else putting up the same numbers would be sitting on the bench.

Now Pujols is just another player who had several great years for the Cardinals. He could have challenged Stan Musial for the title of Mr. Cardinal, but apparently $30 million is worth more than that to him. It would be to me, too, but I didn’t make $104 million the last 10 years like Pujols did. He should be set for life already, and if the 15% difference between the two offers on the table, in the long run, makes any noticeable difference, he’s doing something wrong.

In the long run, it’ll be better for the Cardinals. Outside of St. Louis, there’s always been some question of his age. During his rookie year, I remember some of the SABR-heads speculating that he was probably more like 23 or 24, rather than 21. Players generally start to decline at around age 33, which makes his drop-off the last two seasons seem suspicious. That was always taboo talk in St. Louis until Thursday. But even if he is 31, he probably only has 5-6 elite seasons left in him, and they may not necessarily be consecutive. Some years he’ll still be very good, but probably not the Pujols everyone is used to. At the end of the contract, he may not be a full-time player anymore.

And it’s generally better to spend $25 million on several players. A player like Pujols is worth more with players getting on base ahead of him and someone hitting behind him to protect him. For what Pujols would have cost (or less), the Cardinals could sign the best-available shortstop (Jimmy Rollins), best-available second baseman (Kelly Johnson), and an outfielder like Carlos Beltran or Michael Cuddyer and have a team with no big holes in the lineup. None of those players are Albert Pujols, but that trio can beat opposing teams in more ways than Pujols on his own can, and none are likely to require a 10-year deal to get it done. That way, the Cardinals aren’t hamstrung by giving $25 million a year to a 41-year-old player whose contributions barely justify a roster spot. Rollins and Beltran at the top of the order, with Berkman and Holliday and Freese and Craig to drive them in will still score a lot of runs.

And while this means goodbye, this doesn’t necessarily have to mean fare thee well. It’s not unheard of for players to come back and finish their careers where they started. Hank Aaron didn’t leave Milwaukee; his team did. But at the end of his career, Aaron played two seasons for the Milwaukee Brewers. Babe Ruth finished his career in Boston. Ken Griffey Jr just finished his career, returning to the Seattle Mariners. It’s highly likely that the Angels won’t want to continue giving a roster spot to a 40-something Pujols and would be willing to swing a deal and eat some salary. And by 2020 or 2021, the wounds will be healed, making a reunion feasible.

But it won’t be the same. Maybe someday he’ll understand. Maybe it’ll still be during his playing career, or maybe it’ll be after he talks to George Brett or Robin Yount at his Hall of Fame induction.

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