Former St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols is now a member of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He says it is a matter of the heart, but all signs point to dollars.
Today, I have been asked many times already – here, phone, email, on the radio and even at the dinner table – for my feelings about the Albert Pujols defection to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
I wish I knew more. I want to know more. (“Know” versus being dependent on media reports, sourced from people who may have biases.) Yet the reality is that all the facts may never become clear and even if we had them, we wouldn’t know it, perhaps remaining forever skeptical. So we deal with what we have and try to sort through it.
This is a day during which many St. Louis Cardinals followers are blowing off a lot of steam over what happened. My perception is that more are unhappy with the player than his ex-team, though there are plenty in each camp.
The anti-Pujols sentiment is fueled by the perception that he went for the top dollar, while turning against his stated interest to remain a Cardinal for life.
The reports say $254 million over ten years. On one hand, it could be as much as $30 or $40 million higher than the Cardinals’ top bid. That is a lot of cash for Pujols or anyone to leave on the table.
On the other hand, it is likely no more than $3 or $4 million per year higher than St. Louis’ offer.
From Pujols’ own mouth in February 2009. Emphasis is mine.
“Do I want to be in St. Louis forever? Of course,” Pujols said. “…People from other teams want to play in St. Louis and they’re jealous that we’re in St. Louis because the fans are unbelievable. So why would you want to leave a place like St. Louis to go somewhere else and make $3 or $4 more million a year? It’s not about the money. I already got my money. It’s about winning and that’s it.”
Here’s where the folks upset at the Cardinals step in. People who I think should know better second-guess the team for not having previously locked Pujols up to another long-term deal. Some wanted it done two years ago. Others would have been happy had it been accomplished this January.
The fatal fallacy in that point of view is the belief that somehow the Cardinals were in control – that they could have magically closed the deal back then at the same or less money than the $22 million per year they reportedly offered now.
I don’t believe it for one minute.
Pujols wanted A-Rod money (ten years, $275 million) previously, so there was absolutely no reason for him to give up a chance at free agency to take less in advance.
In fact, my belief is that the Cardinals only remained in the Pujols hunt until the final day due to good fortune. First, the Yankees and Red Sox were not in the bidding. Second, the market overall is down, another point as to why Pujols would not have settled for $22 million or thereabouts in a better environment earlier.
Others have criticized the Cardinals for not playing hardball with Pujols earlier. Their thinking was that the club should have issued the player an ultimatum to either sign an extension at the team’s price or be traded away. The last window for that to have been feasible was the July 2010 deadline. With the full benefit of hindsight, winning the 2011 World Championship in Pujols’ final year seemed the right (non-) move.
Back to the here and now, some are suggesting the Cardinals were not competitive, with their bid only fourth-best, putting them behind the Angels, Marlins and a supposed “mystery team.”
First of all, no one knows for sure what those other bids were (if they existed at all) and our sources may have agendas in trying to influence public opinion. For example, this would be exactly the kind of spin to come from Team Pujols if they wanted to try to diminish the St. Louis backlash.*
I suspect the Cardinals probably did extend themselves “to the limit and beyond,” as GM John Mozeliak said at his press conference on Thursday afternoon. The team officials are the only ones who fully understand their financials but from the outside looking in, they seemed to make representative offers, which they say they adjusted as recently as Wednesday. Could they pay the highest amount? As proven, the answer is “no.”
Who can blame the Cardinals for being wary of giving 10 years with no-trade protection to a man who will be 41 years old at the end of his contract? At least the Angels could eventually station an aged Pujols at designated hitter, an option unavailable to St. Louis.
All is not lost. The Cardinals have the time and now the money this winter to explore trades, free agency and perhaps going after extensions before their next round of core players hit the market – Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina. They have the flexibility to plan for the future with a more balanced team than paying a superstar salary would allow.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-Pujols. He earned the right to seek free agency and to take his services to the bidder of his choice, which he did. I don’t begrudge him one bit for that. That is the system baseball has put in place and he used it to his maximum advantage.
Cardinals fans should appreciate the 11 unprecedented years he gave them and the fine team baseball played, of which he was a key contributor. The two World Championship flags Pujols helped raise will fly forever.
On the other hand, I hope Pujols does not insult our intelligence by insisting that his move was not about the money. It clearly was.
* Update: And, here it is. It was a matter of the heart. A direct quote from a phone call from Pujols to his agent Dan Lozano early Thursday morning follows. It was Pujols communicating his decision as reported by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, who it would appear is tightly wired to the agent. After all, how else could a third-party quote a one-on-one telephone conversation directly?
“The Angels,” he (Pujols) said (to Lozano), “are the ones tugging on my heart.”
Pujols’ past level of support, admiration and in some cases, near worship as a Cardinal is unlikely to be exceeded, or even duplicated anywhere else. That Pujols’ heart told him to leave this environment in St. Louis for a completely different situation is difficult to fathom. If he instead departed for more money from the Angels, that would be neither a crime, nor a sin.
Some suggest the Players’ Union may have pressured Pujols to take the highest bid. Just one year ago, we saw a crystal clear example of just the opposite. Cliff Lee passed up higher offers from two teams, the Yankees and his then-current club, the Rangers, to sign with Philadelphia instead. Lee was not about the money.
The loss of star continuity resulting from Pujols leaving the Cardinals behind is my greatest regret from the perspective of a long-time fan of the game of baseball. One-team Hall-of-Famers are so rare in this day and age. Ripken, Jeter (later), Gwynn, Brett… there aren’t too many.
Then, there is the greatest Cardinal of them all, Stan Musial. Yes, Stan stayed home for a quarter of a century, but in his day, players had no choice. One thing for sure, by heading to Anaheim, Pujols has guaranteed that he will never earn the opportunity to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with “The Man” as a true career-long and life-long St. Louis Cardinals icon.
I covered much of this same ground in my Thursday afternoon live interview with Ken Miller and Jim Brinson on KXnO FOX Sports Radio in Des Moines. It follows.
Click here for audio: Brian Walton with Ken Miller and Jim Brinson (9:20)