Sunday Lightning 2.6.2011

Hot Stove
  • Sans Pujols:

If this MLB Trade Rumors posting is to be believed, the Cardinals and Albert Pujols are not going to come to an agreement on a contract extension to preclude his free agency at the end of the season.

As the “what-if?” nature of a possible Pujols departure takes a tangible feel, rather than dismissively suggest that Pujols won’t leave the Cardinals under any circumstances, perhaps it’s time to look at what the Cardinals could and should do if he indeed does refuse to sign for one penny less that he feels he’s worth.

When the Derek Jeter contract situation began drawing attention a year ago, I repeatedly said that Jeter was never going to leave the Yankees. In part due to his status; in part due to the money the Yankees had available; and because he had nowhere else to go, there was no chance of Jeter wearing a different big league uniform as a player. It was not happening.

With Pujols, it’s different. Jeter’s contentious negotiations with the Yankees took place at an advanced age (36) and coming off a subpar year; Pujols is still the best hitter in the game and is listed (believe it or not) at 31.

Despite repeated references to it as a baseline, I truly believe that the Alex Rodriguez contract is not what Pujols and his people are using as a comparative tool. I think that the biggest obstacle to Pujols re-upping with the Cardinals isn’t whether he surpasses A-Rod’s contract, but that he gets a substantial amount more money than Ryan Howard, Troy Tulowitzki, Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia received.

It was the Howard contract that blew up any chance of an accommodation from the Pujols camp to give the Cardinals a hometown discount.

The Phillies and Cardinals spend money to win, but they’re not the Yankees or Red Sox. The Phillies have pushed their payroll to the breaking point to put together an All Star team, but they can’t get close to the Yankees in financial power.

Howard’s contract extension was a disaster for the Cardinals on many levels. While the Cardinals can make the argument that one thing has nothing to do with another; that the Phillies decision to give Howard $145 million guaranteed doesn’t equate to Pujols getting a similarly insane deal.

Naturally Pujols would say that if the Cardinals don’t want to compensate him, then he’ll be more than happy to bring his services elsewhere.

In the past, that would’ve been seen as a negotiating tactic with Pujols not wanting nor intending to leave the Cardinals. But what if it’s not a negotiating tactic? What if the declaration that he’s not going to talk about the contract once spring training stars is real; that he’s going to play this year with the Cardinals—refuse all overtures to accept a trade—and explore his free agency next winter?

The Cardinals presumably could pay Pujols what he’s asking for if they decided to have a first baseman earning $30 million, Matt Holliday earning $17 million, Adam Wainwright getting a longer term extension and 22 other players making league minimum.

But things could go another way.

What if the Cardinals looked at the fallout from paying Pujols an average of $30 million a year until he’s 41 and said, “We’ll spend that money on several other areas and move forward without Albert.”?

It would be a tough transition, but that’s a lot of freed up money in a somewhat depressed market. Increasingly players who in the past would get long term guaranteed contracts somewhere (Orlando Hudson for example) are left scrambling. It’s hard to imagine manager Tony La Russa wanting any part of a Pujols-less Cardinals team; Chris Carpenter has a contract option for 2012.

While they’ve avoided the notion of what they’re going to do without La Russa, he’s not young anymore and with a mutual contract option for 2012, he’s taking it year-to-year. If they lost Pujols, they’d have a rough time contending for awhile because they’d also probably lose La Russa; then it would make sense to exercise the Carpenter option and trade him.

There comes a time when the diminishing returns make the easier route—keeping Pujols—the wrong thing to do. Are the Cardinals going to spend that money for a player who, despite his greatness, will probably be a defensive liability 5 years in? As much as people perceive him to be an indestructible, unstoppable force, he’s a human being and will decline; but the Cardinals are still going to be paying a 37-41-year-old Pujols like they’re paying the 31-year-old Pujols.

What if they have to decide they can’t mortgage the entire franchise for years based on the short-term relief of avoiding the pain of him leaving?

If Pujols is insistent on being financially recognized as well as feted for being this era’s Joe DiMaggio, then he might have to do it in a different uniform.

It would be a hit to his aesthetic, but aesthetic doesn’t get deposited into the bank account and if that’s what he’s looking for, it’s not going to be in St. Louis.

  • Means to an end with the same short-term end:

The Orioles are going to be a better team in 2011.

They’re not going to be the laughingstock venue where players go to either wring an extra year or two out of their careers or collect that last fat paycheck from a desperate franchise eager to overpay to get someone, anyone to join their purgatory.

With the signing of Vladimir Guerrero they’ve added to their offense by removing Felix Pie from the everyday lineup in left field. Luke Scott will play left; Guerrero will DH. The lineup is solid now with the additions of Guerrero, Mark Reynolds and J.J. Hardy joining Scott, Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters.

The bullpen has been revamped with Kevin Gregg joining Mike Gonzalez as the righty-lefty closers; they signed Justin Duchscherer to a short-term, incentive-laden, low base salary contract in the hopes that he can stay healthy.

It’s probably a false hope given the repeated problems Duchscherer has had with his entire body and mind, but why not?

The presence of the newcomers will send the Buck Showalter message to the troops that the team is going to play and behave appropriately win or lose. The days of the Baltimore severance scholarships ended when Showalter walked into the clubhouse.

This is all well and good, but will the results on the field be all that much different than they would be without the new players?

No.

The American League East is a nightmare. The Red Sox, Yankees, Rays and Blue Jays all boast superior rosters to the Orioles, specifically on the mound. Because of that, any hope that the truly improved Orioles will show a marked improvement in the standings are unrealistic at best.

Showalter will pump the team up with the assertion that they’re not taking a backseat to anyone in the division and if they play up to their capabilities with fundamentally sound baseball, anything is possible; but the reality is that they’re too short-handed to win more than 70 games.

That doesn’t mean that the new players won’t help Showalter achieve his ends in years to come—they’ll set an example and contribute to that future; the fact is that when the Orioles are ready to take that next step, Guerrero’s spirit will be present, but his physical body in an Orioles uniform won’t.

  • Would the Angels take K-Rod back?

Here’s a thought: how about the Angels send a prohibitive contract like Scott Kazmir to the Mets for Francisco Rodriguez?

Obviously K-Rod’s off-field issues would scare off many teams; then his contract would petrify the rest, but the Angels are a viable landing spot on several levels.

K-Rod was there for seven years and, as far as we know, behaved himself. The Angels tend to dispatch players who aren’t solid citizens, so K-Rod’s temper only got the better of him once he came to the Mets. Manager Mike Scioscia knows him and how to handle him.

Kazmir’s contract guarantees him $14.5 million with a $12 million salary for 2011, a $13.5 million club option for 2012, and a $2.5 million buyout. Kazmir’s been injury-prone and hasn’t pitched well, but the switch to the National League and the financial carrot might spur him to fulfill his potential. It’d be entertaining if, seven years after the Mets made that ill-fated trade of Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, Kazmir returned to the organization.

K-Rod’s contract guarantees him $15 million with the $11.5 million this season and a $3.5 million buyout. There’s a kicker worth $17.5 million that activates if he finishes 54 games this season. The Angels would want K-Rod to finish that many games, so the contract would essentially be guaranteed. We’re talking about the Angels adding a net of $14.5 million. It’s not a small amount of money, but they just added Vernon Wells‘s contract without batting an eye and have a ton of money coming off the books after this season.

They’re trying to win now and would be better suited to do that with K-Rod replacing Fernando Rodney as the closer and a cheaper (and presumably better) starter than Kazmir.

What would the Mets do for a closer? The new front office led by Sandy Alderson has tended to prefer having a plug-in closer or someone they found on the scrapheap rather than flashy name recognition and commensurate salary; the Mets aren’t contending this year anyway, so it makes sense to find someone to accumulate the saves—Bobby Parnell for example—than to pay K-Rod and run the risk of him either achieving his contract option or filing a grievance because the Mets sat him down rather than let him approach the required number of games finished.

I’d look into it.

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4 thoughts on “Sunday Lightning 2.6.2011

  1. The Cardinals won’t wither and die without Pujols – as you point out, they’ll have money freed up to spend elsewhere – but what sort of message does not signing him send to their fan base? How do you not do everything you can to keep the city’s most beloved player, not to mention arguably the best player in the game?

  2. Where on the planet will Pujols go?

    The big spenders in the AL East already have 1B covered, although I guess Adrian Gonzalez could be made the DH in Boston [but they did just take on a lot of payroll].
    The Cubs might be stupid enough to think he’ll put them over the top, but I’m not sure their payroll can take on much more water.
    The Mets? Are they in a position to spend that kind of money?
    Maybe the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters?

    Nobody really strikes me as a better fit than St. Louis.

  3. Pujols is easily one of the greatest players of all time. But the Cardinals aren’t the Yankees — they have financial limits. I have no problem with them going another direction if Pujols’ demands are too high. Say 10 years, $200+ million. The fans will hate it. But the organization has to do what they think is best in the long run.

  4. It will be a very, very sad day in the ‘Lou if he doesn’t come back but the more I think about what he wants and deserves, the more the rational being in me realizes how possibly crippling such a contract could be for the future. I dunno. Hope it works out.

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