The news Thursday morning may have been absolutely stunning – Albert Pujols, the premier player baseball, to the Los Angeles Angels, on a 10-year free-agent contract worth somewhere worth a reported $250 million – but the Angels’ motivation was perfectly logical.
The Angels had been slipping. After a six-year run from 2004 to 2009 during which they won five AL West titles and averaged 95 wins, they had missed the playoffs two straight years, and could see themselves being left in the dust by the Texas Rangers’ frighteningly efficient player-development machine, which had produced back-to-back World Series appearances for the Rangers.
And there were other motivations: The awful state of the Dodgers, which leaves dominance of the Los Angeles market up for grabs. The many times in recent years when the Angels had been runner-up for one elite free agent or another.
So the Angels did the unthinkable, emerging within the past 48 hours or so with a stealth bid that stole Pujols away from the Cardinals, who had drafted, developed and deployed him for the past 11 years, watching him become a St. Louis icon surpassed only by Stan Musial himself. Up until the end, the Cardinals believed a combination of Pujols’s sentimentality, his understanding of own his legacy and a just-close-enough-to-the-highest-bid offer would keep the slugger in St. Louis.
It was a big miscalculation by the Cardinals, but hardly a killer blow. They almost certainly got the best seasons of Pujols’s career. He turns 32 in January.
Here’s what will happen over the next decade, as Pujols’s Angels contract runs its course:
The Cardinals, who won two World Series titles behind Pujols, will go through a brief period of mourning, but will soon begin to regroup. They will shift Lance Berkman to first base, and open a spot for Allen Craig to play every day. They will use the $20 million or so they had allocated for Pujols over the next few years to shore up some other weak spots – maybe go after Jimmy Rollins to play shortstop. They will continue to be a perennial contender.
Meantime, the Angels, if they are lucky – and if history is any guide -- will get four or five more productive seasons out of Pujols. He will immediately put them back on equal footing with the Rangers (particularly if, as appears likely, the Angels steal lefty C.J. Wilson from Texas). They may win a couple more division titles, perhaps another World Series. They will love Pujols in Anaheim – until he stops being productive. (Update: The Angels have snatched up C.J. Wilson.)
When the New York Yankees signed Alex Rodriguez to his current 10-year $275 million deal – the only contract in baseball that compares to Pujols – he was coming off an MVP season of 54 homers, 156 RBI and a .314/.422/.645 batting line that represented the best year of his career. He was also 32 years old – the same age Pujols will turn in January.
But since then, Rodriguez has not played more than 138 games in a single season, has not hit more than 35 homers, and has seen his OPS decline in four straight seasons – from 1.067 in 2007, the season before he signed his new deal, to .965 to .933 to .847 to .823. There is little reason to believe the decline of Rodriguez, now 36, will stop, and every reason to believe the $25 million or so the Yankees will pay him through 2017 will be largely wasted.
And there is little reason to believe the same thing won’t happen with Pujols. Father Time spares no man (at least not in the so-called post-steroids era), and if the thought of Pujols at age 36, making $25 million, isn’t scary enough – think about Pujols in 2021, at age 41, still making $25 million.
Yes, the Angels got their man, and there’s going to be joy in Anaheim and tears in St. Louis. But there is a tipping point out there, where those emotions will be reversed. And it won’t take 10 years for it to happen.
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