254

Albert Pujols is gone.   Starting next season, he will no longer be a Cardinal.

Outside of a few hours yesterday, when the Marlins bowed out and the rumors were swirling that the Cardinals actually had the highest offer on the table, I was expecting this.  We all should have expected this.  Baseball players follow the money.  Hell, people in general follow the money.  Beyond family and (sometimes) country, loyalty is a fleeting and transient sentiment.  Albert Pujols does not owe St. Louis anything.  He does not owe Cardinals fans anything.  He certainly does not owe Bill Dewitt Jr. anything.  The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim offered 254 million dollars.  If reported figures are to be believed, that is at least 30 million more than what the Cardinals were willing to give him.  It’s no surprise that he took it.  It’s no surprise that anyone would take it.

I feel like anyone who is genuinely surprised by Pujols’s decision hasn’t been paying attention.  When he demanded an extension rivaling Alex Rodriguez’s record-setting free agent contracts, he wasn’t doing it so he could reinvest the money in the city of St. Louis.  When he refused to negotiate after spring training started, it wasn’t so that John Mozeliak had more time to worry about the amateur draft.  And when he continued to retain Dan Lozano despite the controversy that emerged over the last two months, it wasn’t so that he could work out a deal favorable to the St. Louis Cardinals organization.  This has been a long time coming.  Pujols wanted to get paid.

That said, I don’t blame the Cardinals either.  Matching the Angels’ offer would have been insane.  The offer that the Cardinals made was probably insane.  Emotionally, I wanted to see Pujols stay with the Cardinals and I would have been happy with any deal that made it possible.  But logically, a ten year deal at 20MM+ is a huge risk for any player.  Albert Pujols is going to be 32 when the deal begins.  He will be 41 when it ends.  Not many players–even elite players–age well into their late 30s and early 40s.  There are freaks of nature and/or science like Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Mariano Rivera, and Roger Clemens that play well into their twilight years.  But there are many players like Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, Larry Walker, Mark McGwire, Pedro Martinez, and others who see their incredible talent ravaged by injury and time.  There is no way to know what will happen to Pujols, but we all saw proof of his mortality in 2011.  I don’t begrudge the Cardinals for not going higher.

I do, however, wish that the Cardinals had negotiated better.  There’s no way to know the full story behind their plans and machinations.  I can only see what the media shows me.  But I saw a front office that, for whatever reason, was deceived by the same expectations as the fans who now lash out at Pujols.  It looked like they expected him to sign, they expected him to be polite, and they expected him to want to return above all else.  Pujols came into free agency looking for a battle.  Mozeliak arrived looking for a handshake.

From the beginning of the offseason, the Cardinals gladly handed over every bit of leverage to Pujols and Lozano.  They didn’t change their offer until late in the game.  They never gave any deadlines.  They outright denied any interest in free agents who could have competed with Pujols for the Cardinals money.  Pujols knew that the Cardinals weren’t going anywhere.  They weren’t going to snap up Jose Reyes or Prince Fielder and leave him with one less suitor.  He could take his time and wait for some team to finally snap and offer him the mind-boggling sum he thought he could get.  And if he didn’t get it?  Unlike the Marlins offer, the Cards ~9/200MM wasn’t going anywhere.

Do I think anything would have happened differently if the Cardinals were aggressive?  If they made a competitive offer to Fielder, or at least pretended that they were considering it?  If they told Pujols that they needed a decision Tuesday night then pulled their offer?  Probably not.  Almost certainly not.  But it would have been nice to see the Cardinals front office approach the negotiations with an attitude and tenacity that matched Pujols and Lozano.  Like I said before, Pujols didn’t owe the Cardinals a hometown discount.  But the Cardinals didn’t owe Pujols anything either.  They didn’t have to announce to the world that they were not pursuing Fielder or Reyes before negotiations even began.

Now it’s over.  The Cardinals will move on.  Pujols will move on.  I’ll probably cheer for the Angels in the AL now because Albert is still one of my favorite players.  I hope he has a great career in Anaheim that proves all the doubters wrong.  I hope he retires the home run champion and sails into the Hall of Fame with a Cardinal on his cap.

I also hope the Cardinals sign Prince Fielder or Carlos Beltran and crush the Angels in the World Series in 2012.

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Welcome to October

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Before the season even began, Adam Wainwright heard the three words that every pitcher fears: Tommy John Surgery.  The Cardinals best pitcher was out for the season.  He would be replaced in the rotation with middle reliever Kyle McClellan.  An aging Chris Carpenter and a still-green Jaime Garcia would become the anchors in an increasingly unstable rotation.

Brendan Ryan, perhaps the best defensive shortstop the Cardinals have seen since Ozzie Smith, was shipped out due to issues with management.  He was replaced by Ryan Theriot, who could only theoretically still play the position.  For the first month of the season, the team clung to washed-up closer Ryan Franklin, who did his best to hasten his own retirement.

Everything seemed lost.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

One month ago, the Cardinals were 10.5 games out of first place.  Fans and columnists wondered if the team should start thinking about the wildcard.    Even that seemed silly.  Atlanta and San Francisco were in the way. The bullpen was unstable as ever.  Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman were out so often they barely played in the same game.   Jaime Garcia was faltering and barely looked like the same pitcher who carried the team early in the season.

Four days ago, we were supposed to watch Albert Pujols’s last home game as a Cardinal.  Maybe he would re-sign but with the numbers being floated around, there was no reason to hope.  Maybe they’d pull it out and catch up to the Braves, but it wasn’t likely.  The fans at Busch gave him a proper send off, letting him know how much they appreciated the decade he spent wearing the birds on the bat.  It was over.  We all knew it, one way or another.  Even if we were hopeful, we feared the worst.  We suspected the worst.  The Cardinals were done.  Pujols was done.  This was the end of an era.  Right?

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

But it did.

Contract Extensions and Risk Shifting

Just about two months into the season, Albert Pujols is putting up a thoroughly disappointing .257/.326/.395 batting line.  Fangraphs has him at only .8 WAR on the season to go along with a negative WPA (-.41).  Some of this is BAbip related, but he’s also hitting almost 50% groundballs, which doesn’t do any favors for a guy not known for his speed.  It’s ugly.

I expect Pujols will rebound.  Or perhaps that he’s injured and refuses to acknowledge it in a contract year.  Either way, I highly doubt we’re seeing the real Albert Pujols.  But this gives me a good opportunity to write about something that I thought a lot about during the Pujols contract extension talks, as well as after the recent extension given to Ryan Braun.  That is the risk-shifting function of long term extensions and how little that seems to affect certain negotiations.

There’s no way to really know what Albert Pujols and his agent asked for at the beginning of their dialog with the Cardinals front office this winter.  However, what little we do know indicates that he was looking for a contract in the range of Alex Rodriguez’s 10 year/$275 million deal from 2007.  The reasoning was solid.  Albert Pujols is the best player in baseball.  By pure OPS, he’s been the best right handed hitter of all time.  He believed he deserved to be paid like it.

Alex Rodriguez’s deal, however, was not an extension.  In the unlikely event that talks broke down between him and the Yankees, he could have chosen to sign with another team.  That wasn’t the case with the Cardinals and Pujols last winter.  No matter what happened between the parties, Albert Pujols would play in STL in 2011.  And no matter what happened, the Cardinals would pay Pujols $16 million for his services.

With that in mind, the Cardinals should have never topped Alex Rodriguez’s record contract.  And Pujols’s agent shouldn’t have expected them to, although baseball teams have done stranger things.  A pre-2011 extension shifted the risk of the 2011 season from Pujols to the team.  And, even with the best player in baseball, that is a significant risk.

I’m not talking about decline.  There’s a fair amount of historical precedent that the best players age slowly and Pujols could be expected to produce fantastic numbers for at least 5-6 more years.  (On the other hand, there is Jimmie Foxx, whose career was fairly similar to Pujols).  Injury is also a factor.  A hip injury or disorder could sap Pujols’s power (see Albert Belle).  A freak accident and broken leg could put him out for a year and call his career value into question (see Kendry Morales, perhaps Buster Posey).  A foul ball could injure his eye, or his elbow could finally explode, or he could cut his hand with a hunting knife.  All of this is exceptionally unlikely, and it only happens to a few players a year, but it happens.  And so does a bad streak of luck, an unprecedented GB%, and a possible sudden drop in interest from certain money-conscious team.  If Pujols ends the season with an OPS under .800, how many GMs will line up to give him a record 10 year contract?

All of this risk moves to the team with an extension.  If Pujols’s career takes a downturn for any reason, he still gets the ridiculous amount of money he’s promised on his new contract.  And the Cardinals, or perhaps an insurer (in the case of unexpected catastrophic injury) still has to pay him.

I’m not saying the Cardinals did the right thing.  I have no idea what happened between them.  I still think both sides could have found a reasonable, agreeable contract.  And I think both sides would have been smart to consider the risk of the 2011 season.  Right now, we’re seeing what that risk means.  Right now, the Cardinals are probably breathing a huge sigh of relief that Pujols didn’t accept their offer–whatever it was.  If he did, they’d be facing down 7+ uncertain years and hundreds of millions of dollars on a 1b who can’t put up a positive WPA.   But by the end of the year that might change.  Probably will.  Pujols is too good to keep hitting this bad.

Maybe the strangest example of a team failing to take risk into consideration is the Ryan Braun extension, signed earlier this season.  The extension covers the 2016-2020 seasons.  Braun wasn’t just committed to the Brewers next season.  He was committed to them until 2015.  Any number of things could happen between now and then, and yet the Brewers still agreed to give Braun more than Holliday makes per year.

To me, that’s completely bizarre.  I understand that inflation and proper accounting practices makes the ~19 million he will make per year at the end of the decade considerably smaller than it seems.  But baseball can’t be predicted that far in the future, and there was no reason for the Brewers to take this risk.  They don’t know where the team will be in 2016.  They certainly don’t know where Ryan Braun will be then.  Unlike Pujols, he’s having a fantastic season in 2011.  But Braun could have an entire 4 year slow decline phase between now and then.  The team took on all of the risk for everything that might happen to Braun in those four years.  I understand a team being willing to bet against a sharp drop-off or freak injury.  But wagering ~100 million dollars against potential decline along with all of those other things?  When the team already has Braun under contract well into the future?  No way.

 

With One Hand Tied Behind Their Back

As I’m writing this, Albert Pujols is playing at third base. He’s starting there for the first time in almost a decade. Apparently it was his idea, and he approached La Russa about it. The whole thing is ridiculous given the history Pujols has with his throwing elbow. I’m tempted to write about that, but there’s not much more to say than “what the hell?” especially when I heard La Russa’s justification. He wanted to get Allen Craig into the lineup without playing Allen Craig at 2b. Never mind that Craig’s spent significant amount of time at 3b himself…

This brings me to what I really want to talk about. For some reason, the Cardinals have insisted on handcuffing themselves with their defensive alignment. In my last post, I complained about the pool of players that have been “hitting” in the 7-1 slots for the Cardinals. Theriot, Punto, Descalso, and Greene have been Very Bad at Hitting and ideally we wouldn’t see so much of them on a day-to-day basis. But assuming that we have to see them, why is TLR playing them all at the wrong position?

There have been several variations of this problem, but I’ll use the May 14 lineup as the best example.  Tyler Greene at 2b, Ryan Theriot at SS, Daniel Descalso at 3b.

I’ve already talked about Ryan Theriot and how he should play 2b instead of SS.  He’s lost some range in the last couple seasons, and he proved he can play there last season.  He was mediocre, with 7 errors in 119 games, a -1.6 UZR, and fangraph’s Total Zone runs above average pegged him as neither a plus nor minus defender.  It’s not great, but if you have to play Theriot for some reason, 2b is the place to play him.

Daniel Descalso is also a 2b.  Not because of age or skill reasons–he’s actually shown a good arm for 3b so he has the natural talent for the position–but because of experience.  Between his rookie season in 2007 and the beginning of this season, Descalso made 17 plays at third (all last year).   He doesn’t have much experience there.  Counting this season, where he’s gotten almost all of them, Descalso has 239 innings at 3b.

Tyler Greene, meanwhile, never played 2b in the minors.  The first time he was ever asked to play second in pro ball was in the majors.  In two seasons, Greene has shown himself to be a bad second baseman.  He made 2 errors in 76 innings there last year, and has already made 2 errors in 66 innings this year.  His time at 2b is so limited that there simply isn’t enough of a sample size to use advanced fielding stats to determine anything.  Counting this season, Tyler Greene has 160 innings total at 2b in his 7 year pro career.

To put everything together, the Cardinals are surrounding a bad SS (Theriot) with two players who have played less than 1/3 of a season at their respective positions combined.  There’s no reason for this.  Nick Punto, as much as I like to trash him, should probably never be on the bench with the current roster composition.  Not only does he have significant experience at 2b, 3b, and SS…  But he’s actually a good fielder.

The composition of the Cards’ roster isn’t great right now.  But they’re utilizing what little they have terribly.  When the Cardinals keep sending out lineups with defensive alignments like the one on May 14  (or ones featuring Pujols at 3b) they are practically playing with a handicap…and against the Reds, they shouldn’t be hurting themselves like that.

Whiskey Tango Franklin

There are a whole lot of things I could write about Sunday’s game against the Braves. Most of them have already been covered earlier at some point in this blog. Ryan Franklin is a bad pitcher, Ryan Theriot is a bad shortstop. Trying to wring anything more out of these subjects would be agonizing. I think everyone knows my opinion about the two Ryans at this point. Frankin is a long reliever and Theriot is a second baseman. Relying on them in critical innings or at shortstop respectively has led to predictable disaster. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Et Cetera. Et Cetera.

But that’s not all that happened. The Ryan-fueled collapse wasn’t the biggest loss the Cardinals suffered on Sunday. David Freese was hit by a pitch and suffered a broken bone in his hand. Once again, the St. Louis Cardinals do not have a third baseman.

Freese getting injured and missing significant time was almost as predictable as a Ryan Theriot error or a Ryan Franklin walk-off loss. Yes, HBP injuries are unexpected. Yes, it has nothing to do with his ankle. But we’ve seen this before. Think back to June 17, 2001, when J.D. Drew lost 6 weeks to a broken finger when David Wells drilled him in the hand.

These two injuries, combined with the bizarre career of Nick Johnson, almost make me want to believe that avoiding the DL is an innate talent that certain people simply lack. But I won’t go that far. It’s far more likely that this is just confirmation bias rather than some incredibly mild form of osteogenesis imperfecta that allows the victim to play baseball and live a normal life but makes HBPs, foul tips, and bad baserunning far more dangerous.

Whether or not an injury to David Freese can truly be unexpected, the injury still happened. And it caught the Cardinals off guard. In fact, combined with an earlier precautionary exit from David Freese, TLR was forced to move Albert Pujols to third base for the first time since–

Wait. That’s not how it happened. That’s not why Albert Pujols had to take his surgically reconstructed elbow across the diamond, where he actually has to use it. That’s not why a player who hasn’t played 3b in nearly a decade was put there during a tie game.

All of that happened because Tony La Russa pinch hit Jon Jay for Tyler Greene. AFTER both of the injuries. The decision was made to pull Greene from the game with the full knowledge that someone would have to play out of position at either 2b, SS, or 3b. (And Ryan Theriot was already playing out of position at SS.)

It was one of the most unbelievable things I’ve seen from TLR. And that’s saying a lot, because I can still remember the day he brought in Jeff Tabaka to face Lance Berkman, and when he double switched Matt Holliday out of the lineup during a 20 inning debacle. There’s a reason Albert Pujols is not the Cardinals’ 3b. It isn’t like we’re keeping him at first because of the fantastic options we have at third. He’s a 1b because he’s been diagnosed with a bad case of Fucked Up Elbow. And last I checked, throwing across a baseball diamond is not part of the recommended physical therapy for Fucked Up Elbow.

Unsurprisingly, TLR has backed himself into this corner before. On April 22, 2008, an injury to Cesar Izturis coupled with typically poor bench management by the Cards front office left the team with a deficit of infielders. That time, however, TLR made the right decision. He put Pujols at 2b.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t the right decision. But if you start from the assumption that “moving Pujols off 1b” is a critical part of the solution, 2b is the best place to stick him. Throws at second base rarely require much force, and it’s probably the second best position on the diamond for a player with a halfway reconstructed elbow. Yes, Pujols wouldn’t have any range at 2b, but neither does Skip Schumaker and that never seems to bother La Russa.

If TLR moved Pujols to 2b for a couple innings, I might have made a few jokes. It would have been funny. It would have made a few fantasy baseball teams with very low playing time requirements juggernauts. But it wouldn’t have been particularly dangerous for the Cardinals’ season, or Albert Pujols’s career.

And now, of course, the team has to make do without David Freese. From the sounds of it, the Cards are activating Allen Craig rather than calling up Matt Carpenter. What does this mean? It means we’re going to have to fill three spots in the lineup (and the entire infield defense minus Albert) with the following players: Ryan Theriot, Nick Punto, Tyler Greene, Daniel Descalso, and Allen Craig.

How terrifying is that?

A True Challenge Awaits

A quick quote from Dustin Pedroia, aka “The Good David Eckstein”, courtesy of mlb.com

“Everyone thought Baltimore was three easy wins and we got [beat] three times.”

I always like it when I see those little brackets in a statement by a baseball player.  It means they said something essentially unpublishable, at least on parts of the internet where old people might see it, but the quote was so important that it had to remain in the article.  I also like to imagine what really words were really there.  It was probably something like:

“Everyone thought Baltimore was three easy wins and we got our asses kicked three times.”

But I prefer to think it was actually a long winded, Aristocrats-style description of the recent Red Sox futility that would make even Ichiro at the all-star game blush.  A length metaphor involving handcuffs, a tub of vegetable oil, a deck chair, a zebra, and Jonathan Papelbon’s entire immediate family.  If they’re just going to edit the quote anyway, why not get a little bit more specific?

That’s not why I started with that quote.  I started with that quote because I think it represents a bad attitude.  One of the amazing things about baseball is that anyone can win a series.  Not everyone can win the World Series, because the Cubs, but in a three game set, even a terrible team can beat a good one.  There are no easy wins, and throwing that out there is just being a sore loser.

This is all an incredibly long-winded caveat to what I really want to say, which is that the Cardinals’ first big test starts tonight in Philadelphia.  That is not to say that this season so far has been full of “easy wins” or that the teams they faced weren’t a challenge.  But this series is one that threatens to reveal the soft, meaty underbelly of the Cardinals success so far.

The Phillies are probably the best team in the NL.  They’ve got a big lineup in a little ballpark, and that’s not going to bode well for a starting rotation that has been exceptionally lucky.  Right now the team ERA is 2.56.  I don’t want to say they’ve been doing it with smoke and mirrors, but there’s certainly been some sleight of hand involved.

Jaime Garcia, tonight’s starter, has a .221 BAbip on the year.  That’s not quite “J.A. Happ with runners in scoring position” lucky (.173 for his career dear god) but its not sustainable.  Penny, who goes on Wednesday, hasn’t given up a single HR yet.  That probably won’t be true on Thursday.

Speaking of Thursday, the match-up looks to be Kyle Lohse versus Roy Halladay.  That’s the kind of game only true fans watch.

When the pitching craters–or at least comes back down to Earth–the offense has to be there to pick it up.  Outside of David Freese hitting above his pay grade lately and Pujols being Pujols,  it just hasn’t been there.  That’s gotta change, and I’m looking to Joe Blanton or Kyle Kendrick or Citizens Bank Park to help us change that.

On the subject of Pujols?  Yeah, he’s striking out a lot.  But can we at least lay off the worrying and fretting until he’s his OPS (1.080) falls below his career OPS (10.55)?

Oh no!  He’s only hitting slightly better than his historically-significant-as-the-best-for-a-right-handed-hitter OPS!  He’s missing more pitches he must be broken!  Sound the alarm!