Albert Pujols is amazing. The past accolades speak for themselves and, at this point, nobody needs a review of everything he’s accomplished. However, even considering the 9 All Star appearances, 10 top 5 MVP finishes, and a Rookie of the Year (I couldn’t help myself), the most amazing part of Albert Pujols is that he’s still amazing.
Angels’ fans endured a Kim Kardashian-esque rocky start to the decade long marriage we have committed to with Albert Pujols (yes, that was “Kim Kardashian” and “commitment” in the same sentence). The .194/.237/.269 start to the season was akin to the production we had grown accustomed to seeing out of the catcher’s position. We did not expect our once-in-a-generation new toy at first base to come out of the gates hitting like He Who Shall Not Be Named. Coupling his first 27 games in Anaheim with the ridiculous and irrational criticism that he lacked “signature moments” (i.e. walk off hits) this past season, you would be hard pressed to find an Angel fan who describes Pujols’ first season as a fond memory. And that’s unfair.
As humans, we always grasp for a “why.” There was a bevy of deranged explanations that attempted to explain his dismal start to the season. Of the millions of equally delusional reasons, you can choose from: 1) the media-derived scapegoating of Mickey Hatcher 2) his not being comfortable enough living without his family to start the year 3) or him being distracted by the all of the “El Hombre” billboards around Southern California. Regardless of what excuse was employed, it was conveniently muted as soon as he adjusted to the 1.5 MPH increase in fastball velocity in May. Excluding that brutal start to the season, Pujols, from Game 29-Game 162, hit a very Pujolsian .305/.365/.569 (.325/.414/.608 career numbers). His BABIP also jumped from .226 in the first 27 games, to .295 in team games 29-162; which was still lower than his career average mark of .309. Considering his line drive rate, fly ball rate, and ground ball rate hovered around career norms, it is logical to deduce that Pujols hit as well as he did while he was getting relatively unlucky. While not all can be attributed to luck, a player like Pujols has undoubtedly earned the benefit of the doubt. Take that in for a moment. Pujols was unlucky, and STILL hit .305/.365/.569. Furthermore, when Pujols’ line drive percentage rates at above 18% (18.8% in 2012), he has never had a batting average below .314, or a BABIP below .308. To put all these numbers more eloquently, the dude is a monster.
And he still is. And he’s on our team next year; and for the next 8 years after that too. The good thing about having the current Albert Pujols on your team is that he hides a lot of a team’s deficiencies by himself. In 2012, the Angels starting rotation was erratic and the bullpen was a constant series of expletives unsuitable for this website. The combination of having him hit like he did in the second half and having Mike Trout be The Baby Jesus, still led this team to 89 wins and within 6 games of the best record in the American League. When he is hitting, and he usually is, he is an unstoppable force that can be a major contributing factor in winning games that you should not win.
Nonetheless, when you sign a player for 10 years at age 32, a decline phase is all but a certainty. Expecting Pujols to be Pujols when he is 37 years old is naive, and Jerry DiPoto was not under the veil of naivety when he drew up the deal. Fans and members of the front office alike know that the back end of Pujols’ tenure with the Angels will not be nearly as enjoyable as the first 4-5 years or so. He will get old, his bat speed will decline, he will eat tons of In N Out, and he will probably be a one way player who makes an absurd amount of money.
Unfortunately, during the last six years of Pujols’ contract (aka “the bad ones”), from ages 36-41, he will make 165 million dollars. That is not a typo. The team will most likely be paying a 41 year old designated hitter 30 million dollars in 2021. That is the future reality this team is faced with. When you tack on the unimaginable contract the Angels hopefully shell out to resign Mike Trout until he’s 75 years old, two players on the Angels roster could potentially be making an average of 45 million dollars a year-- by themselves. In fact, in 2016, during Pujols’ age 36 season, the Angels are ALREADY committed to 78.5 million dollars of payroll between Jered Weaver, CJ Wilson, Erick Aybar, and Pujols. Four players all in the twilight of their career will have a payroll of more than 12 entire teams in 2012. Zack Greinke will probably demand a contract spanning longer than four years as well, and hypothetically assuming the Angels resign him, you can add another very large contract onto that payroll as well. That 78.5 million dollar figure does not include one Michael Nelson Trout, either. Including Trout and Greinke, the Angels are looking at 6 players in the year 2016 (4 of them being past their prime), making upwards of 100 million dollars. Only 11 teams had a payroll above 100 million dollars this year, let alone 4 years down the road. Yikes. Moneyball be damned.
**Just to clarify, I do not want to give off the impression that I am against the contract of Pujols. I am 100% in favor of doing whatever you have to do to get Albert Pujols to play on your team. He is one of those forces that truly changes a lineup, and will break 239037497 offensive records while with the Angels. He will be considered as one of the greatest hitters of all time, and I am sincerely honored to be able to watch him as the first baseman for my favorite team for ten years--regardless of price**
Considering the Angels past as a middle of the road payroll team, the 154 million dollar payroll this year is probably the approximate ceiling of what Arte Moreno is willing to spend. That leaves roughly 50 million dollars, or less, to spend on the remaining 19 players that will be under contract in 2016. I’ll do the math for you: 2.6 million dollars per player. Nine players on the 2012 roster made less than 2.6 million dollars this year.
With all this being said, the Angels need to go cheap and go cheap fast. I understand the argument of “win now” and building an amazing, world beater, team while you have Pujols in his prime. I completely agree with that as well. Signing really good, albeit expensive, players for short term contracts is the optimal theoretical approach to the Angels’ long term financial problems. The problem with that theory, however, is that really good and expensive players don’t want to sign short term contracts. A few examples include: CC Sabathia (10 years), Mark Teixeira (8 years), Prince Fielder (9 years), Matt Kemp (8 years) etc. Maybe with the contract debacles of Alex Rodriguez, Vernon Wells, and the entire Boston Red Sox, teams will be more efficient with their money and this trend will taper off. I am not educated enough to predict the future market of premium free agents, but it seems as though the current preference for players is length, rather than annual average salary.
In order to maintain a consistently competitive team, even when Pujols is not masking our roster shortcomings, the Angels need to stop spending more money than they are getting rid of. I would expect an intense re-dedication into scouting and player development in the coming years. Shipping out two or three projectable, major league caliber prospects in order to get one stud player at the deadline will not be in the cards for this team. Nor will any more mega deal free agency signings like Pujols and Wilson of last offseason and the possible Greinke deal this winter happen. It is hard for a fan base to accept the fact that your team will not be active when superstars are available via the free agent market or at the trade deadline, but money is a limited resource; and those resources will be extremely limited in the coming years.
Luckily, the Angels currently have a few cheap players that can give the front office some time to assess the market for cheap value. Garrett Richards is certainly capable of comparably offsetting the loss of a Dan Haren or Ervin Santana this offseason. Mark Trumbo will be a cheap platoon partner to Kendrys Morales at designated hitter with the occasional start in left field, first base or third base for the next few years. Peter Bourjos is another very cheap and valuable piece that the Angels can utilize in centerfield should they decide to use Trumbo in that role. Ernesto Frieri is another relatively cheap piece, considering his lights out, back of the bullpen arsenal. Bourjos, Frieri, Richards, and Trumbo will be very cheap assets next year, likely only making 2-4 million dollars combined. Yet they will likely provide the Angels with 8-10 WAR next year, which is an incredible bargain. Assets like these are invaluable to a team because they allow an organization the time to draft and develop more prospects, while still allowing time for a few to be busts. Acquisitions like Greinke, Haren, Pujols and Wilson will not be duplicated in the coming years, while developing, hopefully, 2-4 WAR players from the minor leagues will become more prevalent. Start attending minor league games and stay current on the Angels drafts in the coming years, because these players will be the players you pay to see in 2016.