Saturday, January 9, 2010

Albert Pujols, a Cub?

I'm beginning to think Al likes to torture me. Over at Bleed Cubbie Blue the other day, Al turned the dream machine up to 11 and pondered what it would be like if the Cubs signed Albert Pujols after his current contract expired.

According to Al:
I suspect that an eight-year deal approaching $200 million -- or about $25 million a year, perhaps frontloaded the way A-Rod's is -- would do it. How do you pay for this?...

[Derrek Lee] will be 35 in September and I think in order to get a better hitter who's five years younger, you say goodbye to Derrek, thank him for the wonderful service, and let him go to an AL team where he can DH part of the time. That frees up about half ($13 million) of the money you'd need. I think it might also be time to say farewell to Ted Lilly, who will also have given the Cubs four good years but will turn 35 himself in January 2011. Ted's making $12 million in 2010.

Voila! There's $25 million right there. Kosuke Fukudome's deal comes off the books after 2011 -- you can save $13 million with that, and the Cubs won't be paying Carlos Silva after 2011 either, another $11.5 million saved.
My begrudging retort after the jump.

In the comments section, one brave fan (copingwiththecubs) dared to say:
I don't want Albert Pujols.I don’t want an icon. I don’t want the biggest star in the game. I want a TEAM...
This comment led to scathing post from even Another Cubs Blog in which mb21 said:
What baseball fan doesn't want the best player in the sport on their favorite team? This is mindboggling...

What's wrong with Cubs fans?
My instinct reaction was to side with copingwiththecubs: I see much of the Cubs history tied up in iconism and relying on one or two players to "carry us to the promised land" -- and all other victory cliches. However, I honestly believe (as with the Tampa Bay Rays, Seattle Mariners, or circa 1996 to 2003 Oakland A's) teams can be highly and continually successful with significant budget constraints. So, acquiring a Pujols-type contract should not hamstring the Cubs' ability to create a winning team, assuming they Andrew-Friedman-ize the remainder of the budget.

Enough quotes and comments. Let's look at the numbers.

Starting with his amazing rookie season, Albert Pujols has:
  • had at least 600 plate appearances every year
  • had a wOBA over .400 every year (seriously?!)
  • amassed a UZR/150 of 6.0 at 1st base
  • been worth around $25M+ each year...
  • and earned ~$10M+ each year
Basically, Pujols single-handedly wins 7-9 games a year for his team. What's that you say? The number 7 sounds familiar? Why, odd as it is, the Cardinals beat the Cubs by 7.5 games in 2009. Ha! So humorous, I almost don't want to cry!

So: Albert Pujols is good. Don't let that ESPN commercial fool you with it's humor; he is a machine. However, is Al's plan worth it? Can we put a $25M+ amount of faith in Pujols' aging knees? His birthday is this January (a day before mine!), and -- unlike me -- he's turning 30. And there's two things we know about sluggers in their 30s: the home runs blossom, then they disappear entirely.

Of course, that's a rule of thumb. Pujols certainly has the potential to be a Bonds or a Ruth, an old man who knows only Swatting and Trotting -- but can we truly foresee such a thing? Hardly.

What we can examine, however, is the team left around him.

Al says goodbye to Lee, who in the past seasons has been a 3-5 WAR and is certainly aging and older than Pujols. Also, bye-bye to Ted Lilly, who -- as a pitcher -- ages much differently, but likely would not be worth what the Yankees or Angels will pay him to be their 4th starter. Lilly: 2-3 WAR.

Okay, in 2011, to keep this contract afloat for a second year, we let Fukudome (~2 WAR) walk and (if he hasn't already) allow Silva to retire from baseball (let's say he's 0 WAR, hoping he never pitches a meaningful frame).

Unfortunately, Al forgot about the 2011 Club Option on Pujols' contract, so the Cubs would either re-sign some of these four players on one year deals, or (more likely) just fill their places with likewise contracts. Either way, 2012 rolls around and the Cubs open up that $25M to $30M annually, and sign a front-loaded, eight-year contract (as Al suggested).

To recap: We added ~8 wins, subtracted ~9 wins. Of course, we still need warm bodies in those other roster spots (aside 1B). So maybe Andrew Cashner breaks into the bigs, adds a few WAR (which we all hope and expect he will) and maybe Tyler Colvin finds his inner Ben Zobrist and adds a few WAR -- suddenly the Cubs are up a few wins (maybe they win the NL Central?).

BUT: If Cashner's FIP (which says he's just above average) is accurate, and Colvin's bat still stuck in the stone, then the Cubs are down at least one win.

CONSIDER: In 2009, the Cubs were the 9th worst team in the majors at scoring runs (apparently 707 runs makes the Nationals and Royals your neighbors), yet they had the 5th best 1B (Lee, wOBA = .412) and two of the top 25 RFs (Kosuke Fukudome and, yes, Milton Bradley; wOBAs = .346 and .345 respectively). Under Al's plan (and recent history -- since MB is already gone), none of these elements remain.

THEREFORE: As an economist and as a Cubs fan, I am wary of such an investment: an aging hitter with (likely) considerable contract demands. If we actually do lock Pujols up for 8 years, that would mean having him (and his contract) in his age 40th year. This would likely hamper (though not destroy) contract extensions for young stars (Starlin Castro?) or completely obliterate our team if Pujols hits a physical or other-type wall.

And frankly, I'm in it for the long haul -- I don't want the Cubs to break "the curse" 2012; I want them to break it every year.

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