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The Los Angeles Angels have been busy, adding the best remaining starting pitcher on the market (C.J. Wilson) minutes after they added the best right-handed hitter of this generation (Albert Pujols). After those moves, and assuming some common-sense deployments of the players already in the organization, you could make a case they're a 95-win club with a chance to win 100.
The surprise for me with their addition of Wilson is that with Jered Weaver and Dan Haren, the front of their rotation wasn't a weakness; they needed another starter, clearly, but could simply have chosen to add someone to the back of their rotation for less money than the five-year, $77.5 million contract they gave Wilson. But having a guy who's a No. 2 in many rotations as their No. 3 (or even No. 4, since we shouldn't slight Ervin Santana here) puts the Angels' rotation among the best in the big leagues. Wilson in effect replaces some combination of the filler the Angels used in the No. 4 and 5 spots last year, including the now-traded Tyler Chatwood, and another season from Wilson like the past two he's had would be worth five wins or more above what they got from the Chatwood/Jerome Williams class of pitchers.
The Angels could still stand to upgrade third base, and (as I mentioned in my blog entry on the Pujols deal) they need to give Vernon Wells' playing time to Mike Trout, but even without those moves they're in excellent shape.
The one issue I have with the Wilson deal is that he's a good bit riskier than the typical starter at his level. He's had just two years of starting after several years in the bullpen, and his walk totals have been high in both of those years, leading the AL in 2010 while improving his walk rate in 2011. He's a ground ball guy, so probably doesn't derive quite as much benefit from the Angels' homer-killing ballpark as the average pitcher would, but will benefit from the Angels' tendency to field strong defensive clubs, including a plus defender at second in Howie Kendrick and, at least right now, a plus defender at first in Pujols.
The Texas Rangers take a direct hit, losing their best starter to their closest divisional rival, so even though it's clear they weren't interested in giving Wilson a five-year deal, the five wins the Angels might gain are, in theory, five wins the Rangers might lose, although the impact should be lessened by the shift of Neftali Feliz to the rotation. I said on Thursday's Baseball Today podcast that I thought the Rangers were the most likely landing spot for Yu Darvish; they have a solid rotation overall, but don't have a true No. 1 starter and may not have anyone you'd comfortably call a No. 2. That distinction doesn't mean that much in the regular season -- a rotation full of No. 3 starters plus a good bullpen and a defense that saves a ton of runs can still win a division -- but in the postseason, front-line starters are more important, and Darvish is the only ace available at the moment through any means.
I also think this ends up boosting the appeal of Edwin Jackson, the best remaining free-agent starter now that Wilson and Mark Buehrle are gone, and the one guy left out there who at least looks -- if you squint -- like a potential No. 1 or 2 starter because he has high-end velocity and can hold it deep into games. He doesn't have the reliability of Buehrle or the strong recent history of Wilson, but if you still need a starter who's more than a back-end guy, he's the top of the market.
Pujols contract a long term problem.
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By signing Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $250 million contract, the Los Angeles Angels made themselves substantially better for 2012, replacing out-machine Mark Trumbo (.291 OBP in 2011) at first base while avoiding any reliance on Kendrys Morales coming back from a career-altering injury that could even be career-ending. With the Angels also signing C.J. Wilson -- and weakening the Texas Rangers in the process -- they are at least a co-favorite in the division and in excellent position for the wild card thanks to the unbalanced schedule.
It's a Pyrrhic victory for the Angels, however, because it's almost unthinkable that this contract will look like a good one in 2021 when we look back on it after its conclusion. Offering Pujols -- or any player past the age of 30 -- a 10 years is just not rational; there's no way we can accurately project a player who will spend more or less the entire decade of his contract in his decline phase, and even if we assume Pujols' listed age is accurate, a 10-year deal takes him to an age when most hitters are shadows of their former selves.
Per Fangraphs, Pujols was worth just over eight wins above replacement every year from 2003 to 2009, but he hasn't reached that level the last two seasons due to some injuries and very slight signs that he's getting slower, probably the first indications that he's starting his decline. He'll still be very valuable the next two or three seasons, if healthy, but by the midpoint of this deal, he'll probably be overpaid relative to his production, and the last few years of it will be ugly, as they would be for any player signed to a deal this long that takes him past the age of 40.
But in the meantime, the Angels were an 86-win team with some fairly serious offensive holes, one of which was just upgraded by 4-5 wins with the addition of Pujols. Even if they do nothing else on offense beyond this and give Mike Trout most of Vernon Wells' playing time, they are, at least on paper, a 92-plus win club. I fully understand their desire to avoid a second season where they just miss a playoff spot because of a hole that was easily patched, but the problem for the Angels is the inevitable point in Pujols' contract where his salary exceeds his on-field value.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals had a rough 24 hours, losing Pujols as well as scouting director Jeff Luhnow, who was hired by the Houston Astros to be their GM. Luhnow was a major reason the team's farm system went from one of the worst in the game to one of the best over the last seven years. There's nothing on the market to reasonably replace Pujols for 2012, and unless the Cardinals make a panic move and deal some of their top-end pitching prospects (like Shelby Miller), I don't see them filling that hole in trade. They still need a shortstop and second baseman, and I don't see Jon Jay as a full-time solution in center. It's an unfortunate position for the club in the short term, but they may secretly be relieved that the Angels blew them out of the water on Pujols because it kept them from experiencing the end of Pujols' contract, when there's a good chance he's an albatross because of the size of his deal.
What do the Cards do now?
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The Albert Pujols era is officially over in St. Louis.
The future Hall of Famer signed a 10-year deal worth $250-$260 million with the Los Angeles Angels this morning, leaving a bittersweet taste in the mouths of Cardinals fans. Pujols undoubtedly helped lead them to an unlikely World Series championship in 2011, but he’ll take no part of their title defense next season. One of the most beloved players in the storied history of the franchise has moved on to, quite literally, greener pastures.
Losing Pujols is tough both emotionally and in terms of replacing significant production, but it isn’t a death blow to the Cardinals playoff odds. If they spend the freed up $22 million — or a portion of it — wisely, the team can absolutely come back strong next year.
Dave Cameron broke down the deal from the Angels point of view, but how the Cardinals react is equally interesting. In fact, the entire Cardinals offseason is noteworthy, because the pursuit of Pujols clearly affected their ability to make other material moves over the last few weeks.
His deal with the Angels not only impacted the Cardinals in terms of missing out on him, but also the opportunity cost of being unable to pursue, say, Jose Reyes. Given their desired payroll for the 2012 season, Pujols was the premiere free agent on their docket. Reyes could potentially come close to replacing that production while occupying just one roster spot, but the Cardinals were never able to join that sweepstakes given the uncertainty surrounding Pujols.
However, the Cardinals don’t need to replace his production with one roster spot, even if that’s more ideal. Adam Wainwright will be back next season, and can probably be counted on for at least 4 WAR — and potentially much more than that depending on his availability — at just $9 million in salary.
Lance Berkman can shift to first base, where his defensive struggles are further masked. As a poor defensive outfielder last season he matched Pujols’s production of 5 WAR. Assuming a decline in his bat is somewhat offset by an improved fielding mark at an easier position, he should produce similarly. Suddenly, that one year, $12 million extension is looking even smarter than it did at the time.
His shift to first base opens up a permanent spot for Allen Craig, who tallied 2.6 WAR with a .312/.362/.555 line in just 200 plate appearances last season. He can clearly hit, and is more than a lefty-crusher who benefited from selective playing time. We can’t simply extrapolate Craig’s 2011 performance over a full season for 2012, but it isn’t out of line to suggest he could hover around 3.5-4 WAR next year.
A full season of David Freese — as opposed to 97 games and 363 PAs would add 1-1.5 wins above replacement as well, and the same can be said of Matt Holliday if he comes closer to 150 games played. Suddenly, the Cardinals have added value without even signing someone, by virtue of welcoming Wainwright back and moving to Berkman to his more natural position.
But they do have $22 million freed up by not signing Pujols and a couple glaring areas of need on the roster. The most notable position to fill is shortstop.
The Cardinals acquired Rafael Furcal towards the end of the season but he’s a free agent now. Reyes has signed with the Marlins and Jimmy Rollins is expected to sign with the Phillies. The Cardinals might not be able to sign a free agent shortstop capable of serving as more than a warm body — though they could certainly get back in on Rollins if they were so inclined — but the available payroll means they could stand to afford someone already signed in a trade.
Whether that means John Mozeliak calls the Orioles about J.J. Hardy, the Indians about Asdrubal Cabrera — who may have priced himself out of the Tribe’s comfort zone in extension talks — or the rebuilding White Sox about Alexei Ramirez, the Cardinals are able to do more than merely make inquiries.
The Cardinals could also sign Carlos Beltran to fill an all-encompassing outfield role, as well as the pinch-hitting and interleague DH role. He could occasionally spell Jay in center field and split time with Craig in right field. He would cost more than a typical role player but would give the Cardinals arguably the best outfield in baseball.
Losing Pujols certainly hurts, but the Cardinals now have enough wiggle room to move players around and make other acquisitions to bolster their odds of succeeding next year. They have a chance to form a more complete team, without committing 10 years and $220 million to any one player.