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Pujols-for-Howard makes for great talk but won't happen

JUPITER, Fla. -- Tony La Russa was on his cell phone Tuesday morning as he walked off the field and toward reporters for his daily give-and-give-more with the media. He seemed particularly engaged with the phone call. Reporters waited patiently until he hung up.

"Huh," La Russa said with surprise in his voice. "That was Charlie Manuel."

"Really?" a reporter asked.

"No," La Russa said with comic disgust in his voice. "Not REALLY."

Not really. It's hard to imagine a much more unlikely and unreasonable rumor than this week's Albert Pujols for Ryan Howard trade talk. Well, from what I can gather, the rumor was never really a rumor -- it appears to have come from a simple Buster Olney mention that the Phillies were having internal discussions about proposing a Howard for Pujols deal. I have little doubt this is true. People talk about all sorts of whacked out things "internally." I'm sure that during late night meetings, people have had "internal discussions" about trying to talk LeBron James into playing baseball.

But, somehow, this mention of an internal discussion became a "rumor" and this rumor morphed into "talk" and talk transformed into actual questions of the the actual people involved, leading to either angry denials or comical ones.

The fact that this rumor got ANYWHERE gives you an idea about how hungry we in America are for dramatic trade talk, no matter how illogical. And this is as illogical as they get. Albert Pujols is the most popular athlete in St. Louis -- probably the most popular athlete in St. Louis since Stan Musial. If the Cardinals were bound by law to either a) Trade Pujols or b) Change the team name to the Budweisers and going with a drunken guy wearing a beer hat as their logo, they would lose fewer fans going with b).

Beyond that, Albert Pujols is much, much, much, much (not enough here room for all the muches) better than Ryan Howard. This is not a knock on Howard, who is an excellent player. But the only thing that Howard does even as well as Pujols is hit with power -- and Pujols did hit more homers last year. Howard hits for a much lower average, gets on base much less, is not as good a runner, is not as good a defender, and has become just about useless against left-handed pitching. I mean Pujols is the best player in baseball and Ryan Howard is a very good first baseman. There's nothing wrong with being a very good first baseman. Tiger Woods is the best golfer in the world; Zach Johnson is a very good golfer. Tom Hanks is the most famous actor in the world; Jeff Daniels is a very good actor. It's like that.

The difference between Pujols and Howard last year, based on Wins Above Replacement and Runs Above Replacement, was roughly, oh, about Jason Bay.

So, no, this never had any chance of happening. But even the mere mention of the Phillies talking about it internally sparked a couple of days worth of spring training jabber. The idea of trading one huge star for another is something that constantly intrigues us sports fan. You have no doubt heard that the Yankees and Red Sox came close one drunken night to swapping Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. In fact, Yankees GM George Weiss wrote that the deal was done...the Red Sox backed out. This is one of the great could have beens in sports because of how the change in parks might have changed baseball history. DiMaggio might have hit .400 with the Green Monster at Fenway Park, and Williams might have hit 600 home runs with the short porch in right field.* People often wonder if the Celtics would have won with Chamberlain at center instead of Russell. It would be fascinating to know what the Yankees and Red Sox would have been like after swapping stars. I suspect Williams' reputation as a choker might have gone out the window with the Yankees talent around him.

*Though it should be noted that Williams often said that he never liked hitting at Yankee Stadium. John Updike wrote about this memorably in his famous "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" story for The New Yorker and he quoted Williams' Yankee Stadium passage from Life magazine: "There's the bigness of it. There are those high stands and all those people smoking -- and, of course, the shadows...It takes at least one series to get accustomed to the Stadium and even then you're not sure."

There have been other gigantic trade rumors -- according to Bill James, around 1914 the Tigers and Red Sox had a deal in place sending Ty Cobb to Boston and Tris Speaker to Detroit. The deal fell through because Cobb got hurt. Could you imagine Cobb and Babe Ruth playing on the same team?

In late 1959, the Kansas City A's were about to send Roger Maris to the Pirates in exchange for Dick Groat -- and the Pirates pulled out at the last minute. The A's quickly dealt Maris to the Yankees in a seven-player deal. And Maris and Groat won the MVP Awards in 1960.

In 1975, there was some serious talk about Kansas City sending George Brett to Cincinnati for Tony Perez; it fell through. Well, hey, if you talk to any baseball GM, they will tell you about some impossibly gigantic trade that "almost happened."

Funny thing: These trades tend to work better as imaginary "What might have been" deals than they do in real life. Perhaps the most famous one-for-one trade ever happened on April 17, 1960 -- two days before the season began -- when Cleveland traded home run champ Rocky Colavito to Detroit in exchange for batting champ Harvey Kuenn. That seemed like a great and intriguing deal -- power for finesse. It turned out to be a terrible trade for Cleveland -- the cursed trade for Cleveland's bard Terry Pluto. Colavito was 26 and still had six or seven productive years left. Kuenn was 29, and he never again played 135 games in a season. Colavito was especially good in that expansion season of 1961, when he hit .292/.402/.580 with 45 home runs and the Tigers won 101 games (but lost the pennant). Kuenn lasted in Cleveland one year, had a decent enough year, and then was traded away for Johnny Antonelli and Willie Kirkland.

In 1926 -- in what was more or less a one-for-one deal -- the Cardinals traded Rogers Hornsby to the Giants for Frankie Frisch (and a pitcher named Jimmy Ring). Hornsby was 30, about to turn 31, and was coming off the worst offensive season of his career -- though .317/.388/.463 for a second baseman hardly seems like a tragic season*. On top of that, he was also manager of that team, which won the World Series. Hornsby stayed with the team throughout the World Series even though his mother died on the day of Game 1 -- baseball was Hornsby's entire life (except for playing the horses). He only hit .250 in the Series, and some among the Cardinals thought he looked old. And, of course, he always was a pain in the Hornsby. He had to go.

*A season like that only looks tragic when a player is coming off a .403/.489/.756 MVP season that, remarkably, wasn't even as good offensive as the year before (in 1924, Hornsby had hit .424/.507/..696).

Frisch, meanwhile, was 28 and also coming off what was probably the worst offensive season of his career -- .314/.353.409, a 105 OPS+. He had been a key part of four pennant-winning Giants teams between 1921-24, but he apparently had a savage argument with Giants manager John McGraw during the 1926 season and left for a little while. He returned and played out the season, but it was clear he had to go.

The trade cost the Cardinals plenty -- they had to come up with a way to buy all of Hornsby's shares in the team. But it was great for the Cardinals -- Frisch's presence, better defense and solid hitting made him a staple of the Gas House Gang. The Cardinals would play in four World Series with Frisch -- the last with Frisch as a player/manager.

Meanwhile, the Hornsby thing didn't work with the Giants. John McGraw was one of Hornsby's rare friends -- the two tended to see baseball about the same way. They also enjoyed going to the track together. Trouble is, nobody else could stand Hornsby -- and this was especially true of Giants owner Horace Stoneham. Hornsby had a big offensive year with the Giants (he led the league with a 175 OPS+) and he filled in effectively as manager when McGraw fell ill for a month. But Stoneham traded him away after that year -- according to legend without McGraw's consent or knowledge. Hornsby was that kind of guy. He would hit .387 the next year with Boston to lead the league and at the end of the year he was traded again.

Point being, that in general when these preposterously big trades actually happens, one team will usually get a huge advantage. The Reds thought they were getting one of the best young pitchers in baseball, Milt Pappas, when they traded Frank Robinson to the Orioles. Didn't work out that way. The Cubs thought they were getting a terrific pitcher, Ernie Broglio, when they traded Lou Brock to the Cardinals. Not so much.

The Phillies and Cardinals are probably the two best teams in the National League this year. Sure, the Dodgers and the Rockies are in the discussion, maybe a couple of other teams, but in seems, on paper at least, that the Phillies and Cardinals are the best. The Phillies have that combination of good starting pitching -- especially with Roy Halladay looking primed for a ridiculously good year -- and stars throughout their lineup. The Cardinals have Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright at the top of their rotation, a nice mix of youth and experience in their lineup, and the best player in baseball.

They are going into the season looking just right. Their first basemen perfectly fit their clubs. There's no real intrigue in how they would do anywhere else, at least not for me. Ryan Howard will slug 45 home runs because he always slugs 45 home runs. He will make Phillies fans happy with his 140 RBIs because in that lineup, with his power, he will always knock in 140. He's good enough defensively and good enough on the bases to go mostly unnoticed there. He hits right-handers so hard -- last year he hit .319/.395/.691 against righties -- that his left-handed splits will mostly just be a nuisance. He's a terrific player who should always been close to the heart of Phillies fans.

And Pujols? He remains close to the perfect player for St. Louis fans -- the staggeringly good hitter, the aggressive base runner, the intense defensive player, and a man respectful of the Cardinals past. This is not to say that Pujols would not be the perfect Phillies player or the perfect Royals player or, hard to imagine, the perfect Cubs player. With his talent and work ethic, he would be perfect anywhere. But he was drafted by St. Louis, and now he fits St. Louis; he fits better than the Arch. People wonder if the Cardinals will come up with the money to pay Pujols ... I would suggest they have no choice. Trade him? Are you kidding? The Cardinals are entirely wrapped up in Albert Pujols.

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