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Forget Howard -- would trading Pujols make any sense at all?

Just when you thought the hot stove league was over, along comes a juicy rumor involving a mega-trade of superstars Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard. Never mind that the rumor has been overblown and that all parties have denied it. After all, Buster Olney's report simply stated that the Phillies have had "internal discussions" about trading for Pujols. I can't be sure, but I'd guess that a lot of teams over the years have probably tried thinking about ways of acquiring the game's best player. That doesn't mean that a trade is happening. Still, as a fan, I love these types of rumors, and nothing captures the imagination quite like a trade involving two of the most beloved home run hitters of a generation. Thinking about these types of trades is fun, even if, like this one, it's pure fantasy.

So, even though this trade isn't likely to go down any time soon, let's take a look at the deal on its merits. From a purely baseball standpoint, Pujols is a vastly better player than Howard and should continue to be so in the foreseeable future. Both are 30 years old and play first base. Howard's OPS+ has been an outstanding 136 over the past three years (100 is average). However, Pujols' OPS+ has been an out-of-this-world 178. Toss in the fact that Howard is only an average first baseman, while Pujols is Gold Glove-caliber, and the two players are not really even close. According to the sabermetrics site Fangraphs, Howard is projected to produce about 4.4 wins for the Phillies in 2010, while Pujols is projected to produce more than 7 wins for the Cardinals.

Of course, in today's world, trades are not made from purely a baseball standpoint; GM's must also take into account the contracts of each of the players. Despite the fact that Pujols is a much better player than Howard, a straight-up deal could potentially be an even trade if Howard had a vastly more favorable contract. In this case, both teams hold the rights to their superstar for just two more years, after which they'll be up for grabs as they hit free agency. What's the difference between those two-year contracts? Pujols is actually signed for less money than Howard, despite the fact that Howard still has just four years of major league service under his belt. Pujols will make $32 million over the next two years, while Howard will make $39 million. So, given that Pujols is better and cheaper than Howard, the deal is a non-starter for St. Louis. I wouldn't blame the Phillies for trying -- a Howard-for-Pujols trade would be an absolute steal for Philadelphia -- but a deal like that simply ain't happening.

If offering Howard can't pry away the best player in baseball, a more interesting question might be whether any player could be dealt straight up for Albert Pujols. While you can't get better than Pujols on the field, perhaps a younger, outstanding player with a cheaper contract would be worth a deal. The problem is, Pujols himself is already a steal. At $16 million per year, his salary may sound like a lot of money, but according to Fangraphs, his production over the past few years has actually been worth about $40 million per year. That's an enormous savings for the Cardinals, making Pujols and his contract an extremely valuable commodity.

A rival player that springs to mind is the underrated, but prodigiously talented 26-year-old Hanley Ramirez of the Marlins. Ramirez has been a monster at the plate, hitting .342 last year with power. In addition, he knows how to take a walk and has speed. However, the real kicker is that he does all this while playing shortstop -- one of the toughest positions on the diamond. Over the past few seasons he has been worth 6 or 7 wins to his club. That's not quite Pujolsian, but he's significantly more valuable than Ryan Howard. In addition, Ramirez is signed to a very reasonable contract through 2014. He'll make a paltry $7 million in 2010 and just $10 million in 2011. Just looking at the next two years, by trading for Ramirez, the Cardinals would get a player nearly as good as Pujols but for $15 million less. Not bad. Not only that, but in 2012, when Pujols will be seeking an A-Rod style deal on the free-agent market (unless the Cardinals sign him to a mega-extension), Ramirez will still be toiling for his club at the quite reasonable rate of $15.5 million for the next three seasons.

So would a Pujols-for-Ramirez trade actually be a good one for St. Louis? If I'm only concerned about team-building, I like the deal. But if I'm concerned about franchise-building, I'd think twice. Pujols is one the greatest stars in the history of the game. It's no surprise that the fans St. Louis adore him, and that he has become the face of the franchise. Even if the team isn't doing well, he surely has drawing power at the gate and he is invaluable to the Cardinals brand.

A team's relationship to its fans is built on trust. At the end of the day, the fan comes out to the ballpark because he has an emotional bond with the team and its players. It's bad enough when a fan favorite walks away due to free agency, but for a team to willingly trade a fan's hero, especially for another established player, is tantamount to betrayal. To the average fan, it matters little whether the team has actually improved its long-term prospects for success or not. What matters is that the player they've grown attached to is gone. And with him, a little piece of that trust that the fans invested in the team is gone, too. It's awfully hard to quantify or put a dollar value on something like this, but I think the effect is significant. That said, it's very difficult to think of a scenario in which Cardinals fans would approve of a Pujols trade, and because of this it's very difficult to imagine the Cardinals ever actually dealing him, even if they were faced with a seemingly fair offer of a player like Hanley Ramirez.

In 1960 the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers made a deal very much like that. Of course, they didn't have to worry about contracts, but Cleveland sent its league-leading power hitter, Rocky Colavito, to Detroit in exchange for batting champion Harvey Kuenn. The Tigers got the better end of that deal on the field, but the fact was that the trade proved to be very unpopular among the fan bases of both clubs. Fans like their stars, and they don't like management trading them without good cause. In the case of St. Louis and Albert Pujols, there's really nothing that necessitates a deal, and even a talent like Ramirez probably wouldn't be enough for them to endure the negative PR and intense fan backlash that would come with a Pujols trade. Hence Pujols may really be one of baseball's truly untouchable players.

While the Pujols-Howard rumor is likely going to remain just that -- a rumor -- and the only "internal discussions" concerning a Pujols-Ramirez deal have presumably been the ones inside my own head (repeat: entirely hypothetical with absolutely no basis in fact), the questions that teams have to grapple with are real. Some things continue to be no-brainers though -- if I'm ever offered Albert Pujols for Ryan Howard, fans be damned, I'm taking the deal.

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