Why the Cardinals may be better off letting Pujols leave
DALLAS -- Albert Pujols is worth more to the Marlins than to the Cardinals. Sound crazy? Only if you believe in the gilded mythology of an iconic player spending his career with one team. Such franchise icons make for nice narratives, but not always great business sense. Does it make sense for the Cardinals, with no escape hatch of the DH rule, to pay a hitter $25 million a year until he's 42 years old? Only if you believe in the sentimentality of turning Pujols into the next Stan Musial -- forgetting, of course, that Musial never was a free agent. Ask the Twins about the cost of keeping Joe Mauer a Twin for life and the Phillies about Ryan Howard.
The more cold-blooded view is that the Cardinals have a loyal fan base that would survive a Pujols exit, a talented core of players even without him in a winnable division, the post-Pujols money to improve the team elsewhere (hello, Jimmy Rollins?) and a long-term vision that wouldn't suffer from the difficulty of carrying the huge contract of an aging player.
The Marlins, on the other hand, are trying to establish a foothold in South Florida with a once-in-a-franchise-history moment, the opening of their first baseball-only ballpark. The only way Miami can do that is to field a contending team for a four- or five-year window to establish loyal customers. The novelty of a new park wears off fast. The Mets (19 percent), Nationals (22 percent), Pirates (28 percent) and Brewers (30 percent) all suffered massive declines in attendance immediately after the first year by putting bad teams in a new park.
What about the back half of Pujols' contract? Think of it as deferred payments on the cost of trying to seize this opportunity. The contract is a roll of the dice that the Marlins can build something sustainable -- a venture far less likely to work without Pujols.
Observed one GM, trying to make sense of why Pujols might leave the security of St. Louis for the insecurity of Miami, "It may be the Cardinals deep down don't mind so much -- at these numbers -- if he leaves. What the Marlins are doing makes sense short term, but I can't figure out how this makes sense long term. They may well have a long term plan, but I don't know what it is. Who knows if they'll have the revenues long term to support that kind of contract?"
This was the kind of day it was for Chicago baseball Tuesday: The White Sox began a rebuilding process by dumping a 28-year-year old closer under control for six years and the Cubs sat on the sidelines as teams such as Miami and Seattle made runs at Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. The season after the White Sox and Cubs posted losing records with the fifth and sixth highest payrolls in baseball and lost their managers is off to an underwhelming start in Chicago.
Both the White Sox and Cubs are yet to define an identity for 2012, though you might expect whatever emerges will be done with more efficient payrolls then the $128 million and $125 million, respectively, they spent last season.
The Sox stunned many baseball people by trading Sergio Santos and his club-friendly contract to Toronto for a minor league strikeout pitcher, Nestor Molina. With pitcher Mark Buehrle headed elsewhere via free agency and manager Ozzie Guillen allowed to jump out of his contract without compensation, the Sox have begun what figures to be a slow makeover -- a process, as the Cubs have learned, that takes time because of the weight of bad contracts. In 16 months starting July 31, 2009, the White Sox assumed obligations of $172.3 million to Jake Peavy, Alex Rios and Adam Dunn. Whoops!
Since winning the World Series six years ago, the White Sox have yet to win another postseason series and have suffered a decline in attendance five straight years while the payroll has risen to a record level -- a disastrous combination. They've lost almost a million paid customers in five years. Now they have no closer, an itch to dump veterans such as John Danks, Carlos Quentin and Gavin Floyd, a manager with no experience (Robin Ventura) and no chance of ridding the contracts of Peavy, Rios and Dunn.
Likewise, the Cubs are stuck with Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano, about whom one talent evaluator said, "He looked horrible at the end of last season. Just horrible." The Cubs do have the new front office tandem of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, but they are much further from winning in Chicago than in the Boston situation they inherited in 2003. They have two short-term assets with real value in pitchers Matt Garza and Sean Marshall, so they have to turn them into long-term assets by either signing them to extensions or trading them for young players under longer control.
What about Pujols and Fielder? Forget it. The Cubs are no position to hand out a 10-year deal to a heavy-legged player who will be 32 next month, and they are in no financial position to win a bidding war for a young lefthanded slugger. Contrary to reports, the Cubs did not make an offer to Pujols and they are not a player for Fielder.
It's been a long time since both Chicago teams posted a losing record for a second straight year. You have to go all the way back to 1988, when Jim Fregosi was managing the White Sox and Don Zimmer was skippering the Cubs, for back-to-back years without a winning team in Chicago. Both the White Sox and Cubs are defining a rebuilding path, but the short-term cost may be another such drought in Chicago.
For all the talk about Pujols, the most fascinating free agent just might be Yoenis Cespedes, the power-hitting Cuban outfielder who might be an impact player or a bust. It may take $50 million or more to buy such a lottery ticket.
Cespedes is expected to officially gain his free agency status later this month upon establishing residency in the Dominican Republic. One baseball source said the price tag for Cespedes will be "way, way above" the $30.5 million the Reds gave Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman.
What makes Cespedes so fascinating is that no one is certain how his obvious skills will translate into major league baseball, and also because small- and middle-market teams are lining up at taking a chance to find out. The Baltimore Orioles, for instance, will watch Cespedes work out this weekend and are very intrigued about the possibility of adding an impact bat through free agency -- something they otherwise would have major trouble accomplishing with current big leaguers. The Nationals, Blue Jays, Tigers and Marlins are also among the many clubs intrigued by Cespedes.
Even though Cespedes looks like a physical marvel, the risk with him comes from the recent poor history of Cuban hitters when they reach the big leagues. Said one talent evaluator, "Other than Kendry Morales, who hasn't been able to stay healthy, almost none of them have turned out to be the hitters you thought they would. There is an aura about them that has been bigger than the actual performance."
The recent Cuban hitters in the big leagues include Alexei Ramirez, Yunel Escobar, Yuniesky Betancourt, Leonys Martin, Yuniesky Maya, Juan Miranda and Dayan Viciendo. Why might the transition be difficult? Blame it on a steady diet of the best pitchers in the world. Speaking about Cespedes, one baseball source said, "The question is, can he hit 96 [mph] with movement? Because he's never seen 96 with movement. You scout and see the skills and believe that he can. But he's never seen it."
Speaking of international players, the latest on pitcher Yu Darvish, international man of mystery, is that he will be posted before the month is out -- and possibly as soon as next week -- according to two baseball sources. Darvish would instantly become the best pitcher available. His availability could put a hold on the top-tier free agent and trade pitching markets for some clubs. Stay tuned, because clubs have had a hard time reading Darvish's intentions.
In addition to manager Charlie Manuel, Jim Thome will get reacquainted with another old friend when he reports to Phillies' camp this spring: his first baseman's mitt. Manuel said Thome at the start of camp will work out at first base and play in games at the minor league complex. As Thome gets more innings at the position, he will transition to playing in major league games at first base.
Thome has not played first base since one game in 2007 and has played only four games at first base in the past six seasons. He is not expected to be a regular option there while Ryan Howard recuperates from Achilles tendon surgery, but Manuel thinks Thome can play occasionally in the field.
Said Manuel, "We're not going to force it, but do I think he can do it? Yeah, I think he can be an option at first base. I'd like to use him there."