On Wednesday night, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported that the Marlins, as expected, had withdrawn from the running to sign Albert Pujols, the best baseball player of the past decade and the man who will, if he continues on a normal career path, will retire as the greatest right-handed hitter of all time. The interesting thing about all this is that he also reported that two new teams–along with St. Louis–had entered the running to sign Pujols: the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, whom ESPN’s Jayson Stark later said had offered the top first baseman on the market a deal worth somewhere north of $210 million over 10 years, and an unidentified third team.
Whatever. That’s interesting, but not really worth sharing with you guys on a Phillies blog. But then I noticed, at a quarter to three in the morning, right before I was going to go to bed, that Stark tweeted this:
And now I can’t sleep.
A couple of qualifications before we go any further:
1) There might not even be an unidentified third team, and if there is, it may not have a first baseman it needs to move. This is not to say that Nightengale and Stark, two reporters I’ve enjoyed reading since I was a child, have fabricated this rumor, but who knows what their sources are, and if they’re telling the truth or even part of the truth. The point is, this could all be complete bullshit, and I acknowledge that possibility.
2) Even if there is an unidentified third team, I still think Pujols is going back to St. Louis. I base this on no special inside information that isn’t readily accessible to you, just a gut feeling.
3) I want to apologize in advance for the effects of this post, if any, whatever they may be.
But just for fun, and because something I realized during this thought experiment jolted me completely back awake, I want to take you through a little deductive reasoning exercise to find teams that 1) have the kind of money to sign a player to a $22-25 million per year contract for 10 years and 2) have a first baseman that you’d have to worry about moving.
First, let’s eliminate the teams we already know who are or were in for Pujols: St. Louis, Los Angeles of Anaheim, and Miami (though the Marlins have money and multiple good first basemen already and there’s certainly nothing preventing them from getting back in on Pujols).
Next, eliminate the 16 teams that would be priced out of Pujols: the Mets, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Diego, Oakland, Tampa, Minnesota, Arizona, Colorado, Cleveland, Kansas City, San Francisco, Houston, the White Sox, and the L.A. Dodgers.
Then, out with the five teams that might have the money to sign Pujols but don’t have an established first baseman worth making an effort to get rid of: Baltimore, Toronto, Milwaukee, the Cubs, and Texas Rangers.
That leaves six teams that fit Stark’s description: the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Tigers, the Mariners, the Nationals, and, yes, the Phillies. You can see why this would keep me awake.
Let’s go through each one of the candidates one by one.
Yeah, Pujols at, let’s say, 10 years and $230 million is probably a better deal than Adrian Gonzalez at the 6 years and $133 million he has left, but I’m not positive, because Gonzalez is two years younger than Pujols and is himself coming off a nearly-7-win season. I’m actually not sure I wouldn’t rather have Gonzalez and his deal, and even if I preferred Pujols, it’d be a huge stink to trade Gonzalez in a hurry, likely for less than he’s worth, to commit longer to a slightly better player who is two years older.
Cabrera is even younger than Gonzalez and, with four years and $86 million left on his deal, is better value. Despite his issues with off-the-field discipline, I’d be shocked if Detroit would move Cabrera for anyone, even Pujols. Of course, with Cabrera’s terrible defense, he’d make a decent DH, but if they kept him, the Tigers wouldn’t be able to afford Pujols.
New York Yankees
Mark Teixeira has 5 years and $112.5 million left on his deal and has many of the same concerns as Cabrera and Gonzalez, but, entering his age 32 season, he’s not as good as either of those two, coming off arguably the worst season of his career and averaging 4 wins over the past three seasons compared to nearly 7 WAR for Cabrera and Gonzalez and a smidge more for Pujols. Given the Yankees’ pathological attachment to having the most and best toys, the Yankees can’t be dismissed out of hand.
Seattle’s got some money, but not tons. However, they’ve been quiet but hardly secretive about their desire to sign Prince Fielder, and given that, why not fork over a little extra for Pujols. However, they do have an established first baseman in Justin Smoak, whom you know as the centerpiece of the other Cliff Lee trade, the one that sent Lee to Texas, if you know him at all. I’ve always been a fan of Smoak’s, mostly because he and I were the same year at South Carolina. (I was actually in a bar once as a senior and watched Smoak, Duce Staley, and the late Kenny McKinley all show up independently of each other. It was weird, but that’s neither here nor there.) Still, Smoak was drafted 11th overall by Texas because who doesn’t want a switch-hitting first baseman who plays good defense, hits for a high average and above-average power, and has great plate discipline.
Of course, Smoak’s 2011 was mostly a writeoff because of injuries (to both thumbs and his face) and the unexpected death of his father, so if the Mariners don’t think he can bounce back, why not sign Pujols? Here’s the thing, though: the Mariners are desperate for good hitters–they gave Chone Figgins and his .484 OPS 313 plate appearances last year, after all–so why not keep Smoak, who’s 25 and years away from free agency, and play him at DH? Or play him at first and DH the older Pujols? Either way, Pujols’ arrival would not necessitate Smoak’s departure from Seattle. For that reason, I don’t buy Seattle being the mystery team.
Washington’s first baseman is nominally Adam LaRoche, who really isn’t worth worrying about as a player to block Pujols, and probably won’t be healthy enough to play much this season, and even if he were, is a free agent after the season. In his absence, Mike Morse, whose breakout 31-homer season allowed Nats fans to worry less about Jayson Werth‘s unimpressive introduction to our nation’s capital, will get the lion’s share of the playing time at first. If I were Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, who has both the war chest and the balls to pull off a Pujols deal, I’d move Morse to make room for Pujols….if Morse couldn’t play left field. Just like Smoak and Seattle, there’s no need to trade one of your best, cost-controlled hitters if he can move elsewhere to make way for Pujols.
Yeah, we know after the Cliff Lee Incident of 2011 that “Mystery Team” means “Philadelphia Phillies,” but all optimism and homerism aside, this is the team that actually makes the most sense to be Stark’s third bidder. Ryan Howard is an established first baseman and, unlike Smoak or Morse, can’t be moved to another position, and, unlike Teixeira, Gonzalez, or Cabrera, represents a markedly inferior player to Pujols. After only one season of more than 3 rWAR or better since his MVP year in 2006 and two embarrassing final at-bats to playoff runs, the sheen is starting wear off of Howard in the eyes of Phillies fans both analytically inclined and otherwise.
That and I’m thoroughly convinced that Ruben Amaro is an genuine maniac whose smugness and myopia are surpassed only by his ambition. A deal like this would represent a colossal upgrade at first base for the Phillies and represent not only one of the great wheeler-dealer moments of recent sports history but a headline-maker to end all headline makers. Flipping Howard and signing Pujols out of nowhere is precisely the kind of move Ruben Amaro would make.
The problem is Howard’s contract, which I had managed not to mention until now, but in order to nab Pujols and still have enough money left over to, say, re-sign Jimmy Rollins or extend Cole Hamels, the recipient would have to eat most or all of Howard’s $25 million-a-year contract over the next five years, which would require not only for the Phillies to receive relatively little in return for their cleanup hitter, but for the Phillies to either eat a large portion of that contract or send another relatively large piece along with Howard. A piece like Vance Worley, Sebastian Valle, or Domonic Brown. Or Cole Hamels.
Look, it’s late and I’ve probably overthought what will turn out to be absolutely nothing, but let’s assume Stark’s source was telling the truth and that there’s a serious bidder for Pujols that’s trying to move its established first baseman to make room–I honestly can’t think of a more likely candidate than the Phillies.