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Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 14: Albert Pujols signs with the Angels

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 14: Albert Pujols Signs With the Angels

 

From 2001 through 2011, Albert Pujols forged a Hall of Fame career with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was an out-of-nowhere Rookie of the Year in 2001 (really, the Cardinals were going to play Bobby Bonilla ahead of him that year before Pujols forced the issue). He won three MVP Awards. He won six Silver Slugger Awards. He was a nine-time All-Star. He even, if you can believe it after all these years, won a couple of Gold Glove Awards.

During his time with the Cardinals Pujols had an aggregate batting line of .328/.420/.617 (OPS+ 170), hit 445 home runs, drove in 1,329 runs, scored 1,291 more, and even stole 84 bases. He won the 2003 batting title, hitting .359. He led the league in runs five times, home runs twice, slugging and OPS three times each, OPS+, total bases, and intentional walks four times, and hits, average, on-base-percentage, doubles, and RBI once each. He was also the NLCS MVP in 2004 and had an OPS over 1.000 in 74 postseason games with the Cards while picking up World Series rings in 2006 and 2011.

I throw this phrase around a lot on this site but in this case I can say with great confidence that if Albert Pujols had been hit by a bus on December 7, 2011, having only played 11 seasons in the big leagues, he would still have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer and no one would’ve hesitated for a moment to vote him in.

Then, on December 8, 2011, he signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Los Angles Angels. In the eight years since he inked that deal Pujols has done nothing to take away all the astounding things he did in St. Louis, but he has certainly been a different player. One who, rightfully or wrongfully, has changed the conversation about big free agent contracts.

At the outset I should note it’s not as if someone had flipped a switch on Pujols the moment he signed that deal. That’s the narrative — one that even I often default to, as evidenced above — but he had actually began a slight decline before he joined the Angels. He was still an All-Star caliber player, obviously, but the other-worldly Pujols of 2003-2009, who put up a WAR over 8 each year and over 9 in one of those years, had “declined” to a 7.5 WAR in 2010 and a 5.3 WAR in 2011, with both his offense and defense taking a step back. And hey, it makes sense: Pujols turned 30 before the 2010 season, and that’s when even most great players begin to plateau or, in many cases, begin a gradual descent from the mountaintop.

Not that the Angels expected Pujols to maintain the level of production he had in St. Louis. Sure, they would’ve liked it, but even they had to know it was impossible. Indeed, the plan was almost certainly for them to get a few more great years out of him — four? five? — and get over a hump on which they were stuck in the AL West.

The previous year the Angels had finished in second place behind the rival Texas Rangers. Just a couple of years before they had won 97 games and the division. By adding Pujols and a couple more free agents — they signed top free agent pitcher C.J. Wilson away from Texas that year as well and would do the same by signing Josh Hamilton the following year — it was no doubt owner Arte Moreno’s hope that they’d snag a World Series title or two before Father Time caught up with Pujols. If it finally did in, say, 2016 or 2017, sure, there’d be some bad years on the end of that contract, but in the meantime they would’ve won a lot, would’ve made a a big splash, would’ve brought in a huge name, and would’ve excited fans in the process.

Pujols, however, who was 32 the first time he swung a bat for the Angels, almost immediately became a different player than he had been with the Cardinals.  As measured by WAR, his first season with the Angels, 2012, was the worst of his career. It would also be the best season he would ever have as an Angel. In 2013 he posted career worsts in hits, runs scored, doubles, home runs, RBI, walks, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS. Also beginning in 2013 he began to be bedeviled by foot injuries which would cost him hundreds of games and sap his production even more in the coming years.

From 2014-16 Pujols remained a slightly above-average hitter, topping 40 homers once and 30 once, but he was one dimensional, a big liability on defense and on the base paths. For the past three seasons he has been among the worst overall players in the game. The only offensive categories he has ever lead the league in is grounding into double plays, which he was done four times. He is still loved by fans and he continues to reach major milestones — he has surpassed both the 500 and 600 home run plateau and the 3,000 hit mark and is the active leader in almost every offensive counting stat that matters — but there is no escaping the fact that he is a shell of his former self.

For the past several years, however, his game has not been the primary subject of discussion when his name comes up. Rather, it’s his contract. A contract which escalated in annual salary as it went on, paying him only $12 million in 2012, but topping $23 million by 2014 and going up by one million dollars each and every year since. He’ll make $29 million in 2020 and $30 million in 2021 before his contract and, presumably, his career ends.

There are many other contracts in the free agency era which have been called “albatrosses” but Pujols’ tends to top the lists of such beasts when they are complied. Whether that’s a fair assessment depends on how you measure it. One could, for example, make an argument that via some function of dollars per any number of units of production it is among the worst ever. Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Giancarlo Stanton and many others might prove to be worse or could even be considered worse now, but Pujols will always at least be in the conversation.

The concept of an “albatross contract,” however, is usually not a concept related solely to production. Rather, it is brought up in connection with how the deal’s existence hamstrings the team from making other moves. By that measure Arte Moreno has not been so hamstrung, having handed out many other big money contracts since that time, all while having drawn over three million fans for 16 straight years. On top of all of that, just this month he spent hundreds of millions to buy the Angels’ stadium and surrounding real estate from the city of Anaheim. The Angels have failed to surround multi-time MVP Mike Trout with enough talent to contend over the past decade, but when you look at it fairly, it’s hard to say that’s because of money allocated to Albert Pujols as opposed to simply poor baseball decisions on the part of the front office.

Still, Pujols’ contract, and his diminished production since he signed it, seems to have changed the conversation about big free agent deals. Any time a top player hits free agency, the question of whether or not it will be an “albatross” or whether it will “hamstring” the signing team is mentioned. In almost every instance, Pujols’ deal with the Angels is cited as an example. And a warning. It’s not unreasonable to say that teams’ increasing disinclination to sign free agents over 30 to anything close to significant deals is, at least in part, attributable to the example of Pujols’ deal. Or, at the very least, is a stated justification for teams not wanting to sign such deals, be it a genuine one or otherwise.

Which, in a certain sense, has made it one of the more influential free agent signings in the game’s history. And certainly the most notable one of the past decade.

 

PREVIOUS ENTRIES:

No. 15: Baseball Continues a Remarkable Run of Labor Peace
No. 16: Baseball implements a domestic violence policy
No. 17: Cardinals Employee Hacks Astros’ Database
No. 18: Frank and Jamie McCourt Bankrupt the Dodgers
No. 19: Baseball Embraces Gambling
No. 20: The Hall of Fame Logjam
No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal

Don’t let Rob Manfred pass the buck

Rob Manfred
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Yesterday morning, in Ken Rosenthal’s article, Rob Manfred made it pretty clear what his aim is at the moment: throw blame on the union for the sign stealing scandal getting to the place it is. It was clear in both his words and Rosenthal’s words, actually:

In fairness, Manfred was not alone in failing to see the future clearly. As far back as 2015, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) expressed concerns to MLB about the rise of technology in the sport. The union, however, did not directly focus on the threat to the game’s integrity.

Then, in his press conference yesterday, he went farther, saying that the union refused to allow a situation in which punishment might happen, going so far as to claim that the union refused to make Astros players available for interviews without blanket immunity.

The union, both in its official statement last night and in Tony Clark’s words to Yahoo’s Hannah Keyser earlier this afternoon, is basically saying Manfred is full of it:

“We were approached with respect to their intentions to not discipline players. Our legal role and responsibility is inherent in accepting that consideration, which is what we did.”

Which is to say, it was Rob Manfred, and not the union, which started from the presumption that there was immunity for Astros players. Manfred is the one who settled on that at the outset, and he’s now trying to make it look like the union was the side that insisted on it so that people who are mad will get mad at Tony Clark for defending the indefensible as opposed to getting mad at him for creating a situation in which there was no legal way to punish Astros players.

And, as we have noted many times already, he did create that situation.

It’s undisputed that Manfred never attempted to make rules or set forth discipline for players stealing signs. Indeed, he did the opposite of that, saying over two years ago that GMs and managers, not players, would be held responsible. If he wanted to discipline players now, he’d have a big problem because he specifically excluded them from discipline then. I’d argue it was a mistake for him to do that — he should’ve said, three years ago, that everyone’s butt would be on the line if the cheating continued — but he didn’t.

Some people I’ve spoken to are taking the position that the union is still to blame here. I’m sort of at a loss as to how that could be.

It is the union’s job to protect its members from arbitrary punishment by management. It is not the union’s job to say “hey, I know our workers were off the hook here based on the specific thing you said, but maybe we should give them some retroactive punishment anyway?” If someone in charge of a union proposed that, they’d be in dereliction of their duties and could be fired and/or sued. Probably should be, actually. A lot of people might be mad about that, and I know fully well that unions aren’t popular. But then again, neither are criminal defense attorneys, and they don’t go up to prosecutors and say “well, there isn’t a law against what my client did — in fact, the governor issued an order a couple of years ago saying that what he did wasn’t prohibited — but we’re all kind of mad about it, so why don’t we work together to find a way to put him in jail, eh?” It’d be insane.

That doesn’t make anyone feel better now. The players are certainly mad, with new ones every day finding a camera to yell at over all of this. I get it. What has happened is upsetting. It’s a situation in which some members of the union are at odds with other members. It’s not an easy situation to navigate.

They should take that anger, however, and channel it into telling their leader, Tony Clark, that they don’t want this to happen again. That, to the extent Rob Manfred now, belatedly, proposes new rules and new punishments for sign-stealing or other things, he should get on board with that. They should also — after the yelling dies down — maybe think a little bit about how, if the facts were slightly different here, they would never argue that Rob Manfred should have the power to impose retroactive or other non-previously-negotiated punishment on players.

Either way, neither they nor any of the rest of us should take Manfred’s bait and try to claim that what’s happening now is the union’s fault. If, for no other reason, than because he doesn’t have much credibility when it comes to this whole scandal. Remember, he’s the guy who issued a report saying that, except for Alex Cora, it was only players involved despite knowing at the time he said it that the front office had hatched the scheme in the first place. Which, by the way, similarly sought to make the players out to be the only ones to blame while protecting people on management’s side. He’s not someone who can be trusted in any of this, frankly.

At the end of the day, this was a scheme perpetrated by both front office and uniformed personnel of the Houston Astros. To the extent nothing more can be done about that than already has been done, blame it on Rob Manfred’s failure of leadership. Not on the MLB Players Association.