Angels Bet the Future on Albert Pujols

For the second year in a row, the “Mystery Team” has proven that they’re not a myth. This year, though, I’m having a harder time explaining the logic behind the move. Last year, Cliff Lee wanted to go back to Philadelphia, the Phillies were in win-now mode after compiling a roster that was just one piece away, and the two were able to work out a deal for an amount similar to what other teams were bidding.

This year, however, the Angels decided to blow the doors off the Albert Pujols sweepstakes, and they got their man by outbidding everyone else in a pretty significant way. The reported deal has the final dollar figure landing in the $250 to $260 million range over the next 10 years, nearly 13 percent higher than the next best reported offer (which has been disputed) and 25 percent higher than the offer the Cardinals reportedly made before the bidding got hot and heavy. And while I love Albert Pujols, it’s going to take a lot of things going right for this to work out for the Angels.

At $250 million over 10 years, the Angels are essentially paying for something close to 40 wins over the life of the deal. In order to believe he’ll produce at that level, you need to see Pujols as something close to a +6.7 win player now and will age fairly well, which is possible but is not the most likely outcome in this scenario. You also need to believe that he’s not lying about his age – if he is, there’s almost no chance this deal works for Anaheim. And, of course, you need him to stay healthy, which bigger guys often can’t do in their thirties. The Angels have absorbed a massive amount of risk by guaranteeing Pujols this much money for so long, and while the potential for him to earn it is there, it’s not clear that this is the best path they could have taken.

After all, the Angels didn’t exactly have a glaring need for a first baseman. Despite Mark Trumbo‘s lack of walks and oft-mocked OBP, his power served to make him a league average player as a rookie, and with a little future boost in his BABIP, projecting him as a +3 win player going forward isn’t a huge stretch. You don’t pass on Albert Pujols because you already have Mark Trumbo on the roster, but having a decent first baseman making the league minimum at least put the team in the position to not have to act desperate. When you factor in the potential that Kendrys Morales may recover some of his previous productivity after missing most of last year, the Angels had some in-house, low-cost options for 1B/DH.

Now, the Angels have to shift a lot of things around to fit Pujols into the roster. With 1B closed off, the Angels now have essentially three spots in the line-up for some combination of Trumbo, Morales, Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu, Vernon Wells, and Mike Trout. If you simply shift Trumbo/Morales to DH, then Abreu/Wells/Hunter likely become the de facto corner outfielders, and Trout begins 2012 back in Triple-A, biding his time until the overpaid and mediocre get out of his way.

This seems to be the most likely scenario, as it’s the one that doesn’t require the Angels to do anything too terribly drastic, but it’s also the one that is perhaps the worst use of their resources. Trumbo’s less valuable as a DH than as a first baseman, Abreu is less valuable if he ever has to put on a glove, and whatever playing time goes to Wells could have been better allocated to Trout, who is just the better player between the two even at his current stage of development.

There are more radical plans – release Wells, move Trumbo to third base – that could offer the team a chance to keep Trout on the roster, but it’s more likely that the Angels take the conservative approach and stick with the veterans as they push for a playoff spot in 2012. Especially with the addition of C.J. Wilson as well, the team is making a clear push for contention, and most organizations don’t prioritize playing time for 20-year-olds while making a run at October baseball.

This all gets a lot easier in 2013, when the contracts for Hunter and Abreu expire and Morales will be eligible for free agency, so you could argue that the Angels were just getting their shopping for next winter done a year early, and have given themselves a chance to land a player who simply wasn’t going to be on the market in 12 months. However, even with those contracts coming off the books next winter, it’s not clear that the Angels should have been allocating a significant part of their payroll to a 1B/DH anyway.

Dan Haren‘s only under team control through 2013, and if they hope to keep him slotted into their rotation behind Jered Weaver, he’s going to require a pretty significant contract extension, probably somewhere north of $100 million on his own. Likewise, Ervin Santana is a free agent after 2013, and there’s already talk that the team will try to trade him now that they have Pujols and Wilson in the fold. Meanwhile, starting catcher Chris Iannetta can void his contract to become a free agent next winter, while second baseman Howie Kendrick, shortstop Erick Aybar, and quality infielder Maicer Izturis are set to hit the open market as well.

It’s simply going to be cost prohibitive to retain all or even most of those guys, so the Angels have likely chosen Pujols over retaining their in-house players who will be up for big raises in the not too distant future. I don’t know that spending $25 million per year on Pujols is actually going to provide a better return than using that money to lock up some combination of Aybar, Kendrick, and Haren, and if the Angels have to let several of those players go to keep their payrolls at reasonable levels, it’s not clear that they’ve actually improved their ability to contend during the time when Pujols still projects as an elite player.

If the Cardinals had signed him to this same deal, I think I probably could have talked myself into it. Pujols is great enough that this kind of contract isn’t totally crazy on its face, but when you look at the context of the Angels situation and how much this actually improves them, I just don’t know that this is how they should have spent $250 million. Perhaps Arte Moreno will approve payroll increases up to $200 million and they’ll be able to keep the core of their team together, but if I was an Angels fan, I’d be a little worried that I might be heading to the park to watch Pujols play with a cast of teammates that just aren’t quite good enough to keep up with the Rangers in the AL West.

The Angels are now contenders in 2012, but I don’t know if the present value added for the next year or two is worth the long term consequences of this contract. The Angels are going to need a lot of things to break their way in order for this to work.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.