The Pujols signing: Money matters, and why shouldn’t it?

Want to blame someone for the $254 million contract Albert Pujols agreed to with the Angels Thursday? Try the Phillies.

Because if the Phillies hadn’t spent all that money needlessly extending the contract of their own first baseman, Ryan Howard, Pujols might not have needed all the affirmation he sought from the Angels.

The Cardinals were consistent to the end: they didn’t get it. Either that, or they didn’t want to commit that kind of money for that long a time, and that theory is belied by the $120 million over seven years they’re already paying Matt Holliday.

There’s a cruel irony there. The Cardinals’ last offer to Pujols was reportedly merely a million or two less per year, and two years less, than what they’re already paying Holliday, whose greatest contribution to their 2011 World Series triumph was getting picked off third base, jamming a pinky and yielding his spot in the lineup to Allen Craig.

It’s true that when athletes say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money. But it’s not only about the money.

Boston Celtics center Bill Russell once was paid $1 more than Wilt Chamberlain; like Pujols, it wasn’t just how much that mattered, but how much more. The same competitiveness that drives Pujols to hit better than everyone else motivates him to be paid better, too.

The Cardinals’ final offer to Pujols reportedly would have made him the fourth-highest paid first baseman in baseball. After a decade in which he’s been the best hitter in baseball, did they really expect him not to think that was belittling?

Of course, good baseball business is to pay forward, not backward, and the Cardinals can’t totally be blamed for not overpaying forward. Pujols will be 32 on the next opening day, and he’s coming off the worst season of his career (granted, that’s like being the shortest center in the NBA; you’re still tall, and Pujols’ worst season is still All-Star caliber).

Pujols hit less than .300 for the first time in 2011, and he had his lowest OPS ever (.906), by 49 points. A good season, but not $25 million worth (his postseason performance — a .333 average, and 13 extra-base hits in 65 at-bats — decidedly was).

“I will say that Albert Pujols’ age to me is not a concern,” Angels GM Jerry Dipoto said, accoding to “. . . I’m not a scientist, but I can tell you he hits like he’s 27 . . .”

He’s not a mathematician, either, because Pujols decidedly did not hit like he was 27 in 2011 — from ages 26-29, Pujols’ OPS three times topped 1.100, or 200 points more than this year’s. You don’t have to be a scientist, rocket or otherwise, to know that’s significant dropoff.

Does it mean Pujols is a bad signing, or the regression is permanent? Not necessarily. The Angels decided the postseason Pujols would be the 2012 Pujols, and they might be right. Besides, they’re already paying Vernon Wells $21 million per year; what’s another couple of million per year for actual production?

Or ask yourself this: would you rather be the Red Sox paying $20-some million to Carl Crawford in 2012, or the Angels paying $25 million to Pujols? That’s what we thought.

So who gains the most?

  • The Angels, who with Pujols and ex-Rangers pitcher C.J. Wilson, are the December favorites for 2012 as the Red Sox, with Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, were last winter. The Angels might want to remember how much that was worth to the Sox.
  • The Pirates, who with Pujols gone from the Cardinals and Prince Fielder about to leave the Brewers, can entertain fantasies about winning the NL Central.
  • New Cubs executive Theo Epstein, who has already closed the gap on the Cardinals in little more than a month on the job.

And who loses less than you think?

  • The Cardinals, who will find out if Series hero Craig can do in 500 at-bats what he did in 200 last year. Craig had a higher OPS than Pujols (.917 to .906) and homered once every nine postseason at-bats. He won’t outperform Pujols in 2012, of course, and he probably won’t retain those numbers as an everyday player. But he’ll come closer to replacing Pujols’ production than Bob Horner did to replicating Jack Clark’s in 1988. And if Adam Wainwright — who missed all of 2011 to injury — returns intact, the Cards will be adding a better pitcher than the Angels did.
  • Baseball’s tradition. That Pujols won’t play his entire career for one team is mourned only by some Cardinals fans and propagators of baseball mythology. Players today don’t play their entire careers for a single team any more or less than they did years ago, and free agency didn’t destroy the idea of one star, one town. Free agency didn’t destroy team loyalty because it’s never existed. Ironically, Pujols’ Angels’ manager, Mike Scioscia, played his entire career for one team (the Dodgers) in the free agency era. The last Yankees’ dynasty was fueled by four players (Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada) who all have — so far — played their entire careers for one team. Conversely, Babe Ruth played for three teams, Ty Cobb for two and Hank Aaron for two, one of which switched cities twice after he was signed. How’s that for loyalty? Of the Hall of Fame’s first class — Ruth, Cobb, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson — only Johnson spent his entire career with one team (Mathewson’s only game pitched not as a New York Giant was as player-manager with the Reds in 1916, a complete-game 15-hitter which he won 10-8).

There’s plenty of money for everyone, thanks to advertisers (and eventually the fans, corporate or otherwise). The Angels have a new TV contract and new ad rates; in a decade they’ll have the added interest of Pujols trying to break whatever records Alex Rodriguez sets. The Cardinals have the millions they saved; whether they miscalculated or were shrewd we’ll know in half a decade or so.

And Pujols has $50 million more from the Angels than he would have received from the Cardinals. Anybody who thinks Pujols should have taken less to stay with the Cards is entitled to that opinion, but anyone who thinks that’s what they would have done if they were Pujols is a lot less virtuous than they think.

Or a lot more foolish.

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