The Cardinals are probably going to sign Albert Pujols, but it won’t be easy and it won’t all be positive…

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As the resident Cardinals supporter on this here blog, I feel it is my responsibility to riff a little on the Albert Pujols extension stuff.

It was reported Saturday that Pujols and his agent want talks to cease once spring training begins and Albert confirmed that deadline while speaking with the media Sunday in what MLB.com’s Matthew Leach called an “occasionally testy” press conference at the Cardinals’ Winter Warmup.

Assuming that Pujols and his representatives stick to that plan — and there’s no reason to think they won’t — the St. Louis front office has about a month to get a contract worked out.  Otherwise, the greatest hitter in the game today will hit free agency next winter at the age of 31.

If I’m Pujols’ agent, I’m asking for a nine-year deal worth $270 million.  I’m not expecting to sign at that number, but it’s where I would start.

No hitter in baseball history has been so consistently prolific to start a career and Pujols is no slouch on defense either.  He’s squeaky clean, a family man and infinitely marketable.

Pujols is without a doubt the best player in the sport and it is his agent’s job to ensure that he is paid as such.  Whether the historically excellent rate of production continues into the next decade is unknown and maybe even unlikely, but the Cardinals must pay for what he has already accomplished and what he might accomplish in the future.  Because if they don’t, someone else will.

You’ve probably heard the idea that the Yankees and Red Sox won’t try to a lure in a free agent Pujols because they are both already locked into multi-year contracts at first base.  I don’t believe it, not for a second.  The Yankees are committing DH duties in 2011 to Jorge Posada, a 39-year-old with bad knees.  The Red Sox will go with David Ortiz, who is 35 and playing in a body that isn’t aging well.  Why has it been determined that baseball’s top big money clubs won’t have openings?

The Yankees will try to get Pujols if he becomes a free agent.  The Red Sox will, too.  Mark it in ink.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Pujols is definitely going to leave St. Louis if a pact isn’t agreed upon before the opening of spring camp. If the Cardinals don’t like the slugger’s asking price this winter and decide to let him dip a toe in the free agent waters, they will still be a legitimate suitor on the other end.  Majority owner Bill DeWitt Jr. is a billionaire and has already made a killing off his $150 million purchase of the club in 1995.  He runs the team like a business — with the intention of making a profit — but he is also a legitimate fan.

The money is there to battle the big boys.  You’ll hear the Cardinals referred to as a mid-market team from time to time, but it’s completely false.  St. Louis is not a big town, but the fan base extends to all bordering states and beyond because of the strong radio signals that KMOX emitted when televisions weren’t in every home. You can find big pockets of folks wearing the “birds on the bat” in Arkansas, Tennessee, southern Illinois, Indiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Iowa.

The Cardinals are in the Top 5 of league-wide merchandise sales nearly every season and they pack three million fans into the new and somewhat publicly funded Busch Stadium on a yearly basis.

The money is flowing.

But it’s DeWitt’s team.  If he decides that it is bad business to outbid offers from the Yankees and Red Sox, or even the Giants, then it simply won’t happen.  And that rightly has Cardinals fans nervous.

I don’t have sources and I don’t know any of the involved negotiators personally, but I think the deal gets done just before spring training.  I think it will be an awful contract, maybe in the eight-year, $225 million range, and I think it’s going to hamstring the Cardinals for almost its entire duration.

When the Cards need to lock up Adam Wainwright after 2013, they won’t be able to.  When Colby Rasmus hits free agency, he won’t be brought back either.  DeWitt isn’t going to operate yearly with a $150 million payroll.  He is interested in making money, and that’s fine.

But I have a feeling — wise or not — that he is going to open the purse strings for Pujols before the Cardinals head down to Jupiter, Florida in late February because DeWitt knows what it will mean for public relations if El Hombre departs and because, well, there have been no discussions about a possible Plan B.

The Cards are going all in.

Matt Boyd earns No. 5 spot in Tigers’ starting rotation

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Matt Boyd has earned the No. 5 spot in the Tigers’ starting rotation, which means veteran Anibal Sanchez will pitch out of the bullpen, MLB.com’s Jason Beck reported on Wednesday.

Boyd, 26, pitched well this spring, compiling a 2.49 ERA with a 21/0 K/BB ratio in 21 2/3 innings. The lefty’s numbers in the majors last year weren’t nearly as good.

Sanchez, 33, is coming off of the worst season of his career and overall didn’t have a great spring, putting up a 5.03 ERA with a 20/4 K/BB ratio in 19 2/3 innings. He came on strong at the end, however, tossing 14 consecutive scoreless innings. Manager Brad Ausmus didn’t rule out the possibility of Sanchez returning to the rotation at some point.

2017 Preview: Oakland Athletics

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Oakland Athletics.

The A’s aren’t gonna be that great this year, you guys. Sorry about that, but it’s true. In this it will be much like last year.

But it will look a bit different than last year at least. The A’s signed Santiago CasillaMatt JoyceTrevor Plouffe and Rajai Davis to a combined $33.25 million in contracts. I don’t see how that makes them appreciably better, but they will be different.

Khris Davis is the biggest offensive weapon. He hit 42 homers last year. Marcus Semien hit 27. And despite those heroics, the A’s offense was dead last in the AL in 2016. Rajai Davis gives them a stolen base threat and Joyce had nice resurgence in a little under 300 plate appearances, but I’m not seeing how this crew is all that better than they were. I mean, I’m sure Trevor Plouffe is a nice young man, but he’s not an offensive difference maker. The biggest chance for improvement comes from a full season of Ryon Healy, who hit quite well in 72 games last year. He was also moved off of third base for Plouffe and into the DH role at the age of 25, so temper your expectations.

Turning to the rotation, Sonny Gray at the top of things looked great heading into last season, but then he regressed badly, posting an unsightly 5.69 ERA in 2016. The A’s don’t need him to be be third in the Cy Young voting again, but they certainly need him to be their ace, and last year he wasn’t that. He’ll get a late start to the season due to a back injury — he may miss the entire first month — so things are already starting off badly.

After Gray comes Sean Manaea, who debuted last year and improved as the season went along. Kendall Graveman was serviceable last year, but he doesn’t miss many bats and it’s hard to pitch well in this league when you’re striking out as few batters as Graveman does. Jharel Cotton is an intriguing fourth starter. He came over in the Rich Hill deal and continued his excellent work in the minors before a late season callup. He is homer-prone but doesn’t walk a ton of guys. Definitely a guy to watch for the future. Andrew Triggs is a swingman who was pressed into the rotation late in the year. The A’s liked what they saw, but he has been a reliever all through the minors. Organizations tend to do that to guys who they don’t think will be decent starters, so I’m not sure what a few starts at the end of a season really mean.

If Gray bounces back to 2015 form, Graveman continues to be lucky on batted balls and the other guys deliver on their small-sample-size promise, hey, things aren’t too bad! But when was the last time that kind of five-for-five gamble paid off? Odds are on a nice surprise here, some stasis there and some regression and/or growing pains mixed in to form a pretty meh rotation. And given that the A’s defense was terrible last year and doesn’t look all that better this year, look for a lot of unearned runs. And earned runs that should’ve been unearned.

The bullpen features some notable names — Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, John Axford and Santiago Casilla have all been closers in the past — with Ryan DullLiam Hendriks and Raul Alcantara providing more depth. Dull is anything but his name. His excellent K/BB ratio last year — 73/15 in 74.1 innings — is downright interesting. These guys will inherit a lot of deficits instead of leads, however, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see the A’s trade off a one or two of the ~Proven Closers~ at the deadline as well.

The A’s won 69 games last year. There are three contenders in the division who are significantly better and an Angels team that employs some considerably more talented players despite its obvious flaws. The A’s have just as many flaws and top out with Khris Davis, a rebound candidate starting the year on the DL as their best starter and some interesting young arms. All of that adds up to a long, long summer from where I’m sitting.

Prediction: Fifth place, American League West.