COMMENTARY | This week's games between the Los Angeles Angels and St. Louis Cardinals at Angel Stadium will conjure the familiar story about how the Angels are losing with Albert Pujols and the Cardinals are winning without him, as if the Angels are losing because they signed him and the Cardinals are winning because they didn't.
The real reasons are deeper, though related. The Cardinals are a rich organization rooted in a player development tradition that goes back to Branch Rickey's invention of the farm system in the 1920s, while the Angels are forever believing they can win with their checkbook.
The Cardinals have been doing this for a long time. It was Rickey who said that it's better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late. The Cardinals are attuned to making these calls, and they're good at spotting value in older players, too. Baseball people make baseball decisions. The Angels' decisions are made by adverting men who enjoy saying their product is "new and improved." Whether they really are new and improved is beside the point, until the games begin in April.
If the roles were reversed and Pujols cemented his Hall of Fame credentials in his twenties with the Angels, then went free agent after his age 31 season, there's almost no question that it would have played out the same way. The Angels would have signed Pujols to another huge contract. Teams with fewer resources than the Angels do it all the time. If that player maintains a Hall of Fame career, the franchise derives considerable benefits from the home folks. That was the decision facing the Cardinals. It's hard to just let a player like Pujols walk away. But the Cardinals made that call, and it's hard to argue with the results.
Further, if the roles were reversed and Pujols were a free agent from the Angels, the Cardinals would not have entered the bidding. They would already have had first base manned by Allen Craig, who hit everywhere in the minor leagues. In fact, there was no reason for Craig to play 120 games in the minor leagues after 2009, except that the Cardinals had nowhere to put him. Letting Pujols go solved that problem.
It would be as if the Angels said after the 2011 season, "We have a guy, Mark Trumbo, who's already hitting home runs in the big leagues. We can stick him at first base, he'll hit 30, and we don't even have to fool with arbitration for a couple of years. Why spend $250 million over 10 years for a player in his early thirties who has begun declining?"
Of course, the Angels didn't say that and the Cardinals, in effect, did.
The Cardinals are more likely to believe that their prospects will be more valuable in five years than some other team's star player is today. See what the Cardinals do around the trade deadline. They have four of the top 73 prospects by MLB.com and six of the top 84 by Baseball America. Bet the Cardinals don't trade any of them. Meanwhile, Angels fans lament the 2010 trade that brought Dan Haren from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs (among others), even though Haren did a good job with the Halos in two seasons. Now, Haren appears to be finished, while Corbin and Skaggs are just getting started. That's the price to pay for taking the "win now" approach.
Those trades, by themselves, aren't wrong. If you've been playing for four months and you can lock down a division title (not a wild card berth) by acquiring one player, you'll part with a prospect or two. That's part of what the farm system is for. But when you couple that with signing free agents during the winter and losing high draft picks in exchange, you end up with no farm system. The Angels have only one of the top 100 prospects, per MLB.com and Baseball America.
For another comparison, take a look in right field. The Cardinals have a guy out there producing for a two-year contract at $26 million, and the Angels don't. Instead, Torii Hunter is playing right field for the Detroit Tigers for two years at $26 million. The Angels decided they would rather sign someone else for five years at $125 million. No one is happy with what the Angels have out there, but the Cardinals are plenty happy with Carlos Beltran, who has 19 homers and an .896 OPS this year. The Cardinals simply made the better call on the older player.
The loud story this week will be about what's happened since the Cardinals didn't sign Pujols and the Angels did. The more instructive story is about why these teams made those decisions.
Bill Peterson has covered and written about Major League Baseball for more than 30 years in Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Texas and Los Angeles, where he now lives and writes a baseball blog, Big Leagues in Los Angeles. He is a lifetime member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
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