For the first 11 years of Albert Pujols’ career, he was one of the greatest players of all-time. His 81 wins above replacement were neck and neck with Barry Bonds and Stan Musial, and only 13 players in history had produced more. Since that time, Pujols has been a shell of his former self, producing roughly 10 WAR in five years, the output of an average player. Many have called the Cardinals lucky not to have signed Pujols. Were they? Would things be that much different had Pujols accepted the Cardinals reported offer of nine years and close to $200 million?
For the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume that Pujols accepts a nine-year, $198 million contract, that the contract doesn’t include any deferments or escalations so that Pujols would make $22 million per year from 2012 through 2020. This piece is going to be filled with speculation, but I will try to keep the transactions as reasonable as possible.
The Cardinals signing Pujols means no Carlos Beltran. It might mean no Rafael Furcal, but given that he was Kozma-level in 2012 and didn’t play in 2013 while Kozma played at a Kozma-level, that difference probably doesn’t mean much. The Cardinals probably carry a payroll $5 million to $10 million bigger, but it is something they would have been willing to do to retain Albert Pujols.
On the field, the Cardinals are a better team. Albert Pujols put up a 133 wRC+ and 3.6 WAR, both figures that exceeded Beltran. Pujols staying at first means Allen Craig plays right field, but Craig hits better than Pujols and Beltran so that ends up not mattering. Pretending to know how the Wild Card game against the Braves would have turned out makes little sense, but I should note that Beltran played well in both the NLDS and the NLCS although the Cardinals lost to the Giants that year. All in all, we can’t say the season would have ended too differently.
This is where things get tricky. The Cardinals signed Yadier Molina to a contract extension in the spring of 2012. Is it possible the Cardinals don’t get that extension done if they sign Albert Pujols? For sure, and if they don’t, they almost assuredly lose him to free agency as Yadi put up a six-win season and would have been well sought after. For the sake of this simulation, let’s assume the Cardinals still give Yadi that contract extension.
Beltran is still not on the team, but other than that, the offseason probably goes the same way. The Cardinals payroll went up $3 million to $4 million from 2012 to 2013 so we are again looking at a payroll increase of $5 million to $10 million over what it actually was due to the difference between Beltran and Pujols.
On the field, Beltran put up a 2-win season with a 131 wRC+ and Pujols missed a third of the season, had just a 112 wRC+ and was worth 0.6 WAR. So the Cardinals are worse off, right? Not necessarily. Allen Craig was still fantastic with a 135 wRC+ and Matt Adams was still quite good with a 131 wRC+ in around 300 plate appearances. Move around the playing time and maybe the Cardinals are a win worse, but it might not even be that much.
On the other hand, Michael Wacha made nine starts in the regular season with a sub-3 FIP and ERA and was fantastic in the playoffs until the World Series. The Cardinals might not have Michael Wacha in this situation as he was a compensation pick for losing Pujols. The Cardinals selected him at 19th in draft. They also had pick 23, which they used for James Ramsey. It is possible that if he’s still available, the Cardinals take him at 23 (of the three picks in between, the only notable selection was the Blue Jays taking Marcus Stroman at 22), but we are probably straining things too much there.
Could Carlos Martinez have taken the Wacha role? Maybe. Again, we are stretching things, though I should note, Wacha was mostly mediocre in his first four regular starts before pitching great in five September starts though the Cardinals went just 2-3 in those games. So, the Cardinals still win the division. Do they make it to the World Series without Beltran and Wacha? Hard to say.
Things were already dicey with the Molina extension, so adding the Wainwright extension that he signed at the beginning of 2013 is probably a bit much. We no longer have the Beltran salary to counter Pujols (nor Jack Flaherty, Beltran’s compensation pick). So let’s say the Cardinals don’t sign Wainwright to a 5-year, $97.5 million extension that begins in 2014. After a great year in 2013, Wainwright probably signs with the Yankees or something for like $150 million. The Cardinals Opening Day payroll was roughly $5 million less in 2014 than it had been in 2013 so the team probably still signs Jhonny Peralta and payroll ends up roughly the same with Pujols instead of dropping.
Wainwright was the Cardinals’ best pitcher in 2014 with a 5-win season. Wacha put up two wins in half a season. So who goes into the rotation? Maybe they sign a cheaper veteran for the rotation (Phil Hughes, Bronson Arroyo, Scott Kazmir, Scott Feldman, Tim Hudson, and Bartolo Colon signed cheaper deals that winter). The internal fight between Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez is no longer a fight. They are both in the rotation along with Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn. Maybe Trevor Rosenthal gets a look. Marco Gonzalez comes up at some point. In any event the Cardinals rotation isn’t as good.
Albert Pujols puts up a solid season in 2014, with a 123 wRC+ and worth roughly three wins, a one-win upgrade over Matt Adams. Pujols also hits his 500th home run at some point during the season. Allen Craig is probably still really bad. Would the Cardinals still make the Lackey trade? They would still need pitching, but the loss of Wainwright and Wacha might mean the Cardinals are further from contention (they were a game out of the wild card, 2.5 from the division when they made the trade in reality). Let’s assume they still make the trade.
The team might not make the playoffs. They were two games ahead of the Pirates at the end of the season for the division and the San Francisco Giants had the same record. So potentially no NLCS loss to the Giants. Everything else about creating an alternate 2014 is too far down the rabbit hole and ultimately very depressing.
We could reverse Molina and Wainwright and get Wainwright’s better 2014 season, and they have put up similar value in 2015 and 2016 with similar 2017 projections. So far the Cardinals seem to be similarly competitive, but at this stage, Pujols is still owed $132 million over the next six seasons.
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