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February 10, 2011

The BP Broadside

When is Baseball's MVP Its Least Valuable Player?

by Steven Goldman

As of this moment, baseball’s best player has its least trade value. The Cardinals, apparently at an impasse with Albert Pujols, face the possibility of seeing their great slugger depart as a free agent after the season, leaving nothing behind but a draft pick, and perhaps not even that. If the career .331/.426/.624 hitter is determined to test the free-agent waters and see if some Tom, Dick, or Steinbrenner is willing to make him a kabillionaire, the only proactive option for owner Bill DeWitt, general manager John Mozeliak, and pals is to trade him for whatever they can get. Yet, those Cardinals fans expecting such a deal to provide a significant balm for the loss of Pujols should give up hope and devote themselves to more useful pursuits, like wondering if the defense will be the worst in the National League, or thinking up ten ways you can lower the national debt while working from home .

While it is possible that some overreaching general manager may take leave of his senses and offer a real reward of the future Hall of Famer, the near-certainty that there is no possibility of deflecting Pujols from free agency means that any acquiring team will function as a mere way station on the player’s path to untold riches. Sure, Pujols might take an 85-win team and push it into the playoffs, but as the theme from The Poseidon Adventure says, there’s got to be a morning after; renting Pujols is no guarantee of winning, and the aftermath of trading for Pujols, failing to make the playoffs (or washing out early) and having neither the star nor the prospects to rebuild around should be a serious disincentive to roll the dice.

Even if the Cardinals are certain that they cannot sign Pujols, any deal carries significant risks, not the least of which is that owner DeWitt can join his father in immortality as the instigator of one of baseball’s historically bad trades. DeWitt pere, in his role as owner-operator of the Cincinnati Reds, infamously dealt the 30-year-old Frank Robinson to the Orioles for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun, and Dick Simpson, calling Robinson “an old 30.” This may seem like mere ridicule that will pass away in time, and surely it will. That said, ridicule can mean something in terms of lost ticket sales and television viewership.

The Robinson deal can stand for the sheer futility of trading an all-time great player. Dealing Pujols means that all the risk of an uneven deal will be assumed by the Cardinals. And rest assured—if it’s not obvious already—Pujols is an all-time great player, having already cracked the top 50 in career WARP at 30 years old. Barring a Dale Murphy-like crash landing, he is going to finish his career as one of just 25 modern-day players to have been worth over 100 wins to his teams, a development which would put him in the same ranks as Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and a host of inner-circle Cooperstown denizens.

Even when the additional pressures of free agency are added to the picture, there have been relatively few trades of the top 50 players, and almost all of them are ranked among baseball’s worst swaps. The reason is simple: there is almost no way to trade a Hall of Famer in his prime and get anything like equal value in return, because even the best prospects rarely turn into 100-win players, or even 50-win players. That is why, despite salary contretemps and character issues, in franchise financial health and bad, the clubs opted to pay up rather than deal out.

As such, should the Cardinals take the rare step of trading, they will almost certainly have to settle for the kind of return that the Phillies got for Pete Alexander (Pickles Dillhoefer, Mike Predergast, and $55,000), the Mets got for Tom Seaver (Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, Dan Norman, and Pat Zachry), the A’s got for Rickey Henderson (Jose Rijo, Stan Javier, Eric Plunk, Tim Birtsas, and Jay Howell) or the Yankees got for Henderson (Greg Cadaret, Eric Plunk, and Luis Polonia), or the A’s got for him the second time around (Steve Karsay and Jose Herrera)—and we haven’t even gotten to Ruth going from the Red Sox to the Yankees at 25 for $100,000 and help with the Fenway Park mortgage.

Given the likelihood of an underwhelming return, a soft division, and an aging pitching staff, it would make far more sense for the Cards to try to ride Pujols to a last postseason, and then shrug and say, “Hey, we tried,” than to give in to the entirely imaginary pressure to get something when something may prove to be a fourth starter, a reserve catcher, and a LOOGY.

Calls for a trade not only tend to ignore the question of who would offer enough to interest the Cardinals under these conditions, but who has the money to sign him to an eight- to ten-year deal at an annual price of close to $20 million a year and thus might overpay on prospects to get ahead of the line. It’s titillating to think about the Red Sox having the option of replacing either Adrian Gonzalez or David Ortiz, both of whom are playing out their contracts, but unless either of those players suffers an injury, it would be impossible to accommodate Pujols in-season. As such, why deal Jose Iglesias, Josh Reddick, and Lars-Stolmy Middlebrooks in June? The Yankees have a Gold Glove first baseman already, and Pujols seems unlikely to want to DH. The Dodgers and Mets would seem to be off the board due to the off-field distractions of their respective owners. The Angels would seem a good fit, but if the conversation is going to start with Mike Trout, they should probably think better of picking up the phone.

Tris Speaker for Sad Sam Jones, Fred Thomas and $55,000. Jimmie Foxx—a player not dissimilar to Pujols—for George Savino, Gordon Rhodes, and $150,000. These are the kind of returns that await the Cardinals for Pujols. Whatever deal the Cardinals make, should they make one, will make a great answer to a trivia question one day, in the same way that people ask what the Cardinals got for Steve Carlton when they traded him to the Phillies at 27. (Rick Wise—you buy the next round.) It might be better to take the draft pick, a result that will, at least, push off the promised reward for Prince Albert well into the future.

Given this reality and the club’s other weaknesses—a poor middle infield combo, Lance Berkman in the outfield, Chris Carpenter’s age and fragility, a weak farm—even if Pujols stays he might not be able to keep the club in contention. Trading him won’t fix these problems, and failing to sign him might well prove a fatal blow. Whichever manner in which Pujols departs, not only should expectations for his replacements, however acquired, be lowered, but hopes for the club as a whole should be dismissed altogether.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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