As anyone who follows baseball knows, the St. Louis Cardinals superstar first baseman Albert Pujols has just one year remaining on his current contract commitment. With his negotiations with the club having wound down one month ago, Pujols is set to play what may be a lame duck season for the first time in his career.
There are some who believe that players might perform better in the final year of a deal, while on a “salary drive”. Yet there are probably just as many who fear a player may stumble under the pressure and impending career uncertainty.
At first blush, Pujols would seem to be impervious to such trivial matters. In fact, he may be resistant to nuclear attack. In his ten seasons with the Cardinals, the 31-year-old batted at least .300 with 30 or more home runs and at least 100 RBI every single year, extending his own existing Major League record.
2011 is different, however. Pujols has never been an impending free agent before. He signed his current deal before he officially reached arbitration. Now, Pujols is almost certainly going to test his market value as a free agent after the season.
While the acknowledged best player in baseball has nothing to fear regarding his financial security, I wonder if the enormity of the situation may weigh on him during 2011. Perhaps there won’t be one overriding factor, but a thousand cuts might even cause the great Pujols to shed some blood.
In fact, it may have already begun, though the sample size is admittedly small.
Though Tuesday, 17 of the Cardinals 31 spring games were on the books, with Pujols having played in 11. His batting average/on-base percentage/slugging had dropped to .233/.281/.300, a comparable line to what deposed shortstop Brendan Ryan posted during the 2010 regular season. Pujols had no Grapefruit League home runs and just two RBI.
After striking out swinging in his first at bat Wednesday against Detroit and grounding out the second time, Pujols’ spring average had plummeted to .219. The Mendoza Line was coming into sight.
The Tigers then set Pujols up for a windfall and this time, he delivered. Starter Phil Coke got into trouble in the fourth and departed with the bases loaded. Manager Jim Leyland went with reliever Adam Wilk, who promptly served up a grand slam. Albert then drew a bases-loaded walk in the sixth against Daniel Schlereth to end his five-RBI day. Pujols improved his spring average to .242 in the process.
Even after the Wednesday success, Pujols has a long way to go.
After a decade during which he has struck out only once per every 10.5 plate appearances, Albert has eight K’s in 36 plate appearances or one in every 4.5 PAs this spring. He has drawn just three walks. Since his rookie season, Pujols has never struck out more than he walked over a 162-game schedule.
While there are still two weeks to go in Florida, at what time is it fair to begin to be concerned? Pujols insists there is no injury. The consistent results just aren’t there yet.
Previous springs vs. regular season
The following table lists Pujols’ spring training batting averages, home runs and RBI totals from each of his first ten major league camps. He is going to have to get extremely hot over the next two weeks for 2011 to become even an average spring for him – which is a .340 average, four home runs and 13 RBI.
On the right are the corresponding stats from his regular seasons.
Pujols’ spring high of .452 was logged in 2005, which also happened to become his first of three Most Valuable Player Award seasons. It was his second spring hitting six home runs, following 2003 when he also registered his Florida-best 24 RBI.
The low of .262 occurred in spring 2007 when he tied his smallest Grapefruit League home run output at one. Pujols has had just one spring with a lower RBI count.
Perhaps not coincidentally, he would go on to register his career worsts in both home runs and RBI during that 2007 regular season. Pujols’ .327 regular season batting average in 2007 was his second-lowest at the time.
What might Pujols be feeling?
Initially, Pujols could be feeling anger and disgust if the inconsistency continues, because he will be asked at home and on the road about his results and why. Such talk will not be welcomed as it threatens to take Pujols away from his game focus.
Despite not wanting to talk about the contract, Pujols is destined to be queried at every road stop about how he would like playing in that ballpark and living in that city in the future.
The media will continue to speculate all year long how many years and how much money it will take and which clubs are considered to be the leaders in the derby to secure Pujols’ ongoing services. As the season concludes and free agency begins, the hype will grow to what may become LeBron James levels of noise despite Pujols not being the type to play it up.
We have no way of knowing what Pujols is feeling deep inside regarding his contract and what it means. He may have some frustration that a deal was not done or apprehension about where free agency may lead.
He may have to deal with personal challenges. Albert might be concerned about the possibility of relocating his young family to a new city and area of the country. His wife is from the Kansas City area, as are a number of Pujols’ American relatives. He is a native of the Dominican Republic.
The agent representing Pujols, Dan Lozano, broke off from the Beverly Hills Sports Council last year, taking his top client with him. Lozano may be motivated to place his name among MLB’s agent heavyweights by scoring a record contract for Pujols. Alex Rodriguez/Scott Boras remain the champions at 10 years/$275 million, of course.
Further, a player who has probably never been booed in his life may face negative backlash from some subset of his adoring legions of Cardinals fans. This could especially be the case if is it perceived that Pujols turned down “a fair offer” from the Cardinals.
Pujols’ only major league manager, Tony La Russa, may have been worried about this perception issue when he recently tried to paint the Major League Baseball Players’ Association as the bad guys. La Russa claimed the union has been applying significant pressure on Pujols to hit the open market and seek top dollar.
These allegations were flatly denied by union head Michael Weiner, yet does anyone doubt that baseball’s labor organizers would not want to see Pujols accepting a hometown discount?
La Russa probably tried to do whatever he could to draw heat away from Pujols as well as his 2011 baseball team, seemingly caught in the middle of the potential distractions. It would not be the first time La Russa has deployed this type of diversionary tactic. Despite its likely intentions, did La Russa just add to Pujols’ woes?
The combination of these many pressures could knock baseball’s top player down a notch in performance this season. Perhaps over the long haul, the dip would be so small that few would notice, but Pujols has always been measured on a different scale than others.
A path only 18 games into spring training long can be easily altered, but it is fair to begin to have a little concern over the direction in which Pujols is currently heading.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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