DALLAS • The Los Angeles Angels accomplished in less than two days what the Cardinals failed to transact in two years by signing three-time National League MVP Albert Pujols to a contract that will run through the remainder of a Hall of Fame career.
Late entries to the process, the Angels stunned Major League Baseball’s winter meetings by overwhelming the Cardinals and at least two other suitors with a 10-year, $254 million bid free of deferred money and packed with enough milestone incentives to make the deal worth upwards of $280 million.
The Angels’ pursuit contrasted the Cardinals’ methodical, conservative tact that saw them follow up last February’s failed talks about a contract extension with an offer that actually featured a lower average annual value.
The Angels add a talent that Angels general manager Jerry DiPoto called “the most consistent offensive player of his generation.” The Cardinals lose an iconic figure whose value only began with a career .328 average, 445 home runs and 1,329 RBI that make him Hall of Fame-worthy after only 11 major-league seasons.
“I don’t think there’s another person you can add who changes the complexion of a complete lineup like he does,” said Angels center fielder Vernon Wells. “The guys hitting in front of him and hitting behind him are going to have him on base all the time. That’s why throughout this process I never thought it possible he would end up as an Angel, because to be able add a piece like that is something you dream about, not only as a player but as a fan.”
Pujols leaves the Cardinals following his first season in which he failed to reach 100 RBI or maintain a .300 average. His decline in numbers still left Pujols among league leaders in slugging percentage, on-base percentage, home runs and runs scored.
“If we want to call ‘decline’ going from superhuman to great,” DiPoto said during a morning press conference. “I don’t think we’ve seen the last great days of Albert Pujols, or we wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
“He respects the game and everything that goes along with it,” Wells said. “If there’s anyone in this game who had reason to be arrogant and cocky about things, it would be him. But he’s far from it.”
A jarring week for a team that celebrated its 11th World Series championship five weeks ago ended with the loss of the franchise’s signature player, no significant additions and only hours after the Houston Astros hired vice-president of scouting and player development Jeff Luhnow to become their general manager.
Rather than adhere to his scheduled departure, general manager John Mozeliak skipped Thursday’s Rule 5 draft and left the headquarters hotel without notifying much of his staff.
The Cardinals’ bid eventually grew to 10 years guaranteed for $210 million but included significant deferred money, according to sources familiar with the process. What had become a frustrating negotiation between Pujols and the Cardinals officially concluded early Thursday morning when his agent, Dan Lozano, notified Mozeliak of his client’s decision.
“We feel good about the effort made toward retaining Albert,” Mozeliak said as he prepared to board a return flight to St. Louis. “We tried to make it work a couple different ways. Ultimately, he chose a different direction. But I’m comfortable with how we went about it.”
Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. issued a statement at about the same time the Angels formally announced the signing. DeWitt expressed disappointment over the outcome, referred to Pujols as “a great champion” and thanked him for his contributions to the franchise.
“I have the highest regard for Albert both personally and professionally, and appreciate his direct involvement in this process,” DeWitt’s statement read. “I would like our fans to know that we tried our best to make Albert a lifetime Cardinal but unfortunately we were unable to make it happen.”
Pujols’ embrace of the Angels may have stunned much of the fan base he leaves behind but represented an almost predictable ending to a two-year process that began shortly after the club signed left fielder Matt Holliday to a franchise record $120 million contract in January 2010. Anticipated talks about an extension for Pujols failed to materialize following his third MVP season, allowing market forces to further complicate the process.
Subsequent signings of Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer, free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira and free agent left fielder Carl Crawford further enflamed a market that set the stage for Pujols agreeing Thursday to the second-most lucrative deal in the game’s history.
The renamed Miami Marlins became the first known suitor for Pujols once he filed for free agency and, according to sources familiar with the bids, made a more lucrative offer than the Angels when tax implications are considered.
Refusal to include no-trade language contributed to the Marlins leaving the bidding for Pujols early Tuesday and allowing the Cardinals a brief sense of confidence. The sensation was only fleeting.
The Angels’ bid outflanked an organization reluctant to commit more than 20 percent of payroll to one player. The Cardinals final bid actually ranked fourth among those teams willing to commit 10 years to Pujols. Even without the Marlins in play, the Cardinals’ bid lagged behind the Angels and another unnamed team.
The Cardinals apparently modified their proposal numerous times in the last week but struggled to match the same AAV over the same term offered last January. That proposal incorporated 2011 as the first installment of a nine-year, $198 million extension.
The most recent tender took into account Pujols turning 41 before reaching the final season of a 10-year deal that would go into force in 2012.
A difficult season that started slowly and was derailed by a wrist fracture elevated rumors among some clubs whether Pujols’ listed age is accurate. DiPoto backhanded the issue Thursday, calling Pujols “an honorable man and a very respectful man. I’m not a scientist, but I can tell you he hits like he’s 27.”
Thursday’s outcome represented both an end to Pujols’ prolific career with the Cardinals and a relationship with management that had soured eroded over the past two years. Pujols became particularly incensed last summer when Mozeliak referred to any talks after the season as “independent” of the January proposal. In fact, the Cardinals restarted talks with a shorter term before incrementally reaching a 10-year structure.
Negotiations between the club and Pujols also failed to resume until after the November hire of Mike Matheny as managerial successor to Tony La Russa, for whom Pujols had played the entirety of his 11-year career.
Contact between the parties included a number of teleconferences involving Pujols, Lozano, DeWitt and Mozeliak. Though staying in the same hotel this week, DeWitt and Mozeliak did not meet face to face with Lozano after Monday.
Pujols’ eight-year, $111 million extension expired at the end of the Cardinals’ second championship season in five years, leaving some to believe that the team’s competitiveness and positive outlook might factor in upcoming negotiations. Until shortly after Holliday’s signing Pujols publicly professed a willingness to take a “discount” to remain with the organization that selected him in the 13th round of the 1999 amateur draft then watched his lightning development into the 2001 NL Rookie of the Year. But neither Pujols nor Lozano ever defined what such a discount would be based upon, and the notion quickly faded after the Phillies granted Howard a five-year, $125 million extension in May 2010.