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Bernie Bytes: On Pujols and the Cubs

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Pujols Cardinals vs Cubs

Albert Pujols tips his batting helmet to the fans after he collected his 2000th career hit on July 29 at Busch Stadium. (Chris Lee /

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* If indeed the Cubs are pursuing Albert Pujols, as reports, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Sure, we've heard Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts say all the right things about building through the draft and player development. It's one of the reasons why Ricketts hired Theo Epstein as the organization's new baseball czar. You know, so the Cubbies could get modern and tap into the so-called "Moneyball" movement. But we should never forget that Epstein developed expensive tastes in Boston, wildly overpaying for free-agent disappointments or outright busts on a list that includes John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Carl Crawford, J.D. Drew and Bobby Jenks.

* The truth is, all MLB teams have put more of a focus on analytics, all have invested money in hiring sabermetric specialists. It's not as easy to use the metrics to get a jump on outdated competitors, so Epstein lost much of the advantage that he had in the early years in Boston. Epstein is very smart, and highly capable, and I believe he'll do a good job of resetting the Cubs' baseball operation. But he's also developed a big-market mindset, and didn't hesitate to jack up the payroll in Boston.

* It's difficult to gauge the Cubs' level of interest in Pujols or Milwaukee 1B Prince Fielder. The Cubs need a first baseman. They need to excite their fan base. They're getting some payroll relief; some big contracts are due to come off the books. There is labor peace, maintaining a system that still works well for the big spenders. The one significant adjustment in the new CBA -- penalizing teams that spend money above slot in the annual draft -- undermines the attempt to build through the draft. So maybe the Cubs will be less patient now, looking to hit on a large free-agent score.

* It's one thing to have interest in Pujols and Fielder; anyone can kick the tires. But that doesn't mean the Cubs are prepared to go all-in and win a bidding war for Pujols (or Fielder) if one materializes in the FA market. Yes, as we've said, Epstein got away from a disciplined approach and it caused him to make free-agent blunders in Boston. But he's working for a new boss now, and I suppose I'd be surprised to see Epstein start things off by saddling the Cubs with another long-term, high-cost investment in an aging player. But it does no harm to see what Pujols wants, and how much it would take to get him to Wrigley Field. If nothing else the Cubs could ultimately use their real or concocted interest in Pujols to make the Cardinals get anxious, jump and spend more money on Pujols to prevent him from defecting to their rival. (And you know that Cubs fans must love this, knowing that some — many? — Cardinals fans will be losing their minds over the thought of Pujols becoming a Cubbie. 

* You may recall that Theo's Red Sox had interest in free-agent outfielder Matt Holliday after the 2009 season, but would only go so far in making a conservative offer. Holliday eventually signed with St. Louis for 7 years and $120 million. Holliday agent Scott Boras was able to use a little bit of leverage created by Boston to make the Cardinals nervous about losing Holliday. In the end, it appears that the Cardinals bid against themselves in giving Holliday the big contract. But Cardinals GM John Mozeliak has always protested that characterization; the Cardinals wanted Holliday for the long term and believed Boras was prepared to have Holliday sign elsewhere on a one-year "pillow" deal.

* After Holliday's injury-tormented 2011 season, some fans and media conveniently circled back to take a familiar seat in The Short Attention Span Theater -- declaring that the Holliday signing was a mistake. Holliday's OPs+ of 153 in 2011 was the second-best of his career, and it's not as if injuries limited him to 200 plate appearances. (Holliday had 516 PA.) While Holliday was clearly impacted by a late-season hand injury, he batted a respectable .294 / .419 / .412 in the postseason. And he was large in the NLCS triumph over Milwaukee, with 10 hits in 23 at-bats, a .500 onbase percentage, and a .652 slugging percentage ... but excuse me for getting off point. The obvious point is this: agents manipulate teams to get better deals for their clients. 

* Perhaps Pujols agent Dan Lozano is using a page out of Boras'  playbook by putting out the word that the Cubs are pursuing the Cardinals' first baseman. Lozano is good. And he's shown an ability to get at least some members of the media to eat the spin directly from his hand. (I'm not suggesting that this is the case with Ken Rosenthal and John Morosi at; they play things straight.) I'd be surprised to see the Cardinals overreact to Pujols' rumors. Mozeliak correctly made the choice that he wouldn't make a new offer to Pujols, only to have Lozano shop it around to entice another team to top it. The Cardinals don't need to be a stalking horse on Pujols; they will have their chance to re-sign him. It doesn't make sense to go nuts and overpay him at the front end of the process. Lozano is under extreme pressure for a lot of reasons, and he plans to slow-play this free-agent game with the goal of drawing multiple teams into the bidding. The market has yet to take shape. If the Cubs are interested in Pujols, then the game is about to begin. It will be fun to watch.


* With all due respect to my friend and column-writing colleague Bryan Burwell, I don't see much of a mystery regarding the future of Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo. Can Spags save his job? Well, sure, anything is possible. If Spagnuolo wins the last five games, or goes 4-1 in the last five, the late-season surge would give owner Stan Kroenke more to consider when he makes his postseason assessment concerning the future direction of the football operation. A late rush could keep Spags in the coach's office for another year. But the remaining schedule is tough, to say the least. A home-and-home vs. San Francisco, one at Seattle, one at Pittsburgh and at home against Cincinnati. I don't see a soft landing spot there, do you?

* Spagnuolo is 10-33 and only two of the wins have come against teams that had a winning record at the time of the game. The 2010 Rams beat Seattle at home early last season; the Seahawks were 2-1 coming into the contest. And earlier this season the Rams upset the New Orleans Saints, who were 5-2 coming into the game. The other eight wins came against teams that were a combined 19-43 at the time of the meeting against the Rams.

* If this trend continues, and the Rams lose to superior teams, it seems logical to conclude that a change is inevitable. Not because I enjoy writing or saying that coaches should be fired; again I have no motivation to try and score cheap grandstanding points with readers and listeners. But if Spags goes 0-5 the rest of the way, it'll leave him with a three-year record of 10-38. If he goes 1-4, it's 11-37. Even if Spagnuolo goes 2-3, the record sits at 12-36.  And history tells us -- conclusively -- that coaches aren't kept around when they post 48-game records like that. They are fired. Kroenke isn't a fool; he's running a business. If the Rams finish 2-14, or even 4-12, then what's the marketing campaign for 2012 if you keep the coach and GM? How do you fire up the fan base to buy tickets?

* Unless, of course, you don't want them to buy tickets. But that's a conspiracy theory for another day.

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