There is no question that Albert Pujols has been a juggernaut for the St. Louis Cardinals thus far in his career. Even in a down year, his numbers (.284/.348/.535, 28 home runs, 73 RBI, 1K per 10 AB) are still impressive. The 28 home runs ties him with Lance Berkman for the NL Lead, and he is making an assault on a .300 batting average.
Is that worth a “break the bank” type of contract for team that plays in a mid-market city ?
I think most Cardinals fans would have unanimously said “yes” at the start of the season. I haven’t seen any recent polls, so I suspect that most still do, but things have happened during the course of the this season that might change some opinions. And I don’t mean the double plays – that is a red herring
The Berkman Alternative
Lance Berkman has been the best thing to happen to the Cardinals since the arrival of Albert Pujols, not so much for his individual production, but all the little things.
He arrived in St. Louis after a huge off-season training program that left him in some of the best shape we have seen. Some questioned his ability to play the outfield after watching him struggle with injuries the previous year in Houston and New York. We grew even more concerned when we didn’t see him in the outfield during spring training. Once the regular season got under way, and the games counted, Berkman has been there nearly every day.
Let’s not forget the Turtleneck Day. After a rough start to the season, Berkman and a few other players came up with the idea of wearing turtlenecks to Dodger Stadium on April 17. It was meant to be a “team unity” activity, with some players taking it to an extreme (yes, we are all looking at you, Mr. Boggs). The Cardinals won 3 of 4 from the Dodgers, and 11 of the next 15 games. Team unity, indeed.
The most eye-opening thing Lance Berkman has done is a little thing that you would not have noticed except that it stands out in sharp contrast with some of the other big names on the team. In a routine ground ball to the infield, Berkman, on bad knees, hustles all the way down the first base line and often makes it a much closer play than it should have been. We have seen Edwin Jackson, Rafael Furcal and Jon Jay do this. Matt Holliday does it as well – just ask Starling Castro, the Cubs shortstop who was nearly tackled by Holliday in an earlier game. But Berkman is 35 years old and running on bad legs. If there is one player on the team who should loaf on an infield grounder, it is Berkman – but he doesn’t. There’s a word for that – LEADERSHIP.
When was the last time you saw Albert Pujols do that ? I don’t know, but there have been a few times this year when an infielder has mishandled the ball, and if Pujols was running like Berkman, he might have beat the throw. I understand the risk of injury, but that didn’t keep Albert from reaching well into the base line for a Pete Kozma throw that led to a rather nasty mishap. So it’s not that Albert doesn’t play hard and aggressively, he just doesn’t hustle down the first base line.
So, what does this have to do with Player B ? And is there also a player A ?
There sure is. Let’s take a look at both of these young minor leaguers, to see if we can wipe some of the doom and gloom away from the suggestion that the Cardinals might be Pujols-less. One word of warning before proceeding – these two minor leaguers played at slightly different times, and never in the same league. That makes their direct comparisons a bit tricky, so approach with a certain degree of skepticism.
Player A was a young slugger drafted right out of high school. The team that selected him did so as the first player they chose in that year’s draft. His pedigree earned him some extra credentials and put him on the prospect radar at a young age, but what he did in the minor leagues confirmed the scouts initial impressions. He was ranked in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects following all four years of his minor league career.
Player B is nearly the exact opposite. He was a slugger that largely went unnoticed. He was not drafted out of high school, but after putting up some rather gaudy numbers early in his college career. Unlike player A, he was a late draft selection – a low risk pick. One scout said
I would say Player B has certainly been a pleasant surprise, but as frequently happens with the MLB draft, quality players are often found in later rounds.
I suspect that he will appear on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects following this season.
Player A vs Player B
With the earlier caveat that these two young men didn’t play at the same time or in the same league, let’s do a bit of a head to head comparison and see what we can learn about them.
Both players started their professional career in rookie ball. After a short time, one was promoted to low A, the other to regular A level.
First Professional Year (Rookie and A)
So far, about the only conclusion you can draw is that both of these players are hitters, and impressed the rookie coaches enough to get promoted to a higher level. Let’s take a look at what each of the players did in their second professional season – in this case, both at the A level.
Both players have adapted to the higher level with a vengeance. The striking difference between the two players is in the walk rates, which you can see in their on-base percentages. Player A was given a free pass more than twice as often (71) as player B (33). A closer look at each of their teams might give us a bit of a clue into why there was such a difference.
For player A, he WAS the big producer in the lineup, and perhaps pitchers started working around him because there was little penalty to do so. Player B was one of two such players on his team, and the protection from the second player might have influenced the walk total he was given.
Both players were striking out at about the same rate, about once per 6 ABs.
Both were promoted to AA for the next season. Let’s take a look at those numbers, side by side. One note – Player B still has about two weeks left in his AA season, so please take that into consideration.
Player A’s on base percentage remains impressive, and the underlying walk rate that leads to it might be more than just lack of protection in the batting order. He may actually have a very well developed eye for the strike zone, which he have later learned to be quite true.
Player B is currently in a league that is known to somewhat elevate a player’s offensive stats. Even taking that into consideration, your still have to do a bit of a double take at his production – especially on the power side.
Unfortunately, this is where the comparisons must end, as player B is still finishing up his season at the AA level.
So, who are these mystery men, and how do they impact an Albert Pujols contact negotiation ?
The Answer is ….
Player A is Prince Fielder, of the Milwaukee Brewers. Like Albert Pujols, Fielder will be a free agent at the end of the season, and is one of the big names in this years group. Fielder’s major league production continues to mimic those from his minor league days, although the home run totals have taken a pretty big jump. Pitchers still continue to work around him, preferring to walk him than the other alternative. That puts him among the league leaders in walks, and contributes to a rather lofty on-base percentage.
Fielder is also a 2 time All Star and has placed in the top 5 in MVP voting twice in his career. Like Player B, he has the misfortune of playing at the same time as Albert Pujols.
Player B is
People who have seen this young man play just utter a single syllable: BEAST. He’s a big kid that hits just about everything HARD. Even his singles are smashes. Can we say, Matt Holliday ? Dare we say… Albert Pujols ?
Unfortunately, Albert Pujols did not play enough games in the minor leagues to even leave a tiny clue for comparison. But there is one recent player that might be able to give us some guidance – Brett Wallace. When you think back at offensive prospects in the Cardinals farm system, Wallace’s name bubbles to the top very quickly. The Oakland Athletics thought so much of him that they were willing to part with Matt Holliday – that speaks volumes.
Believe it or not, Adams production in the minors so far has outpaced that of Brett Wallace.
Can Matt Adams continue to produce at this level as he moves up in the Cardinals system ? Nobody knows, but if I was buying a house based on his comparable statiscs, I wouldn’t hesitate to sign at the dotted line. A lot can still happen, but he creates one fascinating scenario.
What if Albert Pujols and the Cardinals are unable to reach an agreement prior to the start of the 2012 season, and El Hombre goes elsewhere ? Perhaps the player we were talking about earlier could bridge the gap until Matt Adams is ready for the big leagues. Would another year of Lance Berkman, this time playing first base, be all that bad, based on what we have seen this year.
I don’t think so. While I would rather see Albert Pujols remain a Cardinal for a variety of reasons, if his salary demands exceed what the Cardinals are able to pay, I am no longer fearful of the Pupocalypse. It’s not the doom and gloom scenario it once was, thanks to Lance Berkman and a young man you will be hearing a lot about – Matt Adams.