The Albert Pujols Conundrum

Ask just about every baseball analyst, pundit, or writer and they will tell you that the winners of the offseason thus far have been the Los Angeles Angels.

While winning the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes was the most fortuitous and impactful roster move they have been since the season ended, the trade for Ian Kinsler and the free agent acquisition of Zack Cozart are both moves that dramatically improve what used to be weak spots in their roster.

In fact, the Halos second baseman ranked 28th in the MLB with a collective -0.3 WAR on the year. The offensive production from Angels second baseman was pretty much nonexistent as Angels second baseman had a cumulative wRC+ of just 60. This group didn’t fare much better on defense either, posting negative runs saved on the season.

Recognizing the absence of production the Angels were receiving from their second baseman, Billy Eppler went out an acquired 5x All-Star and perennial Gold Glove finalist Ian Kinsler to serve as Andrelton Simmons double play partner.

Angels fans could be a bit concerned if they took a quick glance at Kinsler’s numbers last year without looking any deeper into the peripheral stats. His below league average wRC+ of 91 could easily be interpreted as an indication that the 11 year veteran is starting to slow down with the bat. However, while Kinsler posted career worst marks at the plate, his exit velocities have been within one mph of each other over the past three seasons.

In fact, his Hard-Contact% actually shot up to a career high 37.0% last season, which led all qualified second baseman. Unfortunately, squaring up the ball didn’t translate into the typical results as indicated by an unlucky .244 BABIP. As you might expect, his xwOBA was also higher than his wOBA (this means that the expected production of his battled balls, based on exit velocity and launch angle, resulted in far more outs than is typical for his particular set of batted balls.

While Kinsler provides a much needed upgrade both offensively and on defense, his experience hitting at the top of the lineup makes him the perfect fit to slide into the leadoff spot in front of Mike Trout.

Defensively, Kinsler will certainly aid the Angels run prevention unit. Once again, the numbers suggest that Kinsler had a down year with the glove in Detroit, causing many to point to his age as the culprit of his declined performance. However, with an increase in his RngR (a defensive metric measuring the amount of runs a defender saves by getting to balls that the same player in his position would be incapable of reaching), it is hard to say that his down year with the glove was anything more than a one year aberration, especially considering that he combined for 41 DRS the prior three years combined  (best amongst all MLB second baseman in that span.)

So now that we have covered Ian Kinsler and what he is capable of bringing to the team, lets shift our focus to the other side of the diamond, where Zack Cozart is looking to make the transition to the hot corner this upcoming season.

Although Cozart was one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball last season, ranking towards the top of the league in DRS, UZR/150, RngR, and OOZ. While all of these attributes will contribute to an elite infield defense, there could be some growing pains in the early going as Cozart has never played an inning away from shortstop in his MLB career.

When asked about being transferred away from the position that he has played his entire life, Cozart did not seem to be disappointed or disgruntled in the slightest.

“When I found out the Angels were interested, that was one of the big things for me. It should be a really good team to join, so I was on board. When I found out (about playing third base), I was a little shocked because everything was happening so quick. But at the end of the day, I want to win.”

After being stuck on losing teams his entire career, Cozart appears to be excited for the opportunity to contend in 2018. It is not just the Cozart’s work with the glove that has Angels fans excited as the 32 year old shortstop is also coming off a season in which he absolutely mashed the ball, leading all MLB shortstops in wRC+ and doing it by a huge margin. Cozart posted a wRC+ of 141 in 2017, Francisco Lindor, who is renowned as one of the best hitting shortstops in the game, had a wRC+ 24 points lower. That mean that Cozart was nearly 25% better offensively than Lindor last season. No wonder why he ranked ahead of Buster Posey, Freddie Freeman, Daniel Murphy,  and George Springer in WAR.

Perhaps most encouraging about the Cozart deal is that they got him relatively on the cheap. With an annual salary of just under 13 million a year, even extreme regression from his career season of a year ago would make him a value signing. To explain what I mean by this, let me first discuss some of the general estimates that try to equate player performance with the amount they are paid.

As a general rule of thumb, each win above replacement costs about 8 million dollars on the free agent market. So with Cozart’s annual earning of 13 million a year, he will need to accumulate at least 1.625 WAR to recoup his value. While I doubt that Cozart will have another 5 WAR season like he did last year, especially if he is removed from shortstop, even regressing to a 2.5 WAR player for the remainder of his contract (7.5 WAR in total) would make his value roughly 60 million, thus creating a 24 million dollar surplus for the club,

While I have thoroughly analyzed the recent additions to the Angels infield, it is hard to get excited so long as the elephant named Albert is still in the room. Pujols was by far the worst player in baseball last season as the future Hall of Famer hobbled his way to a negative two win season while spending most of his time at designated hitter.

Despite chronic plantar fasciitis limiting his ability to trudge down to first base at a speed that could even be labeled running, the man once hailed as King Albert still suits up every night and is pencilled into the cleanup spot as if his decrepit and handicapped body will magically return one day. Watching a man whose famed durability earned him the nickname “The Machine” in his prime waddle down to first at a Bartolo Colon-like place is not only painful for those of us who admired him in his glory days, but his presence in the lineup will also significantly hinder the Angels playoff chance if they continue to “honor” him by stenciling his name into the four hole of the Angels lineup.

It is clear that running Pujols out there every day is only hurting the club, but the audacity required to bench a future Hall of Famer is a move that could come under heavy scrutiny from those who believe that the nebulous concept of honor is more important than winning.

In reality, Pujols adds no value to the Angels roster and the team would stand to improve if they got rid of him altogether. But we know the Angels would never do this, so they should return to the least costly alternative and use him sparingly, perhaps only as a platoon DH against left-handers.

In his place, the two-way wonder Shohei Ohtani could occupy a few days at DH in between starts while C.J. Cron and Luis Valbuena rotate from 1st base to DH on the days that Ohtani is starting or on a day with a particularly favorable pitching matchup.

Regardless of how Pujols is utilized, the Angels are forced to eat 20 million dollars a year for a guy who doesn’t provide any value aside from his wisdom and veteran presence. Perhaps Pujols can choose to go the A-Rod route and ride out the final years of his career as a grossly overpaid special advisor in the front office. At least this way, he is not taking a roster spot away from a cheaper player that possesses athleticism and versatility.

Call it pride, call it a yearning for nostalgia, call it whatever you want. The simple fact of the matter is the Angels, who currently have one of the most talented rosters in the MLB, are currently more interested in hurting Albert Pujols feelings than they are putting forth their best lineup every night.

Perhaps the biggest consideration when discussing the albatross that is Albert Pujols contract, we must compare of a team’s financial commitments to how close they are to the luxury tax.

Barring a miraculous return to form, the question of how to deal with Pujols is sure to be a hot button issue this upcoming summer. Whatever the case, I pray that the Angels treat this situation with class and dignity because at the end of the day, any drama or ill-will that may would cast a negative light on a player who some consider to be the best right-handed hitter that has ever lived.