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Are the Cubs Interested in Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder?

Do the Cubs have Prince Albert in the can? How about his younger Brewers counterpart? Probably not, but speculating on bombshell Cubs free-agent signings might be the most entertainment the Epstein offseason gives us.

Albert Pujols

 

Fox Sports’s Ken Rosenthal is reporting that the Cubs, perhaps unsurprisingly, are interested in both Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Phil Rogers calls BS, but either way the reasoning is interesting:

Pujols, 31, is nearly 3½ years older than Fielder, but sources say the Cubs are more willing to go long-term with Pujols, who is the better defender according to advanced metrics. Some teams, concerned by Fielder’s body would prefer him on a shorter, high-dollar deal.

It raises a number of dilemmas about how to pursue stars, assuming that the Cubs wouldn’t just go after Pujols to drive up their rival’s bid. The problem with doing so is that establishing a star track record takes awhile, so stars are often about at the hill if not over it when they become available—and determining where that hill is for individuals is very, very difficult. Pujols, for instance, is 31, two to four years older than what’s considered the “peak” age for hitters. Last year Baseball Prospectus took a two-part run at the mystery of the peak age (part two is about pitchers):

When Bill James originally took up this question, he suggested that players generally peak earlier than is generally thought, and decline more rapidly than is generally thought. He might have inadvertently been picking up on a wrinkle in how people think about the game. The good players do peak around 29, and those are the players about whom we first think. The great unwashed mass of players peak earlier.

This isn’t some newfangled sabermetric science, either; James’s theory matched up almost perfectly with Stan Musial’s observations.

But that’s all hitters. Pujols is a first baseman, the least physically demanding position in baseball. He’s also a good all-around athlete: relatively fast with excellent instincts, reaction, and quickness. It’s plausible that Pujols could age better than most if not all players in baseball.

Or not?

Hall-of-famers don’t usually peak — instead, they plateau. From ages 24 to 30, their production is generally constant. From then on, it drops at a high rate.

Pujols’s production definitely declined last year; he posted his first on-base percentage under .400 since his sophomore season, and just barely broke .900 in on-base plus slugging. Some of that can be attributed to an atrocious (for Pujols) early season, but the only month his OPS broke 1.000 was June. Granted, that’s an extremely high standard, but Pujols broke that barrier in seven of the previous eight seasons, missing it by a mere .003 in the one outlier. Last year, he missed it by .094.

But it is true that Pujols is a better defender than Fielder. Sometimes there’s a real controversy between perception and advanced statistics when it comes to fielding (see Jeter, Derek), but Pujols is self-evidently the better fielder, and the numbers more than attest to that. By Baseball Reference’s advanced fielding stats, Pujols was worth eight runs for the Cardinals as a first baseman, over approximately 135 games—not great for him, having once put up +25, but good. Fielder was worth -7 runs, which is to say the Fielder’s fielding cost the Brewers seven runs over the course of the year. (If that doesn’t sound like much, consider how close the pennant races were this year, not to mention the World Series.) On offense in 2011, Baseball Reference has Pujols at +51 runs over the typical “replacement” player, i.e. a MLB-ready minor-leaguer or readily available free agent. It has Fielder at +52. Add in defense, and that’s Pujols at +59, Fielder at +45, a considerable difference.

Or you could look at Ultimate Zone Rating (explained here). Pujols has declined, but he’s still above average. Fielder has been consistently below average, ranging from above average once to among the worst fielders in baseball. Another stat is Defensive Runs Saved. Fangraphs (same link as above) has Pujols at three runs, just above average, and he’s been between zero and 29 on his career. Fielder’s at -1 for 2011, and has been between that and -13 (in 2010).

Not everyone accepts these sorts of numbers as gospel, and it’s entirely possible that Epstein, Hoyer, and company are working with something vastly more sophisticated, as the Rays apparently do. But I think that even casual observers will agree that Fielder is a minor to major defensive liability, and Pujols is a good to excellent first baseman.

Obviously some of that can be attributed to Fielder’s build. But that’s not the only reason I suspect that teams “concerned by Fielder’s body would prefer him on a shorter, high-dollar deal.” Heavy guys age faster. And a lot of them have what are quaintly referred to as “old player skills:” lots of walks, lots of power, a low batting average, and no speed. Prince Fielder is one of those guys:

More disturbing for Fielder’s future, however, is that his isolated power was the lowest of his career since he became a full-timer (although not enough to take him out of the “old player skill” range). So while Fielder is only going to be 28 when he reaches free agency after the 2011 season, and is still one of the better hitters in baseball, there are definite signs that teams should be cautious regarding how much performance they pay for going forward.

You may recall that the White Sox signed the ultimate old-guy player in Adam Dunn. You don’t want to be around when an player’s old-guy skills collapse.

That was written after the 2010 season; Fielder rebounded in 2011. But he’s got a weird and to my knowledge unexplained tendency to jump back and forth between good and above average seasons. For instance, his OPS numbers as a full-time player are, since 2006: .831, 1.013, .879, 1.014, .871, .981. His total bases and batting average follow a similar roller-coaster trajectory. In his high OPS years, he made the all-star team and finished high in the MVP voting; in his .800 OPS years, he didn’t.

Anyway, this is a very long way of saying: put yourself in Theo Epstein’s shoes. You’re the most famous exec in baseball; you’re reported to make more than your starting catcher makes. You’re taking over a desultory team—a boring team—with a rich history and an aggravated fan base, with a recent history of shackling itself to long contracts with expensive players who decline precipitously after a couple years of success. (Not to mention that you were recently burned by two free-agent busts in John Lackey and Carl Crawford.)

And the two biggest names on the market are:

1. Arguably the best player of your lifetime, a complete all-around player, but you’re almost certainly signing him past his peak. And he’ll likely seek a long contract.

2. A younger player who might have a couple years left of his peak, and thus might hit better—but who isn’t an all-around player, and whose body type and skill set suggests a shorter peak.

There’s also the Mets’ excellent shortstop Jose Reyes, but the Cubs already have Starlin Castro, and Reyes is historically an injury risk. Other than that there aren’t any players that will be compelling to the average fan. If you want to make a splash, it’s Pujols and Fielder until a good crop of pitchers comes up for the 2013 season.

It’s a really hard decision. As a layman I’d probably prefer Fielder on a lower-risk, lower-reward basis, but the Cubs are (hopefully) operating on more and more sophisticated information; this is just a glimpse into the nightmarish complexity of running a baseball team.

 

Photograph: SD Dirk (CC by 2.0)

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