Commentary

Pujols still potential No. 1 overall pick

Move to Angels will have major impact on values of Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales

Updated: December 8, 2011, 1:12 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Here's one pricey free agent the Miami Marlins won't sign: Albert Pujols.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Scott Rovak/US PresswireAlbert Pujols is still a candidate to be the No. 1 pick in fantasy, but will he get more looks at DH with the Angels?

The ever-elusive "mystery team" landed this winter's most prized catch, and its identity? The Los Angeles Angels. According to ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney, Pujols agreed to a 10-year, $250 million contract with the Angels on Thursday.

As would have been the case with the Marlins, for whom Gaby Sanchez was already a more than adequate first baseman, fantasy owners will react with the same question regarding Pujols' arrival in L.A.: What happens to the Angels' already present first basemen, Mark Trumbo and, if he's healthy, Kendrys Morales?

The obvious answer is that one -- if not both -- might be traded, but it could also signal one of two things: One, that Morales' ankle isn't healing as quickly as the Angels had hoped; considering he hasn't appeared in a game since initially suffering the injury May 29, 2010, that's entirely possible. Two, the Angels already regard Pujols as having reached the "designated hitter" stage of his career; the fact that Trumbo's defensive metrics in 2011 trumped Pujols' -- Trumbo's Ultimate Zone Rating was 5.7, per FanGraphs, while Pujols' was 2.4 -- also supports that theory.

A third, albeit remote, possibility is that Trumbo could shift to the outfield, as he made 10 appearances in right field for Double-A Arkansas in 2009, 23 games at the corner outfield spots for Triple-A Salt Lake in 2010, and 11 at the corners for the Angels last season. The bottom line is that, should the Angels keep everyone and have a healthy Morales from the start, there will be fewer plate appearances to go around for Trumbo, Morales, Bobby Abreu, and perhaps Peter Bourjos, Mike Trout, Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells, as well.

Trumbo has plenty to lose. Though his power remained constant his entire rookie season, he struggled with plate discipline, and therefore batting average, deeper in the year. He walked in only 3.1 percent of his plate appearances and managed a ghastly .278 on-base percentage after Aug. 1, so it's possible opposing pitchers might exploit that during his sophomore year. There's a very real chance he might not even finish among the top 20 fantasy first basemen, so approach with caution.

Besides his injury, Morales also has a weakness against left-handed pitching, having managed .255/.285/.403 lifetime rates against them. If he's not quite his normal self upon returning, the prospect looms of a platoon arrangement, which -- while beneficial in terms of batting average -- would hurt his counting numbers (HR, RBI).

And what of Pujols himself?

It's difficult to envision such a productive slugger, an all-time great, suffering any adverse effects of the change in teams, at least initially. Pujols has never had problems with American League pitching, so his keeper-league owners -- or prospective owners in redraft leagues -- shouldn't have fear of an Adam Dunn-like collapse. In 143 career interleague games, for example, or nearly an entire major league season, Pujols has .348/.438/.632 lifetime rates, 39 home runs, 121 RBIs and 104 runs scored. In many individual years, he performed even better against AL competition than in traditional intraleague contests.

A possible shift to DH, too, shouldn't be an obstacle. Though a small sample, Pujols' 12 career games at DH resulted in .360/.407/.680 numbers, and there has been nary a whisper about any displeasure with the role.

Another point in Pujols' favor: While his batting average and OPS have declined in each of the past three seasons, and his 2011 represented clearly his worst of 11 big league campaigns, Pujols did rebound from a fractured forearm more quickly and effectively than expected. After that point, he managed .318/.375/.579 rates, and if you project his numbers in those 74 games to a full season, he'd have had 43 homers and 117 RBIs, well within range of his career norms.

[+] EnlargeMark Trumbo
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesMark Trumbo, fresh off a 29-homer rookie season, may have to be looking for a new position with Albert Pujols in the fold.

It's the long-term effects that are of concern with Pujols. He'll be 32 years old at the start of the 2012 season, which, historically speaking represents the beginning of the "decline" phase of such a slugger's career. To that point, Baseball-Reference.com generates Similarity Scores for comparable players throughout history; these were the average annual numbers for the six most similar players to Pujols during their ages 29-31 seasons:

141 G, .318 AVG, .418 OBP, .603 SLG, 37 HR, 115 RBI, 110 R

These were their average numbers by year after that:

Age 32: 132 G, .293 AVG, .406 OBP, .542 SLG, 28 HR, 92 RBI, 88 R
Age 33: 128 G, .305 AVG, .411 OBP, .564 SLG, 29 HR, 90 RBI, 93 R
Age 34: 123 G, .294 AVG, .390 OBP, .523 SLG, 24 HR, 79 RBI, 74 R

Ken Griffey Jr. -- the second-most similar -- was mostly responsible for the decrease in games played, but that group's small statistical drops, one at age 32, the next at 34, serve as caution for Pujols' keeper-league value. That's not to say that Pujols is going to follow an identical career path to Griffey, or Jimmie Foxx (most similar), or Hank Aaron (fourth-most), as players at his talent level are unique and can't be compared fairly. But it's an interesting debate point.

One more thing: That group averaged 7½ more years played; Pujols' deal, remember, is for 10 seasons.

Pujols still has it in him to warrant the No. 1 pick in fantasy baseball drafts in 2012, but it's becoming more debatable by year (in fact, I've got him at No. 2 in my current rankings), and next season might be his last in contention for that spot.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.

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