The Cubs reportedly are pursuing Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols, the two biggest names on sale at Free Agents R Us, “sale’’ being a relative term.
I’m not sure I believe it because it’s hard to believe much at this time of year, but also, I’m afraid to believe something that expensive with Theo Epstein’s recent free-agent talent evaluation.
Fielder, I’d love. He’s 27 and entering what Epstein considers a player’s prime. That fits Epstein’s “parallel fronts’’ of supplementing quality major-league talent with quality from the minors. Fielder has been monumentally good so far, and if Epstein is right, then Fielder will continue to be more phat than fat.
But Pujols, I don’t get. Maybe someone’s trying to drive up St. Louis’ payroll. Or maybe someone’s trying to create a market that hasn’t materialized. Whatever, Pujols will be 32 next season, which is the end of Epstein’s prime window. Plus, Pujols wants to be paid until he joins AARP, I believe, which doesn’t seem to fit the plan.
It’s as if Fielder’s agents got a call from Epstein and Pujols heard from Jim Hendry.
But no. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch confirmed that the Cubs have “serious interest’’ in pursuing Pujols, which means they are poised to enter an auction that could cost more than $200 million (taxes and gratuities not included).
So, what gives? Here are the likely possibilities: Baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement and Epstein’s old stomping grounds.
First, baseball’s new CBA slows Epstein’s reclamation of the Cubs because of some claustrophobic changes in the draft. The loopholes Epstein used in Boston to acquire extra picks and overpay for young talent are closed.
Some observers contend baseball’s new draft rules kill the “Moneyball’’ approach with which Epstein’s Red Sox quickly won two World Series. But remember, a key line from “Moneyball’’ is “Adapt or die.’’ The greater concept involves finding value where no one else has. Smart guys are still smart guys.
And you know what? Epstein and his Whiz Middle-Agers can still draft better players. That’s not against the new CBA rules and never has been, despite the way the Cubs acted.
So, on its own, the Pujols thing doesn’t make sense under the scouting and development plan Epstein first outlined. He made it clear the best money you spend is not spent in free agency.
But now that parts of that plan have changed, it’s worth recalling that even under the old rules, Epstein spent a sick amount of money at the free-agent store. He spent it horribly --- hello, Carl Crawford and John Lackey --- but he spent.
Epstein spent because that’s what the Red Sox and Yankees do in the AL East. They spend more than anybody else because that, too, is a competition, even if they don’t spend it wisely, and sometimes they spend on each other’s big names. Johnny Damon led off for the “Idiots’’ that broke Boston’s 86-year World Series drought, and then two years later, Damon was signing with the “Evil Empire’’ and later winning a Series with the Yankees.
So, Epstein isn’t just a guy with a pocket protector and the most finely sharpened No. 2 pencils in the game. He has played the money-whipping game and has been handed Tom Ricketts’ keys to the vault. Epstein also knows that such signings seem exponentially satisfactory when you’re stealing a big name from you’re biggest rival.
From that standpoint, the ludicrous Pujols idea starts to make sense. No, wait, it doesn’t make as much sense as Fielder because he could be Albert Soriano long before the contract expires, but at least we understand why it might be more than just a rumor.
Problem is, Epstein can use a checkbook as badly as Jim Hendry when it comes to big names and big deals, which means the Cubs could sign the best hitter in the game amid fears that the new boss can get it as wrong as the old boss. So Cub.