Protecting Pujols from the Front

Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu would represent danger in the second spot, something that TLR always wants

When Matt Holliday was traded to the Cardinals, a lot was made about Albert Pujols finally having someone to offer him some protection in the lineup.  With Matt Holliday batting cleanup behind Albert, the thinking was that since Holliday is such a good hitter, Albert wouldn’t get pitched around as much and would get more pitches to hit in certain situations. Although SABR analysis has shown that there is little evidence that supports the idea of protection, Pujols did see a steep decline in the amount of intentional walks a he received after the Holliday trade than he did before it.  Even though Pujols’s numbers actually got worse after the trade for Holliday, it was likely because of the bone spurs in his elbow.  There is no doubt Holliday improved the offense, as the offense scored more runs after the trade even though players like Pujols, Derosa, and Ludwick all sputtered down the stretch.  Now that Holliday could be gone, however, the protection issue surrounding Pujols is starting to crop up again.

As I briefly stated in a previous post, there are two ways to protect Albert to some degree and ensure that he sees a fair amount of pitches to hit.  One way is to do what the Cardinals did in 2009 by putting a feared hitter after Pujols so teams will be more weary of walking Albert because of the damage the hitter behind him could potentially do.  The other idea is to put players with high obp’s in front of Pujols so there are always runners on base in front of #5.  If there are runners on base a lot in front of Pujols, even if there isn’t a hitter of Holiday’s caliber behind Albert, he will still get pitched to because there would be nowhere to put him.  Ideally, the Cardinals would be able to employ both types of protection, but financial restrictions make it unlikely.  It should also be noted that Albert Pujols is one of if not the best hitter on the planet, and that no matter how much protection there is teams will always pitch to Albert as little as possible.  So what should John Mozeliak do?

The odds of Mozeliak being able to retain Holliday are up in the air, and if Holliday walks and Bay is unavailable I believe the front office should focus on a two hole hitter that does a good job of getting on base in front of Albert.  For most of the season, either Colby Rasmus or Brendan Ryan batted second, and both struggled in the spot before Albert.  Colby had a .307 obp in his rookie campaign, while Ryan managed a .340 obp.  Colby simply didn’t get on base enough as a two hole hitter and should probably hit down in the lineup to better utilize his power and base stealing ability.  Brendan Ryan had a more respectable obp, but with just a .400 slg % someone with a little bit more pop belongs in the second spot.

So who could be a catalyst in front of Albert that the Cardinals could sign via free agency this offseason?  Assuming David Freese is goes into the season as the starting third baseman, Chone Figgins isn’t an option.  So what outfielders could fit this bill?  Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu are the two players that would make the most sense.  Although Abreu (36) and Damon (37) will be getting up there in age, both are a virtual lock to appear in 130-140 games next season.  Abreu put up a .293/.390/.435 line for a .825 ops to go along with 96 runs and 103 RBI’s.  Damon had a similar season, posting a .282/.365/.489 ops to go along with 107 runs and 87 RBI’s. Damon posted a higher ops, but it largely had to do with the launching pad of Yankee Stadium inflating his slg%.  Both Damon(.376) and Abreu(.367) were nearly identical hitters judging by their Weighted On Base Average (WOBA), which includes park factors so hitters can be more easily compared on their true talent levels.  Damon and Abreu are also very similar unfortunately with the gloves, even though Damon is a left fielder and Abreu is a right fielder.  Damon was -11.2 runs below average per UZR, and Abreu was -9.9 runs below average in right field.  Both clearly aren’t great outfielders, but with the Cardinals ground ball pitching staff it might help hide Damon in left or Abreu in left or right, depending on where the Cardinals wanted Ludwick to play.  Overall Damon was worth 2.8 Wins Above Replacement, which would be worth 12.7 million on the free agent market.  Abreu was worth 2.6 WAR and produced 11.8 million dollars of value to the Angels in 2009.  Both Damon and Abreu are probably looking at a 2 year deal at this point in their respective careers, and something in the neighborhood of 2 years and 20 million would be a fair offer for each.

To sum it up, the Cardinals face a difficult offseason as they try to retool and reload for 2010.  Pujols must be protected, and whether that protection comes from behind Albert like Cardinals fans saw in 2009 with Matt Holliday or in front of Pujols with someone like Damon or Abreu getting on base in second spot, getting El Hombre as many opportunities to swing the bat as possible should be the top priority.  Adding Damon or Abreu wouldn’t be as sexy as adding a big bat like Holliday or Bay, but it would be effective and besides, the Cardinals might save enough coin to take a hard run at a certain Cuban lefthander.

Agree? Disagree? Voice your opinion in the comments section below and I will be happy to explain any part of this post!

*Also note that from this point forward, I will stick to this Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday post schedule, especially while the hot stove is yet to be lit.