After taking over the Cubs in the last month, Theo Epstein could make a move that would help the Cubs be contenders for years to come. The Cubs don't need to make a free agent splash by signing Albert Pujols.
Sir Albert is going to be one of the greatest players of all time once he is done playing. The 31-year-old's production though is already on the decline. His WAR over the past few years shows this decline.
If the Cubs sign Pujols, they will miss out on utilizing his most productive seasons. The next 3 seasons will probably be his best 3 seasons. The Cubs are not in position to contend during that time and would be effectively wasting the money spent on him. Also, he is not going to bring more people to the stadium. The Cubs are already one of the biggest draws in baseball.
Besides having a great player with declining skills, the Cubs would be stuck with probably a $243 million contract for 9+ years. While this contract would probably not be devastating to the Cubs and their deep pockets, it would limit the options in the future for the Cardinals.
The Cubs could act like they are trying to signing Pujols. The Cardinals are going to have to try to out bid them. There is no way that the head brass in St. Louis can afford to watch him walk away and go to their most heated rival. The more the Cardinals have to pay, in years and dollars, for Pujols and his declining talent, the chances of them being a contender in the future declines.
It may be safe to say that Pujols will have a WAR in the range of 5 to 7 next season. I will be conservative and say he will be at 7 WAR and decline at a rate of 0.5 WAR per season until his 34th birthday. Then, his WAR will begin to decline at the rate of 0.7 WAR/year.
Besides Pujols, the Cardinals have Matt Holliday signed up for $17M a year until 2016 ($1M Buyout on a 2017 $17M option). I will peg Holiday with a 5 WAR next season and use the same aging effects. It is easy to work with these two players since they were born just a day apart. Here are their projected WAR and Salaries for the life of Holliday's deal:
By 2016, the two combined will be making 6.8 WAR total and will be sucking up $44M of the Cardinals' budget. These numbers aren't horrible with a value of $6.5M/WAR. If less conservative WAR estimates are used, 5 WAR for Pujols and 4.5 for Holiday, they will only be producing a combined 4.3 WAR by 2016, or $10M/WAR. Yee-ouch.
With Holliday gone in 2017, assuming the buyout happens, Pujols' salary will still be significant with his declining production. The Best Fans in Baseball will see him break many MLB records, but his contract will be way too high for a 2-3 WAR 1B. Over the same time, the Cubs will have jettisoned all their bloated contacts, rebuilding their farm system and looking to sign younger and better free agents.
Not signing Pujols this off season may end up being the best move for the Cubs. First, they don't tie up a ton of money on a declining 1B whose best years are behind him. Instead, the Cubs force the Cardinals to take on an albatross of a contract. It will limit the Cards at a time the Cubs look to become competitive. Epstein's first great move as the Cubs G.M. may be the move he doesn't make.