Theo Epstein Faces Tough Decision As Cubs Weigh Merits of Pursuing Albert Pujols in Free Agency

Theo Epstein Faces Tough Decision As Cubs Weigh Merits of Pursuing Albert Pujols in Free AgencyAlbert Pujols is past his prime.

OK, so it’s probably unfair to say that about a guy who just hit .353 during the postseason, which included a three-home run performance in the World Series, en route to his second title in six seasons. But if you believe former Red Sox general manager and new Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein‘s assessment of players, Pujols falls into that category.

Epstein never specifically said that Pujols’ best days are behind him, but he backed himself into a bit of a corner at his first news conference in Chicago.

“I think baseball players have a prime age, there’s an age range, starting somewhere around 26-27 and ending somewhere around 31-32, in which you get the best bang for your buck with the player,” Epstein said. “If we do our jobs the right way, we’ll have as many players in their primes, hopefully homegrown, impact-type players who are moving into and still in their prime years. That’s the best formula to building a winning baseball club.”

For a team expected to make a play for Pujols — who turns 32 on Jan. 16 — and whose fan base is hungry for a title, it might not have been the smartest comment in the world, as Epstein essentially set himself up for a bit of scrutiny down the line.

Cubs fans would likely be ecstatic about landing the three-time NL MVP. He’s quite possibly the best player of our generation, constantly proving that he’s a big-time player who elevates his game in big-time situations. For a team that hasn’t won a World Series in 103 years and hasn’t even been to the Fall Classic in 66, he seems like the perfect man to lead the lovable losers to new heights.

Add the fact that Pujols is one of the game’s classiest individuals and signing him would entail snatching him away from a hated division rival, and Epstein has to be licking his chops at getting in on the Pujols sweepstakes.

But then there’s that comment. It was rather harmless at the time — still is, in fact — and a footnote in what was a jubilant day for the Cubs organization. But it’s also the type of harmless quote that has “sound bite” written all over it should Chicago invest record-setting money in the future Hall of Famer, only to watch him flame out in Cubbie Blue.

And Epstein’s track record regarding free agents further complicates matters. Not only is it less than stellar, but it contradicts those comments he made to the Chicago media on Oct. 25.

When Epstein inked J.D. Drew in 2007, he was 31. John Lackey was also 31 when he was signed. Carl Crawford was 29 and turned 30 this past August — his first season with the Red Sox.

Crawford still has six years to prove he’s worth the investment, but Drew’s tenure with the Red Sox wasn’t too illustrious, and Lackey’s has been a letdown, to say the least.

So what’s a guy to do? Does Esptein roll the dice and hand out another monster contract — one that would trump all the ones he handed out in Boston — to a veteran in free agency?

When it comes to one Albert Pujols, you would have to think “yes” — for all of the reasons mentioned. He’s a superstar, a middle-of-the-order presence the Cubs so desperately seek, and he’d single-handedly serve as an indication that Epstein is serious about ending the Cubs’ historic drought.

But when it comes to the financial implications — shelling out “A-Rod” money — there’s great risk. A-Rod himself stands as proof.

After Alex Rodriguez opted out of his monster contract in 2007, the Yankees eventually brought him back on a new 10-year contract worth $275 million. Since inking that deal, he’s missed more games in each of the last four seasons than he did during any season before then — except for 1999, when he tore cartilage in his left knee and missed more than a month.

Rodriguez’s performance also has dipped the last two seasons, with his batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS dropping to their lowest totals since 1995 — when Rodriguez was just 19.

Now comparing the two players is apples to oranges, as is the case with any two players, really. But it’s worth analyzing Rodriguez’s track record when his contract seemingly stands as the basis for Pujols’ deal.

The Cubs have a lot of flaws as Epstein takes charge. Pujols would solve some, but not certainly not all.

The slugging first baseman is a beast, no doubt, but even Pujols can’t solve Chicago’s pitching woes. And the starting pitching market is rather thin this offseason, meaning the Cubs would have to solve the issue internally, which might not happen for a few years because of the team’s lackluster farm system.

It’s not every day that you get to pursue an Albert Pujols on the open market, so when the opportunity arises, it’s beyond appetizing. But given the number of issues plaguing the Cubs, many of which might not be solvable within the next year or two, is it worth handcuffing youself for the forseeable future with one contract?

If Epstein does pull the trigger, he’ll have to hope Pujols is even more of a machine than he already is. And if he isn’t, the new man in charge will have some explaining to do.

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