Albert Pujols enters free agency
With the euphoria surrounding his teams thrilling World Series victory over the Texas Rangers still resonating in the minds of fans, St. Louis Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak must immediately shift his attention to the free agency status of Albert Pujols. The Cardinals star first basemen is a free agent for the first time in his illustrious career, and although he has expressed his desire to remain in St. Louis he will no doubt have his share of suitors.
Pujols has been one of baseball’s prolific players since making his big league debut in 2001. The three-time National League MVP is arguably the most feared hitter in the game, a solid defender, and is quickly achieving icon status in St. Louis in the mold of former Cardinals great Stan Musial. Depending on his health in the coming years, Pujols will continue to work his way up Major League Baseball’s all-time home run list and will likely retire as one of the best to have ever played the game. He is the player the Cardinals have largely built their franchise around, and after serving an integral role in the Cardinals 2nd World Series crown in the last five years neither Manager Tony Larussa nor the team’s passionate fan base can envision him playing in another uniform.
Mozeliak and the Cardinals front office have a difficult decision to make in the coming weeks; the question isn’t do they want Pujols back (of course), but at what price and for how many years. Knowing that Pujols would be hitting the free agent market after the 2011 season, the Cardinals initially hoped to resign Pujols to a long-term deal last winter. Pujols sought a contract that would solidify his standing as the game’s best player, hoping to exceed the 10-year, $275 million albatross of a contract the Yankees foolishly gave to Alex Rodiguez. The Cardinals balked at this request, and it will be interesting to see if either side’s stance has softened on the heels of the team’s World Series victory. I am guessing no, as Pujols has been paid well below market value for the majority of his career and the Cardinals feel reluctant having one player making 25% of their team’s total payroll.
Despite the freakish power and talent of Albert Pujols he is 31-years old, and in the post-steroid era it is difficult for any team to give a player (especially one on the wrong side of 30) a ten-year contact for the money he is seeking. The progression of baseball careers has returned to historical levels as players prime years are in there late 20’s and early 30’s. The Yankees are learning this the hard way with A-Rod as his power numbers continue to decline due to age and the accumulation of injuries. Although Pujols more than likely has many great seasons ahead of him, it is hard to imagine him being the same dominant force he is now in the last few years of his career; his numbers in practically every major offensive category are on a three-year decline The tough decision for the Cardinals is do they want to pay him superstar money when he is no longer a superstar? The Yankees are doing this to an extent with Derek Jeter, who like Pujols holds a significant place in the history of his franchise. I am sure Mozeliak would prefer inking Pujols to a seven or eight year deal, but given public sentiment and his years of service the Cardinals will likely make a deal knowing there will be some drop-off on the back-end of it.
It will be interesting to see which teams make a play for Pujols. The Washington Nationals, San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers, and Anaheim Angles have all been mentioned as possible landing spots if his negotiations with the Cardinals fall through. With the Brewers slugging first basemen Prince Fielder also entering free agency teams might attempt to purse him first if they feel his contract demands will be more reasonable. Theo Epstein (new President of Baseball Operations of the rival Chicago Cubs) is known for making big moves, but I doubt he has the financial flexibility to sign Pujols at this time. Luckily for the Cardinals, high payroll teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies all have All-Star first basemen under contract for many years to come, virtually eliminating the possibility of them bidding and driving up the price.
Discussions might become contentious, but I believe eventually Pujols will sign a long-term deal to remain in St. Louis. I just can’t see another team hitting him with an A-Rod type of deal, and if St. Louis can at least match any competing bids he will return to the city where he is beloved and revered. In terms of salary, Mozeliak will probably be forced to use Phillies first basemen Ryan Howard’s $25 million per year salary as a starting point, and from there must work the numbers and years in a way that is mutually beneficial to both the Cards and Pujols.