The month of February could redefine the near future of baseball in St. Louis. It may not come to that. There is a chance the Cardinals and all-world slugger (and human) Albert Pujols reach a new contract before the player-imposed deadline of spring training. The three-time MVP has one year left on his current deal and does not want to negotiate during that final season. If St. Louis management cannot come to an agreement with Pujols this month, they will do the unthinkable and let the game’s best player go on the open market next fall.
The drama in the Pujols-Cardinals relationship should never have reached the current point. What’s there to negotiate? The nine-time All-Star is the best player of his generation. If you took his career worst numbers in each category for a season (.312 average/.955 OPS with 32 HRs, 103 RBIs, 99 runs scored), Pujols would still be an All-Star. His average season from 2008-10 (.331/1.074 with 42 HRs, 123 RBIs, 113 runs scored) shows that there is no market to be established here. Albert is the Alpha.
Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. is either willing to pay baseball’s biggest contract or he isn’t. The St. Louis brass should have gone to Pujols in November with whatever maximum they were willing to pay (8 years, $250 million?) and put the ball in the slugger’s court. There is no reason to get in a futile back and forth with the modern day Stan Musial. If Pujols wants more money than the STL maximum, then the Cardinals could have spent the winter figuring out a solution for both parties. They obviously don’t want to trade the fan favorite (plus he has a no-trade clause), but the ransom the Cardinals could have received a few months ago would be better than a 2011 season full of distractions and then free agency. It’s hard to know if Pujols would have accepted a deal this winter if the money wasn’t close, but the Cards should not have lollygagged through the new year. By waiting to February, St. Louis management has backed themselves into a corner with the budget and the fans.
The Cardinals will take a big public relations hit if they lose Pujols. However St. Louis is a very smart baseball town, and their savvy fans can figure out the difference between a greedy player and cheap and/or inept management. If the team cannot pay $30 million/year for 8-10 seasons, then they should have spent the last two months finding a franchise that could. Some fans in the Gateway City would never forgive the club for trading their favorite player, but they would be much more forgiving if the team got multiple major leaguers that helped the Cards return to the postseason (only one playoff appearance in the last four years). If Pujols leaves in free agency for a couple of draft picks, the loyal fans in St. Louis will have a much more negative reaction.
The baseball universe is now waiting to see what happens with the Cardinals and Pujols. It’s hard to see him ever wearing another uniform other than the “birds on the bat”. St. Louis will still support the team even if Pujols exits, but the likely decline (400,000-800,000?) in attendance would be significant. I’m not one to say “pay him whatever he asks for”, but this is the one player that is worth every dollar he’s paid. On and off the field, Albert Pujols is a dream scenario for every organization in baseball. For the good of the game, here’s to hoping an agreement is reached soon.