St. Louis is about a week away from a catastrophe. Albert Pujols has put a deadline of February 16th on his contract negotiations. If he doesn’t have an extension in place at that time, he’s going to test the free agent market. If the Cardinals decided they couldn’t sign Pujols and wanted to trade him, that isn’t going to work either. Pujols has 10/5 status with the Cards, and can veto any deal. Pujols, 31, is reportedly looking for a contract in A-Rod’s neighborhood, 10-years, 275 million. For the first time in his career, Pujols isn’t playing nice with the Cardinals. He was the homegrown talent who signed deals early and at a discount only to outperform them. Now, facing his last chance to sign a contract in his prime, Pujols is looking to collect every last cent. It’s hard to blame him.
In 2010 Pujols hit .312 with 42 homers and 118 RBI. It’s a career year for just about anyone. It’s a career year for some Hall of Famers. For Pujols, it was the 3rd lowest OPS of his career, and the lowest average he’s posted as a major leaguer. One of the league’s premiere power hitters also boasts a career .331 average. He strikes out about 1/3 as often as your modern days slugger, he walks 100 times a year, has the 5th highest OPS of all-time, and plays a gold glove 1st base. He does it all for just over 14 million dollars a year. Considering Ryan Howard’s contract, or Mark Teixeira’s, and looking at the amount of money being paid guys like Jayson Werth this off-season, there’s almost no way Pujols could give the Cards much of a discount, even if he wanted to. The union wouldn’t allow it.
I’m sure the stumbling point for St. Louis is the number of years that Albert is demanding. There’s almost no chance that Pujols will be worth 27 million when he’s 41. There’s little chance he’ll be worth that much at 38, but the Cardinals have put themselves in this position. At first glance the 7-year, 100+ million dollar deal that Pujols signed way back in ’04 before his first year of salary arbitration appears generous, but by that time Pujols already had an established track record and he was criminally underpaid. He made 950,000 dollars in a year he hit .359 with 43 homers. In his first 3 seasons with St. Louis, the Cards got about 36-40 million dollars worth of production for a couple million. The extension Pujols signed was somewhat unprecedented for a player with 3 years to go until free agency, but the Cardinals made the decision to extend it out until he was 31. They knew they were still getting a discount, they believed he’d keep up the production, so the more years, the better. But, now, instead of looking at a guy who is 28 and wants a 10-year deal, they have a 31-year old. They’ve probably saved 80-100 million on Pujols over the first decade of his career, and now Albert wants to make some of that back.
The Matt Holliday contract was another double-edged sword for the Cardinals. They dumped 120 million on him, at about 17 million per, in part to keep Albert happy, to show that commitment to winning, but at the same time they were setting the market. How can Pujols take less than 7 years? How could he take less than 25 million? I think that would be the absolute bare minimum Pujols could accept without it being considered a complete coup for St. Louis, 7-years, 175 million. But, I think there is little chance of that happening, if they are chopping years, they’ll have to be prepared to up the ante, maybe 7-years, 210 million could get it done?
The Cardinals are a very successful franchise, but they certainly have a budget. I’ve thought many times this winter that if Pujols played on the East Coast or in L.A. that this story would get a lot more attention, but there’s a good chance that if Albert played for the Angels, or Yankees the deal would already be done. History would have already been made. The Cardinals, because of their status as something of a mega-small market, have to weigh this decision very carefully. Pujols is St. Louis probably as much as any player defines a team aside from Derek Jeter. He’s the city’s treasure, he’s the cornerstone of the offense, and the backlash would be unbelievable if he left. That said, with all that money tied up in Holliday and Pujols, how long is it before Carpenter, Wainwright and Garcia have gone elsewhere to make their money?
If Pujols doesn’t sign before the start of spring training, his potential landing spots will be limited. Not a lot of teams can afford that number, and others already have huge money tied up at 1st base (Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox). You’d have to think the Angels might make a run. How about the Dodgers if they can sort out their mess? The Mets might be in too much trouble. One team that jumps out is the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs would love to have Pujols, and that would be the ultimate insult for Cardinals fans. Albert might not have a ton of bidders, but having the Cubs in the chase would be about all he needs.
I think the Cardinals have to get this deal done. If I were them, I’d overpay as much as I could to trim the years down. Stay as far away from 10 years as possible, but you can’t let him walk for a couple of draft picks. Maybe you have to get creative with the rest of your roster, move Holliday, make some tough choices with the rotation, but you don’t want to lose the face of the franchise at this point. Cardinals fans are very loyal, but they wouldn’t take too well to this I don’t think. If Pujols signs I don’t see any sense of urgency to win a title. The fans will happily come see Albert like always, but if he were to head out-of-town, they’ll need to win to keep those seats full, and they’ll certainly have to be better than the Cubs.