It’s now past the deadline that Albert Pujols set for the cutoff of negotiations with the Cardinals. For all practical purposes spring training has begun for Pujols and El Hombre will not negotiate during spring training. So now, aside from another of his usual Hall of Fame-caliber seasons,what does the future hold for Pujols and the Cardinals?
One thing that seems certain is that, unlike your typical big money free-agent-to-be, a trade is not a real possibility. Oh sure, some people have speculated about one happening, but even they’re not doing it with a straight face. Pujols has been in the bigs for more than ten years and with the same club for more than five and that gives him the famous “ten and five rights” which require his approval for any trade. He is on record as saying that he will not, under any circumstances accept one.
And even if Pujols was amenable to a trade, the Cardinals would be fools to make one. There’s no way they could get anything approaching fair value for him. He’s too close to free agency for it to make sense for any trade parter to empty the farm system for him. The usual alternative to that — trading for another big contract — makes little sense if you’re the Cardinals given that paying Pujols seems to be an issue right now. Why pay nearly as much for someone else’s expensive but-nowhere-near-as-good first baseman? A first baseman who — like, say Mark Teixeira to use an example — likely also has his own no-trade clause and would be certifiably insane to go to St. Louis and attempt to fill Pujols’ shoes.
No, the season is going to play out with Albert Pujols in St. Louis. A season during which he claims there will be no contract negotiations.
What about that claim? Personally, I question it. The parties have already discussed money. They’re nowhere close to a deal, but clearly the Cardinals know what Pujols wants. Does it make any sense that if the Cardinals were to agree to meet Pujols’ demands his agent wouldn’t answer the call? Of course not. What if they were a million dollars short? Heck, that’s nothing at those prices, so sure Pujols would still listen. And he likely would if it was a $2 million gap too. Yes, such small gaps seem unlikely, but the point here is that somewhere between the current stalemate and a total capitulation by the Cardinals is an offer that Pujols would accept, and his agent would be silly not to hear the Cardinals out on it if the came calling with it.
All of which means that — in my opinion — this deadline that just passed is a soft one. I believe that there will be, at some point between now and next October, real discussions between the Cardinals and Pujols. They may not be highly publicized. They may not involve Pujols himself. But they’ll happen in some way.
And I think a good reason they’ll happen is that Pujols knows that, for as amazing a player he is, the market doesn’t shape up wonderfully for him next fall and winter. The usual high-bidders — the Yankees and Red Sox — already have first basemen in Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez. The Yankees also have to keep the DH slot open for Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter to occupy in their dotage. They’re the only two teams who could write a $300 million check without gambling the franchise. In short: if not the Cardinals, who else could possibly offer him the kind of money he’s seeking?
Maybe the Rangers would, but as we saw in December with the Cliff Lee stuff, there is a major split between the owner and the front office on how best to spend free agent dollars. Some have mentioned the Cubs and, boy howdy would they love to steal their biggest rival’s superstar. But Chicago has some major salary commitments already and owner Tom Ricketts has suggested that the payroll will go down, not up, in the future. The Angels? Heck, they wouldn’t pay Adrian Beltre. The Dodgers and Mets are broke. The White Sox have Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko under contract. The Nationals and Orioles are too far from contention to be likely to entice a player of Pujols’ stature. Against that entire backdrop is the fact that Prince Fielder will be a free agent too and, while he’s nothing close to the player Pujols is, he’s much younger and will come much cheaper. There really isn’t any other obvious choice.
My suspicion: whether talks happen this summer or not, Albert Pujols stays in St. Louis. He may not get his ten years and $300 million, but he’ll get something close to it. Or at least something that can be characterized as close to it but which contains all manner of deferred money and other vesting options and incentives for both now and later to make it plausible to claim that he’s getting such a thing even if it’s less in present day dollars. But however the deal breaks down, I think it will be with the Cardinals. No one else has the need for Pujols like the Cardinals do. No one else has the money that Pujols wants.
Put differently: even if the passing of today’s deadline is something akin to a living hell, the Pujols-Cardinals match is one made in heaven. And I have every bit of confidence that the relationship will continue for a long, long time.