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Big paydays await game's MVPs

There appears to be little to see yet in what promises to be two of the most widely watched player negotiations in recent memory. Talks involving Albert Pujols, who is signed through 2010 with a club option for 2011, and the Cardinals early this winter appear to have been extremely brief, and indications are that discussions between Joe Mauer, a free agent after the 2010 season, and the Twins have been even briefer.

Word is going around that Mauer and the Twins have not yet engaged in any serious dialogue, though it's expected that they will begin speaking soon. The seemingly slow start isn't because either side is disinterested, though. The opposite, in fact, is the case. The team-oriented Mauer is said by sources to be giving the Twins a chance to put their 2010 team together while he awaits contract talks that are sure to become the landmark case for a superstar player and a (relatively) small-market team, albeit a team leaving its albatross of a dome for a beautiful new baseball-only facility.

Further word is that Mauer plans to be reasonable for a superstar, no surprise for those who have dealt with the down-to-earth catcher, who is a St. Paul native and grew up a Twins fans and whose grandparents attend every game. Mauer is said to be supremely confident in his position, and that's evidenced by his willingness to give the Twins time to get their own house in order. And why shouldn't he be confident? He is coming off an otherworldly MVP season in which he led the American League in batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage, and knows that if he presses the market, the Red Sox and Yankees are almost sure to come calling at season's end. Mauer doesn't use the words "hometown'' or "discount,'' but the view around the game is that he is expected to play fair with the Twins, who understandably view their hometown star as a must-sign.

Word is that he's thinking about a contract for at least seven years and more than $20 million, though he isn't going to press the $30 million issue that could conceivably come into focus if he goes the free-agent route. To this point that threshold has been reserved for the one superstar who may be en route to breaking the career home run record -- Alex Rodriguez (though Pujols is aiming to join him). Folks around baseball are predicting that something on the order of $150 million over seven years could get it done for Mauer and the Twins.

And everyone around the game understands both sides have strong motivation to keep the marriage together. Nobody seriously believes they won't make it work.

There is considerably more intrigue in the case of Pujols, however, especially after the Cardinals awarded their extremely strong second fiddle, Matt Holliday, $120 million over seven years. That big deal in a rough market had some wondering aloud whether the Cardinals can now fit franchise man Pujols into their budget. But that type of speculation seems to be backwards. The Cardinals are likely hoping that Holliday's presence could be a lure for Pujols to stay (though they aren't naïve enough to think that money isn't the main lure in any of these negotiations). Holliday, who slightly out-hit Pujols in the second half last year (1.047 OPS to 1.009 for Pujols), provides excellent lineup protection for the best hitter in the game.

There's little chance that the Cardinals would risk losing Pujols over Holliday, anyway. What is remotely possible is that the Cardinals' initial talk with Pujols early this winter left them concerned about their chances to retain him, increasing their need to keep Holliday and leading to what some saw as an over-market deal with their incumbent left fielder.

It should be pretty obvious where Pujols' position lies, as he's surely seeking a deal for $30 million a year. While A-Rod plays third base and plays in New York, Pujols' numbers have actually been slightly better than Rodriguez's in recent years. Pujols is so good, in fact, and so necessary to St. Louis, that competing teams still have trouble believing that the Cardinals will let him leave. He has basically become a part of their brand.

"They can't let [Pujols] go,'' one competing executive said. "He's the franchise.''

Pujols certainly is theirs for at least two more years, with the Cardinals holding a $16 million option for 2011 on top of his $16 million 2010 salary. Holliday's deal for $17 million shouldn't affect how Pujols feels about things, as A-Rod is really his only comparable.

While on the surface it's hard to imagine the Cardinals, a team that has tried to keep its payroll in the $100 million range, paying $45 million or more to two players, St. Louis' revenues are said by sources to be about the same as the higher-spending Phillies, whose payroll is about $140 million. St. Louis' other big advantage is the great deal its owners got on the team, especially when it is considered that a majority of that money was recovered when they sold off the adjacent garage (yes, the garage.)

The Cardinals' chances to keep Pujols shouldn't be written off as zero. But it's fair to say that their chances to keep Pujols aren't as great as the Twins' chances to keep Mauer.

Aroldis Chapman's deal for about $30 million over five years plus a player option is a big gamble for the Reds, who see him as a member of their starting rotation in the not-too-distant future, despite issues with his control and secondary pitches. The Reds view Chapman as, potentially, another Randy Johnson.

And it's true that the Reds weren't the only ones who coveted Chapman's great talent, as the Blue Jays, A's, Nationals and Marlins (though their interest was mostly driven by ownership) were among the most interested teams. What's intriguing is that interest in Chapman was confined mostly to small-market teams. Some of those teams probably saw Chapman as their chance to get a superstar as a free agent for less than free-agent superstar prices (Holliday, Jason Bay and John Lackey -- the year's three biggest free-agents -- all got two to four times what Chapman received).

The big-market teams saw Chapman as a risk that they didn't need to take. A few of those teams seemed to question his maturity level. He is said by people who've dealt with him to be a very young 21, and a couple interested parties said that they didn't want to invest in a babysitter, too. Coping with big-city life and more media might have been seen as a complicating factor.

The Yankees seemed to lose interest in Chapman after entertaining him at Yankee Stadium in October, while the Red Sox's pursuit lost steam after their initial $15.5 million bid several weeks ago apparently came up short. Although it couldn't be confirmed, a story going around baseball is that, upon finding out he might have to settle for about $20 million, Chapman said, "If I knew that, I would have stayed [in Cuba].''

• The Tigers, looking to make a few additions after clearing some payroll space in a difficult economy there, are considering Jose Valverde for the closing job. Valverde would make a fine replacement for Fernando Rodney. The Tigers still could use a leadoff hitter to replace Curtis Granderson, as well, but it isn't know whether they intend to make a play for Johnny Damon.

• The Braves and Giants are believed to have made offers for Damon, though he hasn't snapped up either one immediately, leading some to wonder whether the Yankees might get involved again. The Yankees have yet to replace Melky Cabrera and would go with Granderson in left field and Brett Gardner in center if they don't sign anyone to play left.

• The Twins have made an offer to Jarrod Washburn, who's also drawing interest from the Mets and Royals. The Brewers are another team that makes sense for Washburn, a Wisconsin native who might not mind making the switch to the National League after toiling exclusively in the tougher AL to this point.

• The Mariners have upgraded their already excellent defense by adding Casey Kotchman, whom they appear to love. But with lefty-swinging Kotchman and Ken Griffey Jr. currently manning first base and DH, respectively, they are considering right-handed batters who could fill both roles. One player they've considered is Ryan Garko.

• There is no evidence that the Mariners are involved yet for Bengie Molina, as they seem fairly satisfied with their catching mix, led by Rob Johnson, for now. The Mets and Molina have been in a winter-long staredown, with the Mets offering one year plus an option and Molina looking for three years and close to $20 million.

Dustin Ackley, the No. 2 overall pick behind Stephen Strasburg last June, is said to look pretty good in his initial foray at second base in the Arizona Fall League, where he also batted .315.

• The A's still have a few dollars to spend and are eyeing infielders. They tried for Marco Scutaro and Adrian Beltre, offering more than that duo received in separate deals from the Red Sox ($24 million for three years in Beltre's case). A few more possibilities could include their former star Miguel Tejada, plus Adam Kennedy or Orlando Cabrera, who was a good late signing last year for them before they traded him to Minnesota at mid-season.

• The Rangers did well to get Vladimir Guerrero for about $5 million to fill their need for a right-handed bat. His .705 lifetime slugging percentage in his new home park means that he probably picked the right place to sign, too. Texas now seeks a low-cost starting pitcher.

• The Orioles, who played for Holliday and did well to acquire Kevin Millwood, Mike Gonzalez and Garrett Atkins, are still in play for Adam LaRoche, who would hit a lot of home runs at Camden Yards and would be a useful bat, especially in the second half (his OPS is .909 after the All-Star break compared to .773 before).

• It's disappointing that any writer would hold one out-of-character incident against Roberto Alomar to the point of withholding a vote for him for the Hall of Fame, and it's stunning that Alomar didn't make it into the Hall in his first year of eligibility. After missing by eight votes he will surely get in next year, though. So will Bert Blyleven, who missed by five votes after once receiving just 14 percent of the vote. While more than half the electorate has changed their minds about Blyleven's worthiness, I continue to be a holdout, though for more customary baseball reasons than the reason that likely kept Alomar out.

• The seventh annual Scouts Foundation dinner will be held at the Hyatt Regency Century City in Los Angeles this coming Saturday at 6 p.m. Tickets for the event, a grand spectacle that features many baseball luminaries (Bud Selig, Tony La Russa, Tommy Lasorda and Brooks Robinson are just a few of the honorees and attendees this year) and benefits scouts in need, are available by calling 310-996-1188.

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