Here are the questions baseball executives are wondering about with regards to the Albert Pujols contract situation: Can the Cardinals lose the Great Pujols? And can they afford to?
The answers appear to be 1) Yes; and 2) No.
Which means, yes, they may not keep Pujols, the best player in the game today and an alltime great. And no, if they don't keep him, they are not likely to remain a perennial contender, as they have been during his incredible career.
"I think they would be in a lot of trouble,'' said one executive with a competing National League team.
Pujols' self-imposed deadline for a deal to be done before he halts talks to concentrate on the season is Feb. 16, the day he will report to Cardinals camp in Jupiter, Fla. Which gives the two sides five days to work out a negotiation that appears by all accounts to be going nowhere. Not only are the Cardinals and their superstar not even on the same page, they're not even reading the same book. One person, not involved in the negotiations, said he heard the sides were so far apart they were "speaking two different languages.''
The negotiation game isn't over yet, as nine months remain before Pujols can officially become a free agent. But negotiations appear to be going poorly, with indications the sides are nowhere near an agreement.
"I think the Cardinals botched this thing from the start,'' the NL exec added. "It should have never come this close to a deadline. It should have been handled last year or two years ago.''
Word is, Pujols seeks a deal that exceeds the record $275 million, 10-year contract bestowed on Alex Rodriguez by the Yankees after the 2007 season. That's no surprise, as Pujols is considered the best player in baseball by everyone both inside and outside the game.
The Cardinals' position isn't as easy to define or understand. But Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt, in
The Cardinals have seemed to want to keep the contract to six years, or perhaps seven, at the outset of the talks. There have been reports they've made no official offer, but that could be a matter of semantics and convenience. They've been talking long enough to know where each side stands. And, apparently, to know that the sides stand nowhere near one another.
Assuming Pujols sticks to his deadline -- and there's no reason to think he won't -- the Cardinals' chances may be little better than anyone else's. Pujols has said he won't negotiate with the Cardinals once he gets to spring training on Feb. 16, and will wait until he becomes a free agent at year's end to re-start the dialogue. The Cardinals may not mind having a glimpse of the market. And they may believe Pujols will give them a chance to match other teams. Pujols indeed seemed to show his love for the Cardinals and St. Louis when he signed a very reasonable deal before the 2005 season that will pay him $116 million over eight years by the time it expires at year's end. Maybe the Cardinals are taking that as a sign he will give them a discount. But players are often more conservative in their approach for their first big deal.
Pujols has told the Cardinals he won't approve any trades elsewhere during the year, and it's possible the Cardinals are taking that as another sign about how much he wants to stay. But the reality is, people who know Pujols say they believe he just doesn't want any distractions for himself, his team or his family once he starts playing.
Folks are surprised that it's come to this point considering the Cardinals' reliance on Pujols and agent Dan Lozano's reputation for getting good but reasonable deals done for his guys (since breaking away from the Beverly Hills Sports Council, he got Joey Votto a $38 million, three-year deal done with the Cincinnati Reds this offseason) rather than hold out for the very top dollar. But there is a fair amount at stake for both sides and DeWitt, perhaps the best businessman in baseball, isn't the type to set the market. He is used to making big deals that are one-sided in his favor. He bought the Cardinals and the land adjacent to Busch Stadium for $150 million, then sold the parking structure for $90 million, meaning he got the greatest bargain in sports history -- a stored baseball franchise in maybe the country's best baseball city for $60 million.
Perhaps it's a fait accompli at this point that Pujols will hit the free agent market. But before the deadline arrives next Wednesday, maybe the Cardinals should try this: offer the highest annual salary imaginable on a reasonable term -- say $30-$32 million a year for seven guaranteed years. In that scenario, Pujols would get the highest annual salary he deserves but on a term that may be more palatable to St. Louis, which doesn't want to be carrying a record contract into Pujols' 40s.
The NL exec suggested something slightly different but actually a bit higher in total dollars: $28-to-$30 million for eight guaranteed years, plus a ninth-year option.
"They gave (Matt) Holliday seven years, so they have to give Pujols more than seven years,'' the exec said. "Albert can't really compare himself to anybody because he's that good. He's better than A-Rod and he means a lot more to the team, city, its fans, clubhouse, everything.''
That exec opined that neither Holliday nor fellow Cardinal Colby Rasmus can carry a team, certainly not like Pujols (Holliday did at times carry the 2007 Rockies). The Cardinals are getting older, and in the words of one scout "have one of the worst farm systems in baseball.''
They also have one of the greatest traditions in baseball, and the loss of Pujols would not fit a franchise that has kept its biggest stars for all or close to all of their careers, including Hall of Famers Stan Musial, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson. The Cardinals would seem to need Pujols more than he needs them. While the Yankees and Red Sox have star first basemen, they can't entirely be ruled out of a derby that may also include the Cubs, Giants, Nationals, Orioles and maybe the Angels, Dodgers, Rangers and Mariners, too.
"If they don't get it done, he will get that money from somewhere,'' the NL exec said of Pujols. "And he won't be the villain.''
The Cardinals have $68.375 million committed to six players for 2012 assuming they pick up the options of Chris Carpenter and Yadier Molina, and they almost surely will. But they will have a huge hole in their lineup and their heart if they are without Pujols.
"Here's the thing,'' the NL exec said. "The Cardinals need Pujols.''
It's time they acted that way.
• The Rangers supposedly asked the Rockies for a "very good'' player for Michael Young, and while the player isn't known, it appears to be a player Colorado has no intention of surrendering in a Young deal. Beyond that, the dollars are a big issue in any Young trade since he has $48 million and three years to go on his contract. While the Rockies haven't been told they are out, there seems to be little evidence of progress toward a deal between the sides.
• By losing in arbitration, Angels ace Jered Weaver will now be the Angels' lowest-paid starter at $7.365 million. His raise of $3.1 million is lower than that for the Brewers' Shaun Marcum, who went from $850,000 to $3.95 million in a deal that avoided arbitration and was announced just after the Weaver decision. Weaver led the AL in strikeouts and lost his case yet the Pirates' Ross Ohlendorf went 1-11 and won his. Screwy process.
• Orlando Cabrera should be a positive addition to the Indians when that deal is finalized. Wherever he goes, his team seems to win. That theory should be tested this year.
• Jonathan Broxton's undoing last year was due to him getting out of shape, one scout said. His shape caused him to drop his "arm slot,'' the scout said. Some teams have poked around to see whether the Dodgers are ready to deal him.
• Russell Martin is a flier not worth taking for the Yankees, according to another scout. That scout said Martin experienced such a stark loss of power and arm strength with the Dodgers over the past two years that he simply isn't the player he was.
• Joba Chamberlain raised a few eyebrows by reporting to Yankees camp a bit overweight.
• Oliver Perez did the same by not reporting for a voluntary workout, like many other Mets pitchers.