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Why Pujols may be as good as gone

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- If the St. Louis Cardinals are not prepared to pay Albert Pujols more than the Phillies pay Ryan Howard -- that's $25 million per year - then they never had a shot at keeping their iconic player in St. Louis and he is as good as gone.

When Pujols' deadline for a contract extension passed Wednesday without a deal, it was clear that the two sides were way too far apart to think that they are suddenly going to hammer out a deal in November when he is days away from a free-agent bidding war.

"Albert is not someone who is about the money," said a baseball source close to Pujols. "He has enough and his charitable work is amazing. He has flown doctors and dentists to the Dominican to give kids there access to health care. But he is someone with intense pride. He has worked hard to turn himself into the best hitter in baseball and he's earned the right to be treated that way in negotiations. It's not about greed with Albert. I think it's pride."

Having taken a hometown discount in his last contract, Pujols is looking at the first and last contract negotiation of his career in which he has premium leverage. And the contract Howard signed 10 months ago -- five years for $125 million with a club option for a sixth year -- is only where the meter drops on a Pujols deal. Howard's deal begins this year at age 31. Pujols' new deal will begin next year at 32.

Pujols is the far superior player. Check out their stats, with Gold Gloves, All-Star selections and MVP Awards included:

It's not even close. Like it or not, the Average Annual Value (AAV) of contracts is how players, clubs and agents measure worth. If you toss aside the prorated deal the Yankees gave Roger Clemens to pitch part of the 2007 season, the greatest AAVs belong to Alex Rodriguez ($27.5 million on his current deal and $25.2 million on his 2001 deal). Howard's contract comes in next.

You can probably book it that Pujols' next contract will include an AAV of at least $25 million, whether it comes from St. Louis or not.

The problem is that the Cardinals play in a much smaller market than Philadelphia and have less room for revenue growth than the Phillies did. St. Louis has been playing to almost full capacity since Busch Stadium opened in 2006. In that time the Phillies have added one million paying customers to Citizens Bank Park, which opened in 2004.

The Indians ran into a similar problem during the Jacobs Field Era. Cleveland operated at near peak capacity in the first eight years of the ballpark, 1994-2001, and the payroll swelled from $30 million to $98 million. But that's where the Indians hit a payroll ceiling. The payroll couldn't keep climbing because there was little room for more revenue growth. And so Cleveland, coming off a 91-win season and its sixth AL Central title in seven years in 2001, began shedding parts through trades and free agency: Roberto Alomar, Juan Gonzalez, Kenny Lofton, Chuck Finley, Paul Shuey and Ricardo Rincon all were gone before the end of the next season.

"The problem the Cardinals have," said one baseball executive, "is the math doesn't work. They probably can't get to 120 [million dollar payroll] in that market, so they only have so much to give Albert and still have a competitive team around him."

When I wrote about Miguel Cabrera last year, I found an engaging young man who was the joy of the Tigers clubhouse. When he walked into the room everybody knew it. Heads turned, jokes flew and smiles ruled. The guy who had been known to be moody and sullen was now the touchstone of the team. Cabrera has what Detroit manager Jim Leyland called "a great baseball face."

But something struck me as missing from this clean and sober Cabrera after a 2009 season marred by two alcohol-related incidents and club-mandated "counseling" that offseason: unflinching ownership of a drinking problem. Cabrera withdrew when I brought up the drunken incident on the final weekend of the 2009 season. He was uncomfortable when the subject came up. He would address it only obliquely.

"What happened happened, " he said. "I can't do nothing about it. I do learn from mistakes."

Even more telling may have been this quote to reporters last March when he showed up at spring training: "You guys write in the paper 'alcoholic.' That's not right. I don't know how to explain, but it's not an alcohol problem."

What now? Cabrera needs more professional help, probably to a greater degree than the three or four counseling sessions per week he attended after the 2009 incident. His drinking problem is so severe that in 2009 with the playoffs on the line he was dangerously and stupendously drunk -- he registered a 0.26 blood alcohol reading, grossly above the Michigan limit of 0.08 -- and now police say he was so drunk he took a swig of whiskey in front of a deputy.

The Tigers need to assist in every way possible to make sure Cabrera directly addresses, yes, this alcohol problem. Let the professionals decide the course of action, regardless of how it might impact his preparations for this season. What's important only is that Cabrera takes stock of his life before he hurts himself or somebody else.

And by the way, that St. Lucie County jail where Cabrera was booked has a fairly high celebrity quotient for a county without a major city. In the past 12 months, Cabrera, former Partridge Family star David Cassidy and Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein all have been held at the St. Lucie County jail. No word yet on any plans for tours.

Forget about seeing Aroldis Chapman in the Reds rotation this year. It's not an option. Cincinnati is shelving his off-speed pitch, a split-change, and is not getting him stretched out this spring training. He is being groomed to replace Arthur Rhodes, who signed with the Rangers as a free-agent, as their top lefty out of the bullpen.

Why waste an arm like Chapman's by having him neither start nor close? Two reasons. One is need -- the Reds have depth in the rotation but not in the bullpen. Two is that Chapman, who turns 23 this month, isn't polished enough to make 30 big league starts. He needs work on command and how he attacks hitters, so Cincinnati wants to limit his innings.

The Reds have plenty of pitchers who logged big workloads at age 23, including Bronson Arroyo (167 1/3 with Pittsburgh), Johnny Cueto (171 1/3), Edinson Volquez (178 2/3 with the Texas organization), Travis Wood (202 2/3) and Homer Bailey (203). But Chapman is getting the kid gloves treatment and might not even reach the 104 pro innings he threw last year.

One thing is for sure: This must be the last year Chapman neither starts or closes. (The Reds have a $12 million option for 2012 on closer Francisco Cordero.) They don't have $30.25 million invested in him to be a setup reliever.

And look at the economics Cincinnati is squandering. Right now Reds fans have no idea when they buy a ticket if they will see Chapman pitch, and if Chapman does get in a game he doesn't last long. (He threw 8 1/3 innings at home last year in eight appearances.) Put him in the rotation and Chapman's starts are as big as scheduled concert dates. Just ask the Nationals how that worked with Stephen Strasburg.

Here's another problem: workload. Rhodes threw 55 innings last year. Even if Chapman works as much as the Reds' most-used reliever last year -- Nick Masset threw 76 2/3 innings -- how is Chapman supposed to be ready to throw 180 innings in 2012?

One option for the Reds to consider is using Chapman for multiple innings of relief in the first half of the season -- not as a situational lefty -- and transitioning him to the rotation in the second half. That's the formula the Twins used in 2003 for 24-year-old Johan Santana, who went into the rotation to stay on July 11. The next year he won the Cy Young Award.

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