Three major league general managers said they believe superstar Albert Pujols, who can be a free agent at year's end, will return to the Cardinals and sign a long-term deal with them after the season. Although none of the three professed to possess any inside information on the subject, their sentiments would appear to be the prevailing belief in baseball now.
Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak suggested some satisfaction that the Pujols situation has stirred no controversy or threatened to become a distraction. Indications are the surprising quiet apparently reflects only a strong professionalism on Pujols' part combined with the respect shown ballplayers in St. Louis, particularly Pujols, and not necessarily any growing confidence that the slugging first baseman will stay in St. Louis. Mozeliak, reluctant to utter anything to disrupt that silence, said there have been no new negotiations, suggesting there's no reason to draw any conclusions.
"Nothing's changed,'' Mozeliak said in a phone interview. "I've had no action on it.''
Those GMs see a variety of factors at play, however, that could lead Pujols to remain in St. Louis, not the least of which is a marketplace that almost assuredly won't include the Yankees or Red Sox, who already have first basemen Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez locked up for five and seven years more, respectively.
Other reasons the GMs mentioned included the perception Pujols, 31, likes St. Louis (he did once commit to an eight-year, $116-million deal, which covered his prime years and turned out to be a cost saver for the club), the belief of one that iconic manager Tony La Russa could influence Pujols to stay and word indicating the Cardinals already offered more than $200 million over nine years, which was reported both in SI and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Cardinals also have a history of retaining their legends and are as well run as almost any franchise (owner Bill DeWitt's group amazingly recouped $90 million of the bargain $150-million franchise purchase price only by selling a parking structure adjacent to Busch Stadium).
Ultimately, the likelihood is that the Cardinals will have to raise their offer to Pujols a bit once he is actually a free agent because that's the nature of the game. However, doubts persist that he can beat Alex Rodriguez's record $275-million, 10-year deal that'll turn into a $305-million deal if A-Rod hits his home run milestones. Pujols' side is said to seek a deal commensurate with A-Rod's, and as reported here first, they also broached the possibility of an ownership stake with the Cardinals. For this story, Pujols' agent, Dan Lozano, did not respond to a message.
No one is reading anything into Pujols' uncharacteristically slow start; he has seven home runs, 19 RBIs and a .231 batting average.
One major reason baseball people are suspecting he stays now is the strong expectancy that the Yankees and Red Sox, baseball's two biggest spenders, will not be involved in the Pujols sweepstakes. One Yankees person, while praising Pujols effusively, said there was "no chance'' they would seriously pursue him, while a Red Sox person agreed with the characterization that it would be "unlikely.'' Both those teams naturally love Pujols and would surely consider Pujols, but only for a lot lower total package than the Cardinals' reported offer. It is no surprise that an executive with one of those teams called the idea Pujols would leave St. Louis for less than the Cardinals offered "fantasy land.''
Others around the game say Mozeliak has to be keenly aware that the market forces seem to favor the Cardinals. Pujols' price tag would seem to be too rich for a vast majority of teams, limiting the market to the big boys, who in many cases are committed to other stars at first base (the Phillies have Ryan Howard locked up). The Dodgers, who may be in the market for a first baseman, are mired in a financial mess that may not be fixed by this winter. The rival Cubs, yet another team with a potential first-base opening, could be an outside possibility for Pujols, but one person suggested they are more apt to try for the younger and (slightly) cheaper star Prince Fielder.
Mozeliak didn't want to get into a deep discussion about the market, but did say, "Obviously, we've done our due diligence.'' Of course, there's always the possibility a surprise team could be laying in the weeds for the player generally cited as the best in the game. That was the case in the winter of 1992, when Barry Bonds' hometown Giants signed him to a record $43.75-million contract.
"Time will tell,'' Mozeliak said. "All we can do is wait, and when the time comes, we'll roll up our sleeves and address it.''
One person who knows Pujols (apart from the three GMs) opined, "Pujols is going back to the Cardinals, and Mo [Mozeliak] knows it.''
As for that prediction, Mozeliak said, "Speculation and rumor is just not a good place for us. For me to comment on everything that comes down the pike is not helpful.''
• Competing executives also believe the Cardinals will exercise Adam Wainwright's unusual $21-million, two-year club option despite the fact he will likely miss the first several weeks of the 2012 season (Wainwright had Tommy John surgery in late February). Mozeliak didn't say for sure, but he gave a positive progress report on Wainwright, saying, "Right now everything is going great for him.''
There are still months to decide, but the hints suggest they'll bring back Wainwright. Mozeliak said, "I think we have a pretty good idea about what we're going to do. I'm just not prepared to publicly discuss it.''
• The Cardinals' pickup of Lance Berkman for $8 million looks like the steal of the winter with Berkman winning two NL Player of the Week awards already. He is hitting .402 with nine homers and 27 RBIs. Mozeliak said what they most sought from Berkman was a strong clubhouse presence and leadership, which he said they've received to an even greater degree than they had hoped.
• Carlos Peña, the Cubs' struggling free-agent pickup, had a heart-to-heart with manager Mike Quade, in which it was decided to let Peña play through his thumb discomfort and struggles in the days before Peña hit his inaugural home run of the year. Quade had given Peña (hitting .164) a few days off even after Peña originally declared himself ready to go. But the air-clearing meeting was helpful.
• The Cubs and Orioles could be two possibilities for Kevin Millwood. He still has friends in Baltimore and one of the Cubs executives, Greg Maddux, was his rotation mate in Atlanta. However, Millwood may look around a few days for the right fit. He opted out of the Yankees after being told he wouldn't be promoted.
• The length of Carl Crawford's season-opening slump has startled some folks, though no one in the Red Sox hierarchy seems to have misgivings. One scout put his finger on Crawford's issue by saying, "He's trying too hard.'' Crawford is hitting just .194 with one home run and seven RBIs as of May 3.
• Red Sox manager Terry Francona wants Jason Varitek catching both Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka, so with Francona also wanting to keep Varitek from catching back-to-back games, Francona is working to keep Beckett and Dice-K separated in the rotation.
• Jed Lowrie has slowed down (he's down to .350 after being above .500 a couple weeks into the season), and has walked only three times, but he seems to have the upper hand in the Red Sox's unstated shortstop competition with Marco Scutaro (.197) at the moment.
• Boston's Jonathan Papelbon (five for five in saves, 14 Ks, two walks) has been brilliant to start the year, so all the teams that passed on Papelbon in the offseason may live to regret it. Meanwhile, fellow Red Sox reliever Bobby Jenks (about one walk an inning) has struggled with command.
• Miguel Tejada is struggling, including with his range, so it's no surprise the Giants might have interest in Jose Reyes as a potential trade target. Reyes is a free agent after the year, with seemingly little likelihood of being locked up longterm by the Mets. CSNBayArea.com reported that the Giants have discussed Reyes internally. It's speculative and early, though, with one Giants person saying, "There's nothing to it."
• While Neftali Feliz told USA Today that he wanted to remain a closer and not try starting again, the likelihood remains that the Rangers will look to move the talented Feliz into the rotation next year. Texas this winter will peruse a strong free-agent closing market that includes Heath Bell, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Capps, Ryan Madson and could include Rafael Soriano, Jose Valverde and Francisco Cordero, and try to sign one of them. That would open a spot in the rotation for Feliz, who was probably frustrated that he felt shoulder discomfort after going back to the 'pen following his stint as a starter in spring training (he had a 1.93 ERA as a starter in camp).
• There is still no timetable on Joel Zumaya (shoulder), who really isn't even on the Tigers' radar at the moment. Whether or not he makes it back to the mound, the Tigers have decided this will be his last year in Detroit.
• Tigers backup catcher Alex Avila (five home runs) has been a pleasant early surprise for Detroit, whose disappointing beginning -- it had lost seven straight before beating the Yankees 4-2 Tuesday night -- hasn't included that many nice surprises. No. 3 hitter Magglio Ordonez, a consistent run producer throughout his career, has two RBIs.
• The Phillies aren't saying yet, but star second baseman Chase Utley has a chance to return by about June 1 from lingering knee troubles. Utley has played two simulated games and is seen as having a chance to go out on a rehab assignment in a week or two. Philadelphia doesn't want to state any target goals for an Utley return as his knee has proved to unpredictably painful thus far.
• Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has had success showing loyalty to veterans, so Raul Ibañez (0-for-his-last-34) is expected to get a few more chances. Manuel stuck with Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell when they were in deep slumps in the past, and it paid off. John Mayberry Jr. would seem to be a decent, if unproven, alternative
• Young Yankees starter Phil Hughes is back in New York to plan his rehab with doctors after specialists in St. Louis found no evidence of a circulatory problem -- a big relief to Hughes.
• Carlos Silva is said to be throwing well for Yankees people in Tampa and is expected to accept a minor league assignment soon. Meanwhile, the Yankees signed Brad Halsey, who hasn't pitched in the majors since 2006, to a minor league deal, potentially adding to their depth. Bartolo Colon, who looks like one of the best signings of the winter, leads the American League in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
• One more interesting name who could be drafted high beyond Monday's list of the top 25 draft-eligible prospects is Tyler Marlette, a high school catcher from the Orlando area. Marlette is an excellent catch-and-throw guy, says one scout, and with catchers at a premium he could go within the first two rounds. The Red Sox are showing interest, though he wouldn't solve their immediate catching question.
• The Twins' Francisco Liriano showed what makes baseball so unpredictable with his no-hitter on Tuesday night. He entered the game with a 9.13 ERA, then walked six and struck out just two but didn't allow a hit to the White Sox.
• The White Sox being the no-hit victim wasn't quite as unpredictable. Their hitting woes have lasted most of the year. Adam Dunn, who made the last out on a liner to shortstop, said he is still adjusting to the DH role but doesn't want Ozzie Guillen to feel the need to put him in the field, just to get him going. Dunn (.157, 33 K's) did, however, set the record for returning to play quickly after an appendectomy, missing only six days. Maybe the quick return affected him, too.
• The hope with Dodgers owner Frank McCourt seems to be that he will run out of money and give up his franchise. The Los Angeles Times reported that McCourt is in danger of running out of money to make payroll by the end of the month after needing a $30 million loan from Fox to make April's payroll.
This has been an extraordinarily embarrassing year for McCourt. It became clear the McCourts, Frank and his soon-to-be-ex-wife Jamie, used $100 million in Dodgers monies to fund an over-the-top lavish lifestyle. (McCourt is still living at the Montage Hotel, the most exclusive in Beverly Hills, despite having seven mansions. That seems to be his a long-shot attempt to show the courts he is abiding by the post-nuptial agreement that gave him the team but was already ruled invalid.) Word now is McCourt doesn't even have an ironclad deal with Jamie, so it isn't even clear how much money he needs to settle the divorce case.
With him using team money for personal use, it's understandable why baseball doesn't want to approve a TV deal with Fox that would give him serious up-front money (his current deal doesn't expire for two years). McCourt says the Fox deal is worth $3 billion while others have said $1.7 billion to $2 billion, with the difference accounted for by a discrepancy in the value of an equity stake he'd receive.
• Word also is that iconic former manager Joe Torre, a good friend of baseball commissioner Bud Selig and who was hired by MLB to be executive vice president of baseball operations, is one in the growing camp who lost faith in McCourt. Same apparently goes for ex-Dodgers executive Kim Ng, who was brought in to MLB by Torre. Torre is said to have been unhappy with McCourt not following through on promises to improve the team (which, as we now know, came at a time he was using money on himself).
• A few baseball people were surprised Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell received only a two-week suspension after an ugly episode with some fans in which he made anti-gay slurs, told kids they didn't belong at the ballpark and used a bat in a threatening manner toward the fans. The Braves told MLB that McDowell is a valued employee and that this was an isolated incident, which is seems to be. MLB also weighed the public embarrassment McDowell already had suffered, showing sympathy for him. McDowell also got points for basically owning up to his actions, though he did tell them his words came in response to heckling fans, which is no excuse.