The Cardinals are said by major league sources not to be overly confident that they will be able to retain superstar first baseman and free-agent-to-be Albert Pujols beyond this year -- although, the Cardinals are still seen by others as the favorite to sign Pujols, and that remains their clear No. 1 goal.
The Cardinals are thought to believe Pujols wants to stay in St. Louis, where he has played his entire 11-year career and established strong roots, but have also suggested to baseball insiders that they are disinclined to significantly up their offer, which was believed to be for about $210 million over nine years. The Cardinals have explained to others that their budget allows for an outlay only in that financial ballpark, though it's also possible they could enhance their bid by keeping the same amount while reducing the years to perhaps eight or seven, which would increase Pujols' annual salary.
Pujols was said by sources not to be overly thrilled that the annual pay in last winter's Cardinals offer would not have placed him in the top five among Major League player salaries. Pujols' current $116 million, eight-year deal, which expires after this season, has not had him in the top 10 in recent years, either. But that contract was signed before the start of the 2004 season, well before Pujols established himself as the player generally considered the best in the game.
While Pujols is the Cardinals' main target, the team's uncertainty about retaining him apparently even affected their dealings this summer. Cardinals people told others in baseball that one reason they couldn't seriously entertain trade offers for Lance Berkman at the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline is that they needed to try their best to keep Berkman for the 2012 season because they are unsure whether they can keep Pujols. Berkman, like Pujols, is a free agent after the year. Had they traded Berkman, they would have had to forfeit draft choices in order to re-sign him. Beyond that, it's sometimes harder to bring a player back than it is to simply retain him.
Pujols' winter negotiations with the Cardinals were kept fairly quiet before Pujols and agent Dan Lozano cut off talks in spring training, citing their preference not to become a distraction. Halting talks seemed unnecessarily negative at the time, but just as the Pujols camp hoped, the ticking clock has not become a source for negativity in baseball-crazed St. Louis, a tribute to all parties involved. But in the meantime, Cardinals executives may have grown less confident in their ability to keep one of the greatest players in the history of the storied franchise.
Pujols, 31, was said to have been seeking to meet or beat Alex Rodriguez's record $275 million, 10-year Yankees contract, which was negotiated after he opted out of his previous record deal of $252 million for 10 years with the Rangers. Those deals were negotiated by A-Rod's previous agent Scott Boras, before Rodriguez switched over to Pujols' agent, Lozano.
Lozano also made the unprecedented request of a piece of the Cardinals team for Pujols, and while that isn't specifically disallowed by baseball's rules, it seems unlikely the Cardinals would agree to do that unless Pujols made steep concessions elsewhere. The Cardinals aren't a team that often goes crazy with offers, though they did not skimp when they gave Matt Holliday $120 million over seven years after the 2009 season on a contract that was seen partly as a lure for Pujols as it ensured the presence of a bona fide cleanup hitter to bat behind him. But ultimately, a player's own deal is what determines these things.
Pujols leads the National League with 34 home runs in a year marked by a miraculous return from a broken wrist after missing just two weeks. His percentages would all be career lows if the season ended today (.293 batting average, .366 on-base percentage, .549 slugging percentage and .916 OPS), and there's a chance he fails to knock in 100 runs for the first time (he has 85 RBIs), but it's conceivable he could find other $200 million-plus offers on the market.
However, the Cardinals' chances would appear to be enhanced by a market that is likely to be tight for first basemen. Few teams need them, and yet another first-base superstar, the Brewers' Prince Fielder, will hit the free-agent market, as will a third slugging first baseman, the Cubs' Carlos Peña. The Orioles, Nationals, Rangers and possibly the Dodgers (if they resolve their ownership issue) look like potential players for a first baseman, and possibly also the Cubs, Brewers and Cardinals, of course, depending on what happens with their incumbent stars. It appears the Yankees and Red Sox won't be major players for Pujols, as they have star first basemen Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez in the fold, respectively, which could limit Pujols' take. Pujols has played a bit of third base this year, but it would seem a big stretch for a team to have him change positions.
Despite their current differences and the Cardinals' concern about their chances, most people around the game still see Pujols as going back to St. Louis. Though, it's possible the Cardinals may know something the others don't.
• The Pirates intend to extend the contract of GM Neal Huntington, whose deal expires after the year. Word is, the only reason it hasn't happened yet is that the team was waiting for the amateur signing period and trade deadlines to pass. Huntington received great praise around the game for the Pirates draft, and especially the willingness to go out on a limb and use their second round draft choice on talented Texas high school outfielder Josh Bell, who had told teams he intended to go to the University of Texas. The Pirates wound up signing Bell for $5 million.
• Baseball people do expect well-respected veteran GM Andy MacPhail to leave that post with the Orioles after the year.
• GM Jack Zduriencik's new deal in Seattle, which guarantees two more years, may have surprised some folks in baseball, but the Mariners are gathering an impressive prospect stash. Their rotation of the future could be dynamic, with Felix Hernandez, Michael Pineda, Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. Second baseman Dustin Ackley, the pick after Stephen Strasburg in the '09 draft, looks like a big hit (though they may still need to trade for offense).
• One hint Cubs owner Tom Ricketts may ultimately hire a well-respected young GM prospect for that coveted GM job rather than an established GM star is Ricketts' effort to lock up some holdover executives. Ricketts just gave minor league director Oneri Fleita a four-year contract and he also wants to secure scouting director Tim Wilken's future in Chicago. A current GM who has his own people in place in his current job, whether it be Theo Epstein, Brian Cashman, Andrew Friedman, Billy Beane or Ned Colletti, isn't seen as likely to join a front office with Jim Hendry's staff already in place. Top GM prospects who could fit the Cubs job would include the White Sox' Rick Hahn, the Padres' Josh Byrnes (who was GM in Arizona), the Red Sox's Allard Baird (who was GM in Kansas City) and Ben Cherrington, the Giants' Bobby Evans, the Braves' John Coppolella, the Yankees' Damon Oppenheimer, MLB's Kim Ng, Texas' Thad Levine, the Marlins' Dan Jennings, the Indians' Mike Chernoff, the A's' David Forst and Billy Owens and the Dodgers' Logan White and DeJon Watson, among many others.
• C.J. Wilson was originally looking for a deal comparable to the $82.5 million contracts of John Lackey and A.J. Burnett and has only helped himself by going 15-6 with a 3.13 ERA in his second year as a starter. Wilson threw his first complete-game shutout Tuesday night in an 8-0 win over the Rays. Wilson is actually doing slightly better than last year, when he was 15-8 with a 3.35 ERA, and he benefits from a weak free-agent starting pitching class (CC Sabathia is the only one better than Wilson once he opts out). It'll be interesting to see whether Wilson shows loyalty to the Rangers who agreed to his suggestion and converted him from a closer. There are some, though, who could see Wilson wanting to go to his native Southern California. Money issues for the Dodgers and Padres could prevent them from making such a play but the Angels are seen as a threat for Wilson even after locking up Jered Weaver (fellow starters Dan Haren and Ervin Santana can be free agents after 2012).
• Bill Burke's alleged $1.2 billion bid for the Dodgers is being greeted as a joke by baseball powers. "Laughable,'"one person called it. Burke is seen as a buddy of Frank McCourt, and not a particularly rich one at that, whose pseudo bid is nothing more than attempt to prop up the sinking McCourt. Although, there is no sign of McCourt's end in sight.
• The Wilpon-Einhorn marriage -- in which Einhorn had agreed to a $200 million minority stake in the Mets -- never seemed like a winning one to begin with, not with David Einhorn's obvious hope that the Wilpons and Saul Katz would run out of money and Einhorn could take over in five years. People in baseball wonder whether Einhorn soured on the deal once it started to appear the Wilpons/Katz would not have to pay the $1 billion to Madoff trustee Irving Picard that Picard was originally suing for. The Mets' problem now will be to cobble together $200 million in $20 million pieces.
• The Angels' strategy to set a deadline for Weaver paid off for them. While Weaver had the impression he could be traded by the Angels in the winter if he didn't agree to the deal, Angels people suggest they still would have tried to resume talks next year if he didn't agree now. In any case, Weaver, a Simi Valley and Long Beach State product, was desperate to stay with the Angels due to strong local roots.
• The Angels are 18-4 in games in which 20-year-old wunderkind Mike Trout has been in the starting lineup.
• Many Angels followers disagreed with my pick of closer Jordan Walden for Rookie of the Year and instead favored Mark Trumbo, who has been a big boon to a struggling offense, especially with Kendry Morales out for the year.
• Credit Jose Valverde for pitching well despite being unhappy with his contract. He has been almost unhittable in save situations, going 41 for 41 with a 0.44 ERA in those circumstances. The Tigers will pick up his $9 million option for 2012. Valverde has changed agents since signing the $14 million, two-year deal with the Tigers that included this option.
• Ivan Nova has practically wrapped up the No. 2 starting spot or the Yankees, with Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon deserving the Nos. 3 and 4 spots. Phil Hughes is expected to move to the bullpen, and it's possible the Yankees could consider trading him in the offseason (some see him as the next Ian Kennedy, someone who might benefit from a move out of New York). Manager Joe Girardi and Cashman have given Burnett every benefit of the doubt, but giving him a start in the playoffs would be unfair to all those who have outpitched him.
• The Twins surely won't pick up Joe Nathan's $12 million option and rather buy him out for $2 million. But they are believed interested in bringing him back.
• Former Phillies pitchers Brett Myers and J.A. Happ are a combined 9-28 for Houston.