ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols is helping his free agent case with his huge postseason, and the Cardinals may be helping their chances to keep him beyond this year, too. Neither Pujols nor the team is talking much publicly about what promises to be the most-watched free agent case since Alex Rodriguez four years ago, and they also promised not to talk to each other throughout the Cardinals season, which is lasting a good deal longer than anyone expected.
There are those who swear that the Cardinals' offer last winter -- which SI reported to be a little north of $200 million over nine years -- won't change much, that their budget doesn't have much leeway, even for the greatest Cardinal since Stan Musial (or maybe ever). But the feelings the two sides have for each other may be improving with the team's great late run which saw St. Louis come from 10½ games back to win the wild card on the last day of the season and now stand two wins away from the World Series. "The Cardinals have had a lot of success, and he's been a major part of it going back to his rookie season,'' Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "In terms of going forward, I'm hopeful that all our success will factor into the decision.''
And Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt does, too. "I hope so,'' DeWitt said. "As we've always said, we'll do everything we can to keep him. He's having a great postseason, and he had another great year.''
A nice feeling can't hurt, and some folks see Pujols being so tied to the Cardinals' community that he's unlikely to leave. But the deal is usually the thing.
Interviews with four front office executives revealed some divergent opinions about what Pujols and Brewers star first baseman Prince Fielder might receive on the free-agent market. While one National League executive said he anticipates the two stars receiving similar paydays, three others favored Pujols despite him being four-plus years older, 31 to 27. He is that respected around the game.
None of the four execs suggest Pujols would beat Alex Rodriguez's record $275 million, 10-year deal, as he has requested, according to sources. The consensus seemed to be that Pujols would receive somewhere in the neighborhood of what he was reportedly offered from the Cardinals, despite his spectacular October. A few thought Adrian Gonzalez's $154 million, seven-year deal was a reasonable comp for Fielder, who is said to have turned down a $120 million, six-year offer that included a buyout from the Brewers, but others figured a bit higher than that. Gonzalez's price was adversely affected by the fact that he wasn't a free agent and the Red Sox also had to give up three top prospects to the Padres to acquire him via trade last offseason.
Like Pujols, Fielder, who was viewing tape at midnight Thursday night after the Brewers evened the NLCS at two games apiece with a 4-2 victory, is having a big October; he has a 1.182 OPS for the postseason. That's just short of Pujols' 1.288 OPS. Fielder was actually slightly better during the season with 38 home runs and 120 RBIs to go with a .299 batting average, compared to 37 and 99 with the same .299 average for Pujols, whose 10-year streak of 30 homers, 100 RBIs and a .300 batting average was broken. Fielder gets extra points for protecting Ryan Braun and batting without great protection himself, leading to a league-high 32 intentional walks.
Most executives suggested they favored the Cardinals to retain Pujols. As for Fielder, teams mentioned as possible landing spots included the Orioles, Blue Jays, Nationals, Cubs, Rangers, Giants, Dodgers, Angels and Mariners. Fielder may be willing to DH, which could potentially bring the Yankees into play for him -- though that seems like a longshot. Seattle's GM is Jack Zduriencik, who was the scouting director in Milwaukee when the Brewers drafted Fielder, so a couple execs figured the Mariners as a definite possibility for Prince.
The NL assistant GM who didn't favor one player over the other said, "It could go either way. I'd be surprised if either goes much north of $200 million in total dollars.''
Another NL executive said, "Albert has to beat what the Cardinals offered, but I think he stays in St. Louis. Fielder may be young enough where it's seven or eight years and over 20 (million a year) but probably under Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzalez is a Gold Glove defender and better hitter but has less power. He's just a better player.''
Another NL exec said, "Pujols gets a higher annual salary. If I'm the agent, it's simple, I say he's the best, he deserves to be paid the most. I think St. Louis should be able to spend on Pujols. Teixeira had Boston and New York playing against each, and maybe that added 10 percent. I think Prince is kind of aligned with Adrian Gonzalez.''
An AL exec said, "If I'm (Scott) Boras [Fielder's agent], I wait for Pujols to sign. They're not really comparables. Albert Pujols is just the most prolific hitter in the game. He's so special. The guy always hits the ball hard, and he does a lot of little things. Fielder reminds me of Mo Vaughn.'' (That last comment will hurt, but Boras has noted that Fielder has played more games than anyone in the NL over the past four years and said that Fielder's short, stocky physique is actually a plus for a baseball player.)
Here are my up-to-the-minute guesses: Pujols signs back with the Cardinals for $220 million over eight years, and Fielder goes to the Mariners, Giants or Nationals for $185 million over eight.
• Theo Epstein hasn't said why he chose to leave his hometown Red Sox to sign a four-year, $18.5 million contract with the Cubs, but some around him suggest a fresh start with a team hungry for a title like he had in Boston at the beginning there was appealing. Cubs owner Tom Ricketts is to be credited for a good sales job, but while Epstein had a seemingly solid relationship with Red Sox owner John Henry, once Epstein asked to explore Chicago it appears Henry wasn't up for the chase, as is his style. It can't hurt that Epstein is getting more than $15 million in guaranteed money than he would in Boston, where he had one year left at about $2.65 million.
• The Red Sox aren't so anxious for Epstein to take any of his guys with him, and it appears that at the moment the discussion revolves around minor league compensation going from Chicago to Boston. So Epstein may not get his favorite front office people and medical staff in Chicago. Discussions have begun revolving around the minor leaguer or minor leaguers who could go to Boston, and someone suggested the Red Sox aren't about to take just anyone for the man who won two World Series for them. Another issue: "The Cubs have almost no one (of value) in the minors,'' one scout said.
• Epstein is expected to be replaced in Boston with his lieutenant Ben Cherington, who gets high praise from Red Sox people for his preparedness, among other things.
• The White Sox didn't seriously consider any other candidates when all their higher-ups decided Robin Ventura was the guy to manage a couple weeks ago. The White Sox didn't have to conduct a search because they hired someone in-house, and also because their track record for hiring minorities is the best in baseball. They viewed Ventura as the "anti-Ozzie.'' GM Ken Williams and Guillen battled worse than folks even knew, and Williams has to feel relieved Guillen is gone to Florida with a $10 million, four-year deal.
• Francisco Rodriguez wasn't happy that his no-trade list wasn't turned in, allowing the Mets to trade him to the Brewers, who were supposed to be on his list. But while K-Rod would rather be closing, he's OK with how things turned out. "It could have been a lot worse,'' he said. Furthermore, he doesn't see his set-up role with Milwaukee hurting him. He said he'd like a three-year deal. But for now, his goal is a second World Series title, and first in nearly 10 years. He recalled that he won his first ring "after two weeks in the big leagues'' with the Angels in 2002. "I don't feel like we accomplished anything until we're the last man standing.''
• Craig Counsell already has played significant roles on two World Series winners, but he's a cameo player on this Brewers team. "I'll be the mascot if I have to,'' he said.
• Randy Wolf, who pitched brilliantly in winning Game 4, said he finished second among Brewers pitchers for the honor of "slowest pitch'' of the season. He got a swinging third strike on Michael Bourn on a 56-mph curveball. He said Zack Greinke won the competition by throwing a pitch 54 mph this year.
• Magglio Ordoñez believes the re-break of his ankle isn't so serious that it's going to threaten his career.
• Jim Riggleman would have been a great choice for Mets bench coach. He is close with Terry Collins. Of course, the front office there seems to hold all the power, so it's not a surprise that they hired as bench coach another Oakland friend, Bob Geren, who wasn't too well-liked by some A's players. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Huston Street called Geren, "My least favorite I have ever encountered in sports.''
• Mozeliak's trade of Colby Rasmus for starting pitcher Edwin Jackson and relievers was widely panned at the time, but everyone agrees they'd be long home if not for that deal. "I can understand the P.R. risk for trading a young talent. But we were also weighing that against winning now,'' Mozeliak said. "You can't judge a trade on day one. You need some space before you can judge it.'' OK, this is enough time. Good job by the Cardinals. They obviously weren't getting the most out of Rasmus, and privately, a couple Cardinals people question whether he loved the game as much as it loves him. That trade also netted St. Louis relievers Octavio Dotel and Mark Rzepczynski, which helped transform the bullpen from a weakness to a strength and fit into manager Tony La Russa's style.
• Jerry Di Poto of the Diamondbacks is a hot name for the GM openings. Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer's name is being heard a lot in connection with the Angels. Brian Cashman generally has been supporting his lieutenant Billy Eppler's candidacy.
• The vote on Jim Crane buying the Astros was originally delayed because he didn't have the votes necessary for approval. Current owner Drayton McLane is anxious to sell. Crane has some warts on his resume but McLane is going to have a tough time finding someone to spend $600-million-plus for the Astros. It still isn't clear whether the votes are there for approval, though there's hope there will be eventually.
• The Pirates are looking for starting pitching.
• The Yankees seek starting pitching first and foremost but also lefthanded relief.
• The Marlins are looking for a third baseman.
• The Reds want a leftfielder. Walt Jocketty told MLB.com in regards to a report about Joey Votto being on the block that they have not talked to anyone about Votto and suggested there wasn't a good reason to trade one of baseball's best hitters.
• Rangers starter C.J. Wilson has had a dreadful postseason. But the laws of supply and demand favor him; he's the only game in town as far as a young free-agent lefthander, assuming CC Sabathia stays in New York. Wilson should get close to the $82.5-million, five-year deals that John Lackey (from the Angels) and A.J. Burnett (from the Yankees) got no matter what happens in the postseason.
• Sorry, can't see David Ortiz in New York. Nice get by ESPN's Colleen Dominguez though.