ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Great Albert Pujols added to his incredible legacy with his five-hit, three-homer performance for the ages in Game 3. But is there any chance this is the final Cardinals chapter of the iconic star's amazing St. Louis story?
Of course, any number of unknown teams could try to make him an offer he can't refuse in what promises to be the most-watched free agency in years and maybe ever. But most baseball people suggest they believe the final landing spot for perhaps the greatest free agent ever isn't the mystery some first believed when Pujols cut off talks with the Cardinals back in February.
One person who knows Pujols well suggested he could not envision the superstar leaving St. Louis for even $20 million more in total dollars. Pujols, who attended high school and community college in the Kansas City area, has his home and his foundation in St. Louis and perhaps most important of all, he has his legacy wrapped up in being a Cardinal. (He also wants to win and couldn't reasonably make the case he's going somewhere else to win more, as the Cardinals have more postseason wins than any National League club since he arrived.)
"If he stays, he's Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Red Schoendienst all wrapped up in one,'' one National League executive said, naming four other Cardinals icons. The person who knows Pujols agreed, saying he's not giving that up for 10 or 15 percent more money, which could only amount to $1-to-2 million dollars more per year after taxes.
If Pujols leaves, he puts pressure on himself to repeat the heroics of his prime years into his mid- and late-30s, the NL exec pointed out. If he stays, he is forever enveloped in love and admiration as the hometown hero who stayed because he loved it, and possibly for less money.
While the sides have not spoken since February, Cardinals GM John Mozeliak confirmed, there is nothing to suggest they are on bad terms. The team offered him a bit more than $200 million over nine years, according to baseball sources, with him seeking to top Alex Rodriguez's record $275-million, 10-year Yankees deal. There are suggestions the Cardinals have told folks they don't expect to budge too much, and one Cardinals person suggested the World Series revenue boost is somewhat exaggerated in the whole picture. It can't hurt, though.
Neither can Pujols' monster performance when he tied the World Series record for hits, home runs and RBIs (six) in a game in one of the greatest single-game performances in baseball history. "My guess is, he'll be the highest paid player in the world,'' said former White Sox slugger Frank Thomas, who's here announcing for MLB.com. Reggie Jackson, who along with Pujols and Babe Ruth is the only man to hit three home runs in a World Series game,said by phone that Pujols' feat, "elevated what I did because he's a great player. I consider it an honor being in their company because I wasn't the player they are.'' But Jackson, who once shocked baseball by jumping to the Yankees for a then-record $3 million (about one percent of what Pujols seeks) over five years, wasn't so sure Pujols can match A-Rod's deal. "The contracts the Yankees have are different,'' Jackson, a former Yankees great and current Yankees consultant, noted.
Going into the Series, word was starting to get around that the Cardinals suggested to a few insiders that they aren't going to be able to move too much off their original offer. And maybe that remains the case. But there is a new glow about Pujols, who has played brilliantly throughout October and carried the team with that all-time performance in Game 3. Mozeliak, speaking generally about the potential effect of October performances, said, "I do think you can move the needle one way or the other. But for the most part, it's rarely a dramatic thing.'' Mozeliak wouldn't directly address whether Pujols has moved the needle. ''I have no idea,'' he said. "He's played very well, though.''
There is no doubt he has impressed a lot of folks by lifting the comeback Cardinals. Pujols' "off'' regular season, in which he failed to hit .300 or knock in 100 runs for the first time in his 11-year career (he hit .299 and had 99 RBIs) has been set aside by the superb October in which he has also played the field beautifully and run the bases brilliantly. Most execs seeing him beating Brewers counterpart Prince Fielder on the open market, with the negatives being that Pujols is 31 years old and the biggest-market Yankees and Red Sox aren't in the market for a first baseman. It's hard to guess what team might go crazy for Pujols.
Toronto is one team that has money and could be primed for a big play, but does anyone see him leaving the Cardinals for the Blue Jays? Or the Nationals, Orioles or maybe even the Marlins for the matter? The Rangers aren't acting like they'll make a play for one of the two biggest free agents (though they didn't play for Adrian Beltre until late before signing him last offseason and can always change their minds.) The Giants and bankrupt Dodgers would appear to be long shots, which could leave the Cubs as the team having the best hope to steal Pujols -- though incoming club president Theo Epstein has made a practice of targeting mostly 20-somethings for his big free-agent plays.
Whatever, people around the game are generally rooting for Pujols to remain in St. Louis. "As a baseball fan, I hope he stays with the Cardinals,'' Jackson said. "My hope is he and the Cardinals get together and both get what they want.''
The likelihood of that seems greater than ever today.
As great as the possibility for Pujols to return to his current team is, the odds that Rangers No. 1 pitcher C.J. Wilson comes back to Texas in 2012 seem fairly remote at present. One competing American League executive estimated Wilson would get $75 million for five years, a reasonable management estimate in a free-agent field almost devoid of other proven frontline starters, which Wilson is even though he has had an uneven postseason. But if so, the Rangers almost surely would be out, as there's little chance they get close to that number.
In terms of how this is playing out, this looks a little bit like the John Lackey free agency of a couple years ago where the Angels made an initial offer before his walk year that was eventually doubled as a free agent. (That is not to cast any aspersion on Wilson, as no one knew the Lackey deal would turn disastrous.) Word is, the Rangers' offer to Wilson was about $36 million for three years (though it may have also contained a fourth-year option), which doesn't seem on the surface like an offer designed to ensure the pitcher stays in Texas.
Wilson said he hears criticism that he's "cost himself money'' with his mostly negative October performance (he's 0-3 with a 7.17 ERA in the postseason), and one AL exec said he believes that is the case. But Wilson, who will make his final October start Monday in Game 5 and hopes that adjustments he's made will bring him back to his midseason form, said he doesn't at all feel that way because he knows what the Rangers offered before the season, and he also figures he'll do much better than that despite the October struggles. Some have suggested the $82.5 million contracts that Lackey and A.J. Burnett got is a potential comp for Wilson, but while that looks like the top end after his recent rough stretch, it'll be a lot closer to that number than the Rangers' winter offer. While the Rangers like him much better than both those pitchers, they see those two contracts as "terrible,'' in the words of one Rangers person.
Another Rangers person suggested Wilson hasn't actually named an exact asking price, that they are going under the assumption that without a stated target figure he may want as much as $100 million, which is a non-starter (no pun intended) for them. The Rangers succeeded two years ago moving Wilson from the bullpen to the rotation, they expect to put Alexi Ogando back in as a starter next year and closer Neftali Feliz is a strong candidate to switch, as well. So nobody is better at figuring it out than them. The Rangers also have a top prospect, Martin Perez, who could be ready sometime next year.
Meanwhile, the Rangers don't seem to think they will win a bidding war for Wilson, and there isn't even any certainty that they are going to try very hard to do it. No matter, supply and demand being what they are, it should still be a great time for Wilson, who is easily the best pitcher on the market who doesn't have to be posted (Yu Darvish) or opt out (CC Sabathia).
"I'm looking forward to it,'' Wilson said.
Wilson called Texas "a great place to play'' but also didn't sound like he was ruling out the other 29 places. Rangers people could see the quirky Californian going back home. But there will be many options considering the paucity of available reliable starters.
Wilson maintains he's totally focused on the Rangers' team result, and that mindset has enabled him to put himself in an enviable position with a big regular season, which included a 16-7 record to go with a 2.94 ERA pitching in one of the worst parks for pitchers. He mentioned in a brief chat with SI.com that he doesn't have a wife, a child or a dog, which means he is truly a free agent. He also said he learned a lesson from 10 years ago when he wound up being a fifth round draft choice rather than a first or second because he focused on the draft his junior year and tensed up. This time, he ably matched up with the aces around the American League over the full season.
Truly, he could wind up almost anywhere. It's easy to envision the Huntington Beach product doing some California dreaming (when asked in the press conference Sunday about his impending free agency, he said he turns off to the point where he doesn't let it register and pictures himself surfing) but he will draw interest from all over, presumably including the Yankees, Red Sox, Nationals, Marlins and Royals.
A Rangers person said he heard Yankees bigwigs Brian Cashman and Billy Eppler love Wilson (though for the record, a Yankees official suggested they are interested but don't believe he's an ace). The Yankees clearly are monitoring the situation, but they were disappointed to learn this week he is no longer dating a New York-residing girlfriend.
"I was dating a supermodel,'' Wilson said. "We broke up in July.'' He said they are still on good terms. But that still isn't what the Yankees were hoping to hear.
It is fair to say he is a true free agent any way you measure it.
• Folks seem to think the Orioles GM job will come down to Tony La Cava and Jerry DiPoto. One person familiar with the situation said he wouldn't be shocked if La Cava gets the job. First, DiPoto is also in the running for the Angels job. Second, Buck Showalter, who is wielding the power in Baltimore, is a great admirer of how the Blue Jays are doing things (though he is also on very good terms with DiPoto). It's a job some aren't excited about because of the history of losing and of owner Peter Angelos' over-involvement. One person who knows Showalter said he sees Buck moving to the front office eventually.
• There is no official word on whether the Angels still have any chance to lure Rays GM Andrew Friedman. But at the very least, it would appear he hasn't jumped at the job since the Angels are interviewing a slew of others. White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn would be a terrific choice. But he has turned down some GM chances before, and some say they may be looking for a scouting type, which might favor Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer, who had the brilliant 2006 draft with 10 future big leaguers including Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson. Their list is impressive, with Thad Levine (who helped build the Rangers), Omar Mianya, DiPoto, Kim Ng and Eppler among others also in play.
• The Padres will receive compensation for allowing Jed Hoyer go to Chicago to join Cubs savior Theo Epstein as his GM. But Padres owner Jeff Moorad is a great admirer of Josh Byrnes, his former Diamondbacks GM, who he is elevating to the GM spot, so Moorad is fine with the arrangement. The Diamondbacks also are happy because the Padres will now presumably have to pay all or almost all of Byrnes' Diamondbacks contract since it was Moorad himself who signed Byrnes through 2015 in Arizona.
• Reggie Jackson's three homer feat in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series was more dramatic and memorable than Pujols' incredible night, and thus the bigger performance. "I was very fortunate mine happened in the last game and came on the stage in New York,'' said Jackson, who gushed over the greatness of Pujols. "I admire the way he goes about it,'' said Mr. October. "His whole career has been amazing. You have to go back to Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mays and Aaron to see that total domination.''
• Word is, prospective Astros owner Jim Crane wants a $50 million discount to have to move to the American League. He didn't even have the votes to become owner a few weeks ago, which was what delayed the vote, and he can't be helping matters with the requested discount (though most think he will eventually be approved). Meanwhile, current Astros owner Drayton McLane is desperate for the sale to Crane to go through. It's not like the Dodgers, which would inspire folks to line up to but them. Crane was the one fellow willing to pay $600 million for the struggling franchise.
• The Astros did a smart thing adding Bryan Lambe to their scouting staff. The Phillies called Lambe, but he had just given his word he'd take the Astros job. So Houston finally got one over on the Phillies.
• MLB is "concerned'' about some Red Sox players drinking in the clubhouse (even if they didn't drink on the bench, as they said in a statement). In any case, the concern isn't going to be something that helps Terry Francona get a job soon. The only other managerial openings are in Boston and presumably Chicago's North Side, where incoming club president Theo Epstein won't be hiring Francona.
• Rafael Furcal hasn't hurt himself with a decent postseason. "Baseball is crazy. You never know what team will sign you. I wish I stay here,'' Furcal said. Furcal's average was lingering in Mendoza territory but the Cardinals were thrilled to snap him up at the deadline. "We made that decision mostly on scouting. We had a couple guys on him,'' Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said. That trade, plus the one with the Blue Jays that revamped the bullpen, catapulted the Cardinals into position to perhaps win another World Series.
• Josh Hamilton seemed to be getting around a bit better in Game 4, and he hit two balls hard Sunday including an RBI double in the 4-0 Rangers win. He suspects he has a sports hernia but won't have the MRI done to confirm it until the World Series is over. One AL exec said he thought before the game that Hamilton should volunteer to move down in the order. It isn't manager Ron Washington's style to diss a player like that, even a hurt player.
• Rangers people to a man understood that Game 4 was near to a must win. Winning three straight against the Cardinals with Chris Carpenter going Monday and Games 6 and 7 in St. Louis would have been almost impossible.
• Cardinals players were very impressed by Rangers Game 4 starter Derek Holland's stuff and command. Holland said he could be ready to pitch in relief in Game 6 or 7 but doubted Washington would start him in Game 7 on three days' rest.