Albert Pujols' decision, via agent Dan Lozano, to set a deadline of spring training for a new multiyear deal with the Cardinals, could be a sign things aren't going all that well in the negotiations. But it could also be an attempt to force a deal.
It's hard to tell, as both sides have kept discussions private. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak told SI.com at the winter meetings last month that they were henceforth going on "radio silence'' regarding the talks. And Pujols recently told MLB.com, "We don't need to talk about contracts, dude. That's it. That's all I can tell you," though he did acknowledge the sides were negotiating.
The baseball people who are closely following the talks see this situation as difficult to predict and say the early signs are that the sides aren't all that close to a deal at present. Despite a quick deadline and a lack of proof that there's serious progress to date, a majority of baseball people still figure the sides will work it out, partly because of the belief that Pujols is worth more to St. Louis than anyone else, and the lack of an obvious outside suitor for an Alex Rodriguez-type deal (see below).
While neither side is talking publicly, early word is that Pujols has used A-Rod's contract, the richest in baseball and one that guarantees him least $275 million over 10 years (and could be worth as much as $305 million if he hits all his landmark home-run numbers), as the only comp. That comes as no surprise as Pujols is widely considered the best player in the game.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are said to have initially suggested a contract that would guarantee Pujols at least a bit less than $200 million. The exact particulars of their offer or offers aren't known, but there is a belief around the game that the Cardinals are hoping to keep the deal to seven years or less. In an interview with SI.com at the winter meetings, Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt strongly suggested he had no intention of making a 10-year offer and opined that the Yankees had to "regret'' such a deal.
One person with some knowledge of the talks said he believed the Cardinals might get to $28 million a year for seven years, if they aren't there already, which would put the deal at $196 million. That's still about a third less than the A-Rod deal. Yet another person with some peripheral knowledge said he believed St. Louis's first try was actually a bit lower than that, though it wasn't explained whether that person believed the offer was for a lower salary or one less year (it's hard to imagine any offer of less than six years being taken seriously by Pujols' camp). Other people who have some peripheral knowledge of the situation suggest they could see the Cardinals agreeing to either the $30-million annual salary or the 10-year deal, but assuredly not both, and if it's the 10 years (which is less likely), the deal would have to be for a lot lower than $30 million, maybe $20 million a year or only slightly more than that. Word is, the Cardinals want to guard against paying Pujols into his 40s, which would limit the deal to seven years.
Either way, that seems to be a team-friendly deal, particularly in light of the fact that Rodriguez has signed two contracts for more than $250 million. Pujols, meanwhile, took a team-friendly eight-year, $111-million deal before the 2004 season. One competing agent opined that Pujols' new deal absolutely needs to "begin with a 2'' (meaning $200 million) so he doesn't single-handedly set a precedent for something lower than the A-Rod deal for top players in the game. While most baseball folks believe Pujols won't top either of Rodriguez's contracts, there is a minimum salary standard Pujols should accept because he is close to A-Rod in skill and accomplishments (both are three-time league MVPs) and it shouldn't be more than a third less than Rodriguez's deal.
Executives consulted for this story said Pujols has a strong case to say he is as good or better than Rodriguez. But for a variety of reasons, the Cardinals don't feel they have to pay him like A-Rod. Those are:
• Rodriguez was a free agent when he signed his deal, whereas Pujols still has a year to go;
• The Yankees and Red Sox are not likely to participate in the bidding. Both clubs have superb defensive first basemen under contract for years to come in Mark Teixeira for New York and Adrian Gonzalez for Boston (assuming Gonzalez's deal with the Red Sox is finalized shortly after the season begins), which would likely allow them to only offer a DH spot to Pujols. One competing executive opined that their probable lack of participation could mean Pujols would get "20 percent less" than if those two mega-revenue teams were involved;
• The Cardinals got the better of the first deal. That could cause Pujols to dig in even harder and get a deal closer to his market value this time or it could be an indication of just how much he loves the team and the city.
• Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt is one of the sharpest businessmen in baseball, and has a history of getting great deals. He purchased the shining franchise for only $150 million, then selling the adjacent parking structure for $90 million, bringing the outlay for the team down to a paltry $60 million for a team that is likely worth at least $700-to-800 million. He isn't likely to mind matching wits with Lozano.
• The Cardinals can't match the Yankees' revenues. St. Louis isn't New York. While the Cardinals are wildly successful, and are said by people who have actually seen the revenues list to be either in the "top ten'' in baseball or "about "10th,'' they aren't the Yankees, whose revenues, while unknown, have increased substantially thanks to the YES Network and the new Yankee Stadium.
While the Yankees and Red Sox don't look like potential players here, the other teams that could potentially afford to pay Pujols all have questions attached to them before making such a pursuit.
Here are some early probabilities:
The Yankees gave Rafael Soriano a $35-million, three-year contract with two opt-out options to be their set-up man. It was a good deal for them, but it wasn't one any other team or even their own general manager, Brian Cashman, would have done.
Cashman is said by people familiar with situation to have made a plea to pass on Soriano. However, those same people say Cashman is a team player who accepted being overruled by managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner. Hal Steinbrenner and club president Randy Levine ultimately decided to go hard for Soriano for a few baseball reasons. Those are:
1. Mariano Rivera, while the greatest closer in baseball history and showing no signs of age last year, is now 41, an age where the Yankees felt insurance was important. "If something happened to Mariano, we were done,'' is how someone familiar with the Yankees' bigwigs relayed their thinking;
2. While David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain are talented, Yankees bosses weren't entirely comfortable with either as the team's main set-up man;
3. The other possible set-up men on the market that they seriously considered, most prominently Brian Fuentes, was going to cost them at least $12 million, meaning Soriano's price tag is only $23 million more (while Fuentes now is headed to the A's for $10.5 million, there is no probability he would have jumped to the Yankees for that figure);
4. Their rotation remains unusually thin with their surprising rejection by top free-agent pitcher Cliff Lee, and to date they've been unable to acquire the top pitcher they sought though trade (most prominently Felix Hernandez);
5. They'd have the option to trade Soriano to a team that needs a closer if another team became apparent at midseason and Robertson or someone else shows he can reliably set up Rivera;
6. The draft choice they'd lose for Soriano is pick No. 31, late enough that the history of that pick is extremely spotty, though the Cubs once found future Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux there.
7. The Yankees' main advantage is money, and while they have faith they can draft well (their scouting director, Damon Oppenheimer, is so well respected they rejected the Diamondbacks' request to interview him for their GM position), they understand their advantage is dollars.
8. Their revenues, while not publicly divulged, support the signing;
9. Their $200-$210 million budget had plenty of room after the Lee rejection.
Cashman told team higher-ups (as well as the media) that he didn't want to surrender the draft choice for a set-up man, even a great set-up man. But just because he was overruled doesn't mean he's lost the faith of his bosses. Cashman, while well-respected, is ultimately like any other GM, which is to say that he doesn't have full autonomy. He has a lot of power and leeway, but not all of it. That's how things will always be, whether the always-involved George Steinbrenner owns the team, or whether it's his less intrusive son Hal.
• Carl Pavano and the Twins are expected to have a two-year deal by the middle of this week. It could be delayed a day or two by the team's arbitration distraction (Tuesday is the day figures are exchanged by all teams and players), but baseball people read no negative inference into the fact the talks have taken awhile. The Pirates in particular have made a run at Pavano, but the Twins' advantage is that they are a contending team where Pavano could be the ace and they are also the team that provided a comfortable environment for the pitcher to thrive in the last two seasons.
• Folks close to Andy Pettitte believe he hasn't given up the idea of continuing his career. But Pettitte's inability to commit to a return at this point has given rise to theories that he may not want the media distraction for either himself or the team during the months leading up to Roger Clemens' scheduled July trial. Pettitte is expected to be the star witness in the case against his former great friend, workout partner and mentor. But that theory has holes. Pettitte isn't expected to face harsh cross-examination (Clemens' side would gain no benefit by trying to paint Pettitte as more involved in PEDs than he has admitted when he was Clemens' workout partner). Ultimately, it's expected that Clemens' people will try to portray Pettitte as "misremembering,'' though it's tough to predict Clemens' legal strategy, which has thus far been curious at best.
• The Yankees among the teams looking at Kevin Millwood as a back-end starter and have also looked at Freddy Garcia. They are also pressing for Andruw Jones to be their fourth outfielder and have their eye on Johnny Damon, too.
• The Rays also look like a player for both Jones and Damon, and they may be the best fit for Vladimir Guerrero, who had a superb comeback season in 2010.
• The A's' deal with Merced, Calif., native Brian Fuentes is expected to be for $10.5 million plus incentives. Fuentes was also pursued by the Rays and Blue Jays.
• The Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation dinner this past weekend at the Century Plaza Hyatt Regency was a huge hit, featuring a mix of stars from baseball (Tom Seaver, Robin Yount, Brooks Robinson, Bobby Valentine, the Lachemann family and many scouts were among the honorees) and Hollywood (Jon Lovitz, Rob Reiner, James Caan and Larry King were among the baseball-crazy speakers). The dinner, run for years by Dennis Gilbert, raises money for scouts in need. Gilbert, who made a failed bid to buy the Rangers, appears to be a very viable candidate now to buy the Dodgers.
• The support among other owners for Dodgers co-owner Frank McCourt is at an alltime low, and ultimately his ownership could be doomed, though there's a major question as to whether Jamie would have MLB's support, either. Neither McCourt is believed to have enough money to own the team by themselves, so either is thought to ultimately need to take on a partner and Jamie McCourt is said by sources to have richer friends who could prop her up. This soap opera carries the potential to drag on a little while.