DALLAS -- The baseball world's routine of the last day of the winter meetings is typically simple: attend the Rule 5 draft and get out of town. But on this Thursday morning, a scant five minutes before the Rule 5 proceedings began, news broke that the game's best player, former Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, had signed a free-agent contract with the Angels for 10 years and more than $250 million.
Given the timing and poor cell service in the ballroom hosting the draft, the news spread quickly by text and Twitter, and it certainly dominated conversations as baseball executives departed. The Rule 5 draft is the one occasion when decision-makers for all 30 clubs are in one room, and particularly those executives in the American League West along with the Angels recognized the impact of Pujols' decision.
"Congratulations to them," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "It just makes it that much more difficult for everybody in our division."
"Our job just got a lot more challenging," Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine said, "but I think our players will be up the challenge."
There was little hint such a monumental signing -- which was first reported by Yahoo! Sports' Tim Brown -- was coming until 36 hours before the deal was consummated. The Angels' postponed their daily media briefing on short notice, raising eyebrows among the press corps that something was coming. But the Angels weren't publicly linked to Pujols with the same fervor that the Cardinals and Marlins had been, though in a week when the previously frugal Marlins had outspent everyone else, maybe nothing is too shocking.
"I'm not sure 'surprising' is the word," Zduriencik said. "We were hearing all week here pretty large numbers and a lot of players being pursued -- certainly Albert was at the forefront all along of a lot of people's radars."
If there was any mild surprise, it was the fit of Pujols with an Angels team that already had three players for two lineup slots at first base and designated hitter in promising rookie Mark Trumbo, longtime veteran Bobby Abreu and comeback candidate Kendrys Morales. Obviously the addition of a franchise-changer like Pujols trumps everyone on the depth chart, but there could later be a trade of one of the other pieces to clear room.
Pujols is the Angels' first big splash in years after missing out on free agents Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre last winter. They traded for high-priced outfielder Vernon Wells, who had a very disappointing first year. But Pujols makes them immediately better -- and by a lot.
"We've only played him seven games," Levine said, referring to last year's World Series against the Cardinals, "and I can't say that we've figured him out just yet. Our advance scouts still have a lot of work to do."
"We've always had a ton of respect for the Angels," Levine continued, "and even though we won the division the last two years, we still see them as the class of the division. They have been our main competition and will continue to be."
Levine actually led his remarks with a joke -- "We immediately rushed down to change our Rule 5 pick strategy," he quipped -- but in truth the Rangers under general manager Jon Daniels haven't been a reactive club, so one wonders if such a move forces their hand into a push for someone such as ex-Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder. The Pujols move may or may not change their offseason strategy, which has been quiet thus far but is expected to include a serious bid for top Japanese righthanded pitcher Yu Darvish.
The Mariners, meanwhile, have been linked to strong interest in the other top free-agent first baseman, Fielder, whose market could accelerate now that Pujols has signed. The A's, meanwhile, likely will not be big players this offseason. The Astros, who will join the division in 2013, just hired a new general manager -- former Cardinals VP Jeff Lunhow -- but have a long rebuilding process ahead.
Pujols' contract ties the record for the longest ever given out and its final value, depending on the final number, will be either the second- or third-most lucrative in history. No executive wanted to comment about another clubs' plans and decisions. Zduriencik only spoke about the contract from Pujols' perspective, calling it "a tremendous deal for him."
With the news about an hour later that the club also signed starter C.J. Wilson, the Angels, who missed last year's playoffs by five games, are in prime shape to make a serious run in 2012 after a tremendously expensive morning.