Now that the Cardinals have theoretically addressed their offseason concerns with a series of questionable short-term moves, the fanbase has turned its collective attention to the biggest elephant in the room: the Albert Pujols sweepstakes.
What has already happened in this high-stakes dance between the club and Pujols may go down as one of the worst moments in Cardinals history. Surely owner Bill DeWitt must abruptly awaken at night, sheets soaked in a cold sweat, over the team’s disastrous mishandling of the Pujols situation thus far. Remember Pujols talking wistfully about a hometown discount two years ago? That’s long gone, replaced by a hardened stance created when the club refused to negotiate his contract last winter. Since then, the deals for Ryan Howard, Carl Crawford, and Jayson Werth have virtually assured Pujols will receive the defining contract of his generation.
But will that deal be with the Cardinals? If so, should it be? Here are some thoughts on the options that DeWitt and John Mozeliak have left in this game:
1. TRADE HIM
Some fans have mentioned trading Pujols for prospects, citing the team’s crippled and dysfunctional farm system. I would agree with this – if this was the summer of 2010. That was when Pujols had maximum value, and he was not yet able to veto a trade. The team made the mistake of letting Pujols reach his 5/10 status, which gives him automatic veto powers over any proposed trade.
A trade becomes pointless for any opposing team at this juncture because the team that receives Pujols only has him for one year before the game’s greatest free agent auction begins. That severely reduces what any team would offer the Cardinals in return, and the Cardinals would be foolish to take less than a player’s worth (of course, they’ve done it often in recent times – see: Ludwick, Ryan). Besides, I’m sure Pujols would block most trades at this point, anyway.
2. PAY HIM
The first problem here: how much do you pay him? With his public stance hardening, it is highly unlikely that Pujols will accept the friendly hometown discount anymore. Even with a hometown discount, Pujols’ AAV (average annual value) would probably be over $25 million a year. All available current indications place Pujols’ new salary above the $27.5 million AAV paid to Alex Rodriguez. That’s a lot of dough for any one ballplayer, regardless of the team.
However, make no mistake: the team CAN afford to pay Pujols the money he deserves. Contrary to popular legends whipped up by DeWitt and Co., the team is not a franchise struggling to survive in a miniscule and pathetic market. DeWitt is an extremely wealthy man who has made hundreds of millions of dollars buying and selling baseball teams. The Cardinals had the fourth-best attendance in baseball and the fourth-highest ticket prices in 2010, not to mention all of the $9 beers, $25 ballcaps, and $80 jerseys they sell every year. Pujols knows his value to those lucrative cash streams, which the club has been enjoying at a remarkable discount for ten years now.
But paying Pujols that kind of contract has a downside as well. Will DeWitt continue to field an acceptable team around his one very-well-paid star? Or does paying Pujols $30 million a year result in a team that looks much like the 1999 Cardinals, a tornado of worthless debris swirling around one clear center? If DeWitt can swallow the idea that the team can afford a payroll around $120 million, then Pujols can continue his journey to Cooperstown as a Cardinal while still having some support on the team.
But if DeWitt can’t swallow it …
3. LET HIM WALK
Most St. Louis sports fans cannot seem to comprehend the idea that Pujols might ever reach free agency. Some have suggested that, if Pujols leaves, that the fans might go downtown in a rage and demolish Busch III – otherwise known as The House That Pu Built.
However, this possibility is one that Cardinals fans might need to accept. Past evidence from DeWitt shows that he likes to move quickly to lock up key players for extended contracts before their worth takes them to undesirably expensive heights. Yadier Molina, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and even Pujols himself all received hefty extensions before they ever hit the open market. DeWitt’s actions this time, though, seem to be curiously different from these past extensions, causing me to believe that DeWitt is seriously thinking about letting Pujols test free agency.
If Pujols hits the open market, the Cardinals are instantly out of it. Instead, he might be with the Cubs (who are virtually licking their lips in anticipation), the Dodgers, or the Angels. A bidding war between these three heavy hitters will make Pujols’ contract the largest in baseball for a very, very long time.
Letting Pujols walk would be devastating for the Cards in the short term, and a lingering sore spot for years. They have nobody in the minors who can replenish the 40 home runs Pujols provides, and the $16 million the Cards save can’t even buy a player who has never hit .300 in his career (see: Werth, Jayson). Even worse, attendance will drop precipitously for a Pujols-free team (maybe 10-15%?), resulting in millions of dollars lost out of DeWitt’s pockets.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Despite the public posturing, I can’t imagine DeWitt letting Pujols just walk away. Even though DeWitt has enjoyed making incalculable amounts of money off of Pujols at a steep discount for ten years, Pujols still has several good years left and tremendous marquee value to the franchise locally and on the national stage. A shrewd businessman like DeWitt knows how to wring profits from his inventory. If he didn’t want to pay Pujols, then he surely would’ve traded him at his highest value rather than simply let him escape without any return.
If a contract comes to pass between these two maneuvering parties, it must be tailored to Pujols’ age and (eventually) declining skills. Let’s imagine a ten year, $300 million contract that pays Pujols $35 million for the first four or five years, then backs down to $20-$25 million. That gives Pujols the “stud factor,” while still giving DeWitt a break when Pujols is playing first base in a wheelchair at the ripe old age of 38.
The upshot of a new Pujols contract will be the joys of watching Albert transform into one of the most fabled players in baseball history. Cards fans will see records broken, statues erected, and stories endlessly told. The down side is enduring eight to ten years of the 1999 team, with nobodies like Eli Marrero and Darren Bragg surrounding one huge star like space dust around a black hole. That is the future facing DeWitt and Cardinal Nation. I hope they choose wisely.