(Source: Tom Gannam/Associated Press)

Remaining Options In The Pujols Sweepstakes


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.

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Tags: Albert Pujols Alex Rodriguez Arbitration Bill DeWitt Boston Carl Crawford Chicago Cubs Contract Extension Free Agency Highest Paid Player Jayson Werth John Mozeliak Millions Philadelphia Phillies Red Sox Ryan Howard Star Tony LaRussa

  • BobbyJ

    I think it totally depends on how long Mr Dewitt is planning on owning the team. Seeing as how he made his money off a couple other teams and kind of left them in not such a good place, I am not sure how well that bodes for the Cards.
    If he dumps Pujols or trades him, it lessens the value of the team by quite a bit. Not to mention that it would shrink the fan base. A new owner doesn’t really want to spend lots of money on a team that doesn’t have that superstar drawing card that they know they can make money off of, especially when the fans you are milking become less because the last owner pissed everyone off. It takes time to re-establish that market.
    If he signs Pujols, while he may take an annual hit in the Dewallet, the teams value stays higher just because Albert walks out on the field everyday. Albert draws people in at every stop, he has become the face of today’s baseball and is a huge marketing tool. The St. Louis fans will continue in masses to the ballpark and continue to throw their money into the fatter waller of Dewitt.
    I would dare to mention the whole Ballpark Village joke and the money to be made there, but he can’t hold his breath there.

    • http://www.redbirdrants.com Ray DeRousse

      That’s a great point with which I completely agree. Frankly, if DeWitt signs Pujols, I can envision him turning around and selling the team the following year. DeWitt has a long history of buying and selling teams, and nothing I’ve seen indicates that he has any particular affection for this franchise.

      I miss the days of lovable old Augie Busch pouring his heart into the team.

    • kraig

      A deal will and should happen for Pujols. I dont think Dewitt is going to sell right after he signs Albert. The teams value only continues to go up after you sign Albert, maybe sell 3 years later but not yet. What Dewitt should do is a Augie and Stan contract. Give him a blank contract for 5 years and tell him to write it out for what he thinks it is worth then a 3 year then year to year. Albert is a smart guy. he will do what is right and fair.

      • Ray DeRousse

        I love how everyone thinks of Pujols as some sort of benevolent superbeing who will always do the right thing.

        DeWitt will not ever hand over a blank check to anyone. His wife probably has to pry open his clenched hand when she tries to borrow a dollar from him. The guy has a pathological desire to make more money for himself. He certainly doesn’t want to give it to Pujols.

  • http://st.louiscardinals dennis

    i think yourself and dewitt are both dumbasses for even thinking about albert leaving or trading him off.he is the cardinals. without him your fanbase will fall more like 50%

    • Ray DeRousse

      dennis, I would personally love to see Albert remain a Cardinal for life. But, thinking like a businessman, I can see that the really smart move would have been to trade him last summer for a bunch of glorious prospects and replenish the system. The Cards had Albert at an amazing discount, and trading him at that point could only be a plus for the franchise from a financial standpoint.

      As I said, trading him is now off the table. Will DeWitt pay that enormous amount of money? Maybe. Joe Strauss says he thinks the chances of signing Albert are around 30-40%. I think it might even be lower than that. I really don’t think DeWitt wants to pay one man that much money every year.

      Even if Albert walks, DeWitt could sell the team – despite any resulting backlash from the fanbase – for probably $450 million or more. He paid around $150 million for the franchise. That’s a huge return on an investment even without paying Pujols.

  • http://bleacherreport.com SignAlbertNOW

    I don’t even know if this is within the rules governing MLB contracts, but how about this? How about giving Pujols a contract in the seven-year/$178.5 million range ($25.5 mill per year) AND offer him an option to become a minority owner of the team at the end of his career? If he loves St. Louis and loves being a Cardinal as much as he has said in the past, maybe the possibility of a small portion of future involvement as a minority owner of one of baseball’s fabled (and most valuable) franchises could tip the decision in the Cardinals’ favor. It’s just hard for me to imagine Albert playing for another team. I really think it would be a sad, deflating thing for Cardinal Nation for Pujols to leave. But it’s a business and we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility. Maybe the future-ownership option could help. But if I’m DeWitt, I’m doing everything I possibly can to keep this guy. Not just for his immense talent and status as one of the best who ever lived, but for his ability as a drawing card. Seeing Albert Pujols bat is exhilarating. Heck, seeing him RUN THE BASES is exhilarating. He not only is the best and most complete player in the game, he is an icon, and I want that icon to be hanging around my old home town for the rest of his life.

    • http://www.redbirdrants.com Ray DeRousse

      The Player’s Union does not allow for players to be paid in ownership. That could certainly happen once Pujols is out of baseball, but not now. DeWitt is going to need to cough up some dough.

      I’ll bet that DeWitt offers Pujols a five year $30 million contract with the idea to renegotiate for the rest of his career. That could be really deadly given what Pujols might command at that point, but I’m thinking DeWitt unloads the team so he doesn’t need to deal with it.

  • Lynn Jones

    Is there anything prohibiting the Cardinals from doing something completely off the wall? Such as give Albert 50% of all merchandising using his name and likeness. George Lucas is wealthy not because of directing, but because of merchandising.

    • http://www.redbirdrants.com Ray DeRousse

      Again, the Cards are forced by union rules to contract players based on cold hard cash. Pujols already gets merchandising money from his name and likeness. There isn’t any way around this – DeWitt has to pay up or give him up.

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