Winter has officially begun, and Spring Training is still a good month and a half away. Around the league, the hot stove is keeping hot. The Phillies landed Cliff Lee, The Red Sox added Adrian Gonzales, and even the Milwaukee Brewers made a big splash by acquiring 2009 AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke.
The Cardinals have thrown a few logs in the hot stove to keep the fire going this winter. The biggest signing to this point has been Lance Berkman. But the elephant in the room remains: “Will the Cardinals re-sign Albert Pujols?” And the silence on the contract talks is worrisome. The Cardinals essentially have about 8 weeks left to lock in Albert before he hits the free agent market: 6 weeks until spring training, and anywhere from 2-6 weeks after the 2011 season ends depending on how deep the Cards go in the playoffs (Pujols says he won’t negotiate during the season).
It’s in the Cardinals’ best interest to get this deal done as soon as possible. The longer they’ve waited to address Pujols’ contract, the more it has cost them. Last winter, they raised the price on themselves by giving Matt Holliday a $120 million, 7 year contract. Holliday helped the Cardinals take over the Central Division in his brief two months in St. Louis before abruptly having a horrendous Division Series vs the Dodgers. He failed to take his bat off his shoulders with the bases loaded and no outs in Game 1, then dropped what would’ve been the 27th and winning out in game 2. The Cardinals got swept in large part to Holliday’s anti-clutch performance. But for that, he was rewarded with $17 million per season through 2017.
Pujols’ price went up again when the Phillies signed Ryan Howard to a $125 million, 5 year contract over the summer. Howard’s a fellow first baseman in the National League, and has a championship ring and an MVP award. It’s a good starting point (yes, starting point) for negotiating a contract for Pujols. Prince Fielder, another big name first-baseman in the National League, will likely also get an enormous contract at the end of next season. The Scott Boras Client will be looking to at least out-do Holliday (another Boras client) if not Howard.
So essentially, a bargain-basement price for Pujols would be in the neighborhood of 5-7 years at $27-30 million per year. Again, that’s assuming Prince Fielder doesn’t somehow get a contract like that, which would drive the price for Pujols even higher.
And as Cardinals fans, you have to begin to ask yourself: “Is he worth it?” I know, I know, what a blasphemous thing to say! Of course he’s worth it, he’s Albert Pujols! Look, I’m not saying Albert isn’t worth that kind of crazy jack. Based on what Ryan Howard got and what Pujols has done in his career, I think it’s fair to say he should become the game’s highest paid player. The question is: “Can the Cardinals field a competitive team with Holliday and Pujols making close to a third of a billion dollars?”
I say no.
You’d be looking at a team with one, maybe two good starters, a low-paid infield, no Yadier Molina, and at least one if not two holes in the outfield. You couldn’t afford a big money closer, and you’d basically be hoping to strike gold in your farm system at multiple positions. Of course, the Brewers and Reds can tell you that only works out once or twice every quarter-century. The Royals and Pirates are still waiting for it to work.
The success of the Cardinals’ franchise has been cyclical. They were good in the late 20s/early 30s, they were good in the 40s, the 60s, the 80s, and this past decade. The team has been in the playoffs in ’00-’02. ’04-’06, and ’09. I wrote last week that perhaps the Cardinals were looking to play for 2011 only, leaving the future of the franchise up in the air.
And maybe that’s the case.
Losing Pujols would be crippling, but keeping him might be crippling as well.