The Buyers Market

It was supposed to be the free agent rush of the short century: the best player in the game, maybe ever, was available to the highest bidder. No matter where he went, he would make his new team vastly better than they were last season and attract thousands upon thousands of new fans who wanted to get an up-close look at our Babe Ruth.

Yes, teams would fight like sharks in a fishbowl for Albert Pujols and for all the benefits he would bring to their teams with RBI on the field and jersey sales off of it. And after his contract negotiations went awry with the team he had been with for 11 years, many reasoned he wouldn’t return. But now I ask you, who will take him away?

There are only so many teams that can afford to pay Albert the huge contract he is looking for after being underpaid for 11 years now. Look at all of those teams* and tell me which he would go to.

The Yankees are baseball’s richest team and, if they had not signed Mark Teixeira at first base in 2009, would be an almost-certain destination for Albert. But Teixeira is there, and while the Yanks will be in need of a designated hitter come 2012, even they won’t be giving said DH over $200 million to come off the bench four times a night and sit back down.

Besides, New York’s GM, Brian Cashman, ruled out such a signing two weeks ago, saying, “Despite him being fantastic, it’s not an efficient way to allocate our resources. Offense is not an issue here. Our priority this offseason is pitching.”

So, how about the Boston Red Sox, the next-biggest wallet in the Big Leagues? Well, they signed the mighty Adrian Gonzalez to play first base last year, so there’s no room for Albert there either. And again, they wouldn’t give $200 million to a DH, especially with rumors that they will resign the one they have soon.

The big market Dodgers should have the capital needed to go out and get some big time free agents, but the McCourt disaster divorce is impeding that this offseason as the team looks for new ownership. They have enough to re-sign Matt Kemp, but that’s about it.

Next is the Cubs, where every writer needing a good storyline picked him to go. After all, the North-Siders have their new GM, the brilliant Theo Epstein, have plenty of money to spend–and wouldn’t it be something if Pujols went to the rivals of his career team, the Cardinals? It was just too perfect if you were a Cubs fan.

Unfortunately, if you’re a Cubs fan, you will lose here too. Epstein’s focus this year and next will be to get all of the bad contracts off the books that were put there by the old regime. Factor in that Pujols probably doesn’t want to be a loser for the rest of his career and the Chicago Cubs are off the list.

The Mets are in the same boat as the Dodgers in that they are in a prime location, New York, but have mismanaged their finances enough that they cannot even re-sign their star shortstop Jose Reyes, let alone add Albert.

The Phillies are next up and are already spending an exorbitant amount of money this offseason before anyone else, but Ryan Howard is playing first there.

The San Francisco Giants need offense and a first baseman badly, but they are yet to even hit the rumor mill, minus their Chief Executive saying in a curiously-redacted piece in the LA Times, “[Relying on the farm system has] been a winning philosophy. That’s a good template. Don’t interpret that as we wouldn’t go after a premier free agent, but I don’t think we wake up in the morning and say that’s the first choice.” Hardly convincing.

The Rangers were looked at as a likely landing spot, but team owner Nolan Ryan said, “Making a seven-or-eight year deal for [Prince Fielder] or Pujols is not something our organization is prepared to do. I very much expect Mitch Moreland to be our first baseman next year.”

At the beginning of the offseason, the Angels were my biggest fear when it came to potential Pujols pilferers, but their new GM, Jerry DiPoto said last week, “You have to be open to the possibility, but it’s not something we’re going to aggressively pursue. I don’t think you’re going to get a financial bargain swimming in that pool.”

That’s about it, really. The Marlins, whose payroll will shoot up with the new stadium this year, made an offer to him on Friday night, but Joe Frisaro reported, “The Marlins certainly would love to add Pujols, but those connected with the club said the first offer probably isn’t close to being enough to lure in the biggest prize on the free agent market.”

The next teams on the list outside the top 10 probably cannot afford him. Besides, the White Sox have Paul Konerko at first, the Twins have Justin Morneau and the Braves have Freddie Freeman.

This brings me to the obvious conclusion: Albert has nowhere else to go. Sure, if he desperately wanted out of St. Louis, which he doesn’t, he could sign a lesser contract with Miami and wear orange the rest of his baseball days. (Or at least until Jeff Loria orders him traded after a few years.) That might be bad news for him once the Cardinals realize this (if they haven’t already) since they know that they are his best option.

*In order based on Forbes’ 2011 team values

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