LeBron James Superstar Factor
In regards to just how monumental Pujols’ free agency is, he might as well talk ESPN into giving him a one-hour special to announce his plans. He is undoubtedly the most sought after free agent since Alex Rodriguez and Tom Hicks completely sank the Texas Rangers franchise. But unlike LeBron James, this is Pujols’ last big deal. This is his career’s ultimate direction and destination, not just how he will define the second act. Pujols turns 32 in January and is seeking at least 8 years, so this is it.
Whereas A-Rod broke the mold with a $250 million contract, Pujols just wants to be paid comparatively. If the Cardinals lose Pujols, they have the Philadelphia Phillies to thank for that, in the same way the Milwaukee Brewers can thank them if they lose Prince Fielder (more on that later this week). The Phillies gave Ryan Howard $25 million a year in a deal that many people said he didn’t deserve. We could debate that, but it’s not the point.
Regardless of Howard or Mark Texeira, Pujols will receive at least $25 million per season because he is the best hitter of his (or possibly any) generation, he’s a hell of a fielder and he’s not even close to being finished. Like James, Pujols probably has an opportunity to help decide who will replace LaRussa. The difference is that Pujols won’t disappear and hide in his fortress of solitude while leaving his team hanging the way that James wouldn’t answer Dan Gilbert’s phone calls when he had Tom Izzo on three-way.
Unlike James, Pujols has two championships already. He has a different decision to make – does he stay and win more, or does he become a hired gun to earn legend status with a second franchise? If Pujols doesn’t plan to stay, I have no doubt that he will tell Mozeliak that the choice of which manager is his to make and he’ll see him at the bargaining table.
So What Should He Do?
It’s incredibly hard to be calm and unbiased about this, because as a Cardinals fan I can’t picture another guy at first base. When Derek Jeter knocked in his 3,000th hit, the magnificence wasn’t that he did it with a home run while a world shouted that he was washed up. It was that he did it all in pinstripes. After that hit, the sports world’s talking heads asked if we’d seen baseball’s last true one-franchise superstar. I said no. We have Pujols.
Unfortunately, despite winning their 11th World Series title on Friday (second only to the New York Yankees), the St. Louis Cardinals still aren’t viewed nationally as a main stage team. People want Pujols to go to Los Angeles and salvage the Dodgers or rejuvenate the Angels. They want him to go to Arlington and push the Rangers over the edge after he helped set them back another season. They want him to go to Chicago and break a curse. Only one incredibly loyal fan base wants him to stay put.
Looking at it rationally and as unbiased as I can – and especially after having a night to sleep off the LaRussa news – here are the only logical destinations I can see Pujols landing in:
1. St. Louis
Seriously, I’m being as unbiased as I absolutely can. Will it shock me if he announces that he is signing with another team? Not really. Nothing surprises me in sports. Forget James, all professional athletes have shown us for more than a decade that loyalty is dead. A-Rod is the best living example of the adage that the dollar is mightier than the sword. However, I think the Cardinals can’t possibly screw this up, not just because it’s an easy decision to make, but I don’t think the demand is going to be as high as people who don’t look at the entire picture think.