The Mechanical Elephant In The Room: What Will Albert Pujols Do?

The St. Louis Cardinals won Game 7 of the World Series on Friday to secure the franchise’s 11th title (11 in ’11 is not ironic, despite what Shane Victorino thinks) and they had a whopping 48 hours or so to enjoy it before the entire world crumbled around them. Yesterday morning, Tony LaRussa announced his retirement after 33 years of managing and three World Series wins (16 and 2 with the Cardinals, respectively). Instead of celebrating an incredibly improbable championship run, Cardinals players and fans now wonder, “Who will be the next manager and will it affect whether or not Albert Pujols stays?”

Only one man – St. Louis GM John Mozeliak – knows the answer to that first question, and only one man – Albert Pujols – knows the answer to the second question. Granted, his agent, wife and kids probably know, but he’s the only man who matters for right now. That doesn’t mean, though, that every sports writer, blogger and Internet commenter on Earth won’t make predictions, some of them accurate and most of them way off base. First up, former Cardinal and the grittiest shortstop ever, David Eckstein.

“Albert would stay if (Jose) Oquendo got the job.”

“My initial reaction (after learning of La Russa’s retirement) was, ‘It needs to be Jose Oquendo,’” Eckstein said. “When you played for Tony, you didn’t want to disappoint him. When I was playing infield for Jose, I didn’t want to disappoint him. I know how much he has put into this. When you can get a player to play outside of himself, for someone else, that’s when you get the best out of a player.”

(Via Fox Sports)

LaRussa has long lobbied for Oquendo to get his shot at managing a big league ballclub, and he certainly has a nice foundation and situation in St. Louis. He makes sense as a replacement, as the fans and players love him. But that really doesn’t mean much of anything.

Mozeliak reportedly has a list of names of managerial candidates that he has kept for 3 years because he knew this day would eventually become. If I had to guess – keeping in mind that even as a Cardinals fan, I’m no better than any of the other clueless schmucks out there – that list looks something like this:

1. Jose Oquendo – Dave Duncan, who is under contract through 2012, says he wants to stay with the Cardinals despite rumors that he would take a season off to be with his sick wife. I imagine that would heavily favor Oquendo.

2. Mike Matheny – Beloved former Cardinals player, who, much like Dave Duncan, is fantastic at managing pitchers and would make a hell of a protege for Dunc. He’s also cemented in the St. Louis community.

3. Terry Francona – The popular guy who should probably take a season off.

4. Joe Maddon – The longshot, as he has a year left on his Tampa contract, but he’s apparently a lifelong Cardinals fan.

5. Chris Maloney/Pop Warner – AAA and AA managers, respectively.

6. Maybe Ryne Sandberg just to be dicks about it.

Then add any number of retreads and “big names” after that and you’re on your way to becoming a sports analyst. My guess is it’s Oquendo, but I don’t think it’s necessarily because he’s the “make or break” guy to keep Pujols.

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The 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.

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