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

By: 11.01.11  •  6 Comments

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.

Page 3

Where Else Could He Go?

According to Bodog’s oddsmakers, these are the teams that could possibly land Pujols:

The Chicago Cubs – 7-4 (the Cards are second at 2-1) – Incoming team president Theo Epstein (as soon as Bud Selig gets the trade worked out) is leaving a situation in which he was blamed for Carl Crawford’s terrible contract. Sure, that wasn’t completely his fault and it’s certainly not his concern anymore, but he’s also walking into a situation where the cupboard is half empty and there sits a giant jar of Alfonso Soriano as a reminder that spending in bulk can often be wasteful.

The Cubs would indeed be the most likely to strike and spend what it takes to shove a horrific dagger into their rivals’ hearts, but after 103 years (and 2 World Series titles for the Cardinals in 6 years) this can’t be about a rivalry anymore. This has to be about winning for the Cubs. If they spend $30 million on Pujols without answering the questions in their rotation, they will be no closer to breaking the curse than they were this year.

The Washington Nationals – 7-1 – Apparently the Nationals want to keep spending and attack the NL East with fervor this year. I’m a little scared after seeing how much they paid Jayson Werth despite never having hit 100 RBI in a season.

The New York Yankees – 12-1 – I read a great rumor the other day that the Yankees – hot off of extending C.C. Sabathia’s contract through 2017 – would sign Pujols to play in a rotation at 1B, 3B and DH with Texeira and A-Rod. Sure. Whatever helps people sleep. The Yankees are focused on C.J. Wilson for their rotation, which is the reason they didn’t make it to the World Series or even the ALCS.

The Boston Red Sox – 12-1 – Again, that Crawford contract looms large, and like the Cardinals the Sox don’t have a manager yet. They have more pressing needs, as they’ll probably be looking to spend on pitching instead of trying to talk a guy who doesn’t want to be a DH into being a DH. Just because a team spends the most, it doesn’t mean it’s willing to take on the biggest contract. Especially when it doesn’t need it.

The Texas Rangers – 15-1 – Nolan Ryan and Co. don’t have the biggest checkbook in baseball like Hicks did, but they do have to worry about pitching (wrapping up C.J. Wilson would be the first step) and Josh Hamilton’s looming free agency. Pujols isn’t out of the question for the Rangers, but like most teams they have more pressing needs.

Additional teams that have me a little concerned:

The Philadelphia Phillies – On the last at-bat of Game 5 of the NLDS, Ryan Howard collapsed from a torn Achilles as Phillies fans watched the Cardinals celebrate their victory. Howard is out until at least May, and it has long been rumored that the Phillies signed Howard to that $25 million/year deal to make it look like a discount to the Cardinals when it came time to sign Pujols. Therefore, it was believed that Philly might attempt a sign-and-trade with the Cardinals, sending Howard back to his hometown while acquiring Pujols. Good luck with that. Even if the Phillies sign Pujols outright, the Cardinals wouldn’t trade for Howard. They’d put the $25 to $30 million to much better use.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – They were the one team that scared me as the franchise that would drive a Brinks truck to his doorstep. Now they claim they won’t spend much beyond what they have. It might be misdirection, but they also have Mark Trumbo, who was no slouch this year.

The San Francisco Giants – The Giants need offense. Fans don’t really appreciate winning a World Series and then missing the playoffs the next season. But the team also has high hopes for Brandon Belt. I don’t think the Giants are much of a threat but I may just be trying to talk myself off the ledge.

The Florida Miami Marlins – Dwight Gooden apparently believes that he’s a baseball analyst because he Tweets about baseball news, and he predicted that Pujols was going to follow Ozzie Guillen to South Beach. I would make fun of this, but it has Stephen A. Smith inside source written all over it.

Page 4

So Why Should He Stay?

Pujols is already a legend in St. Louis. He’s second in franchise history to Stan Musial in almost every offensive category, and he has openly refused the nickname “El Hombre” because he reveres Musial so much. There are statues outside Busch Stadium for Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, and other team legends, and when his career is done Pujols can have the biggest statue of them all. But it goes beyond baseball numbers at this point.

It comes down to dollars. Pujols wants to be paid comparatively to Texeira, Howard and A-Rod, because he is undoubtedly the best player in the game. He’s also the most important player on his team at any time, which is the main reason I think he avoids New York or Boston, aside from, you know, them not needing him. The Cardinals extended an offer before this season that was something in the neighborhood of 8 years, $22.5 million per, with an option for a 9th year, and it was rumored that at the Pujols-imposed deadline they even mentioned a small ownership percentage.

Once the Cardinals have their manager selected and hired, all eyes will turn to Pujols. The market will open up and teams will bid. I don’t believe that the demand will be as high as some people expect, but then I’m not an expert. The Cardinals will offer 8 or 9 years, $24-25 million per, late year incentives to protect themselves against his age, that small ownership percentage, and a promise that this team will always be competitive. Mozeliak and owner Bill DeWitt Jr. have to know how essential this is to their legacies as well, so they will be in the bidding until the last second. At least I hope they will, as winning a World Series may be viewed as a safety net for all of the fans who will be jumping.

What Pujols has to weigh everything against, even in the face of an absurd $30 million offer, is that he’s safe in St. Louis. If he takes a huge contract, plays in Chicago and starts to break down after a few seasons and that guaranteed .300/30/100 turns into .260/20/60, he will be booed and viewed as a burden.

St. Louis would at least deal with it, and he’d still be a legend. Anywhere else he’d be an afterthought.

And if you made it all the way through this rant, you get a prize…

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