I had begun to write about Albert Pujols on Monday, in fact, had nearly finished, and then the news of Tony La Russa's retirement broke, and suddenly, talking about Pujols' impending free agency had to wait for another day.
Cardinals fans are likely still feeling the excitement of their team's World Series victory on Friday night, and they barely have time to breathe before wondering whether the best player on their team -- perhaps still the best player in the game -- will return next season. A second line of self-questioning was triggered by La Russa's retirement. La Russa is the only manager Pujols has ever known. Would he return to an uncertain managerial future?
This may, in fact, be the easiest part of the equation to answer. Pujols is looking for his last contract -- one that will last eight or more years. Presuming Albert does want to stay with the Cardinals, it wasn't likely that La Russa was going to be there for more than the first couple of years beyond 2011. There's a pretty good chance that either Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo or bench coach Joe Pettini will be named manager -- men with whom Pujols is quite familiar. Pujols' former teammate David Eckstein said Monday that Pujols will stay if Oquendo gets the job.
The state of field management of the Cardinals may be temporarily undecided, but I do not believe that will make one bit of difference to Albert Pujols. The difference will come, perhaps, in the amount of money he'll make.
It's been rumored that Pujols will ask for up to $300 million for up to 10 years. Given what he has accomplished personally -- three NL MVPs and four other second-place finishes -- and what his team has done in his tenure (seven playoff appearances, three World Series, two titles), it would seem to me that he'd be worth every penny.
Can the mid-market Cardinals afford that? The real question is, can they afford not to do it? Can they take the PR hit of having the best player of his generation leave and reappear in St. Louis in another uniform? Can they afford to lose his middle-of-the-lineup bat and clubhouse presence and leadership?
The other side of this equation is that there is a very small subset of teams that can afford this kind of contract -- and there is another very similar player, Prince Fielder, also on the market this fall. The Yankees already have players at the positions Pujols can play; so do the Red Sox. The Cubs have been rumored suitors, but it doesn't seem as if Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer would want to put that large a chunk of payroll into one player. The Rangers, the team the Cardinals just defeated in the World Series, could probably afford him with the $80 million TV deal they now have in place with Fox Sports Southwest. Perhaps the Giants or Angels might make a play for either one; the Nationals are likely to start making noise in the NL East soon and might want to make a splashy signing, and the Blue Jays would surely love to make people notice that, "Hey! There's a major league team here in Canada!"
From Pujols' point of view, I suppose he'd love to be recognized as the best player in the game with the biggest contract. But once you get past $200 million, how much money is enough? Does $250 million say that? $300 million?
Or is the adulation of an entire city and region enough? Pujols didn't specifically say this when rejecting the Cardinals' $200 million offer last winter, but it appeared by that action he was implying he wouldn't take a "hometown discount". However, there is a Cardinals World Series championship between then and now, and the possibility that going elsewhere wouldn't give Pujols what he's had in St. Louis -- the love of a fanbase and almost annual trips to the postseason.
Pujols' choice appears to be: go for the most money he can get and become the highest-paid player in baseball history, or take slightly less money and remain where he's been adored for a decade, seems comfortable, and where his family appears to love living; he has a child with Down syndrome (his wife's from a previous relationship, who he has adopted) and he is active in St. Louis-area charitable activities)
Some players in this situation would go for the gold, no matter where it's located. Albert Pujols seems to me to be a man who wants to be happy, even if the dollars are somewhat lower than he'd get elsewhere. I believe he'll be a member of the St. Louis Cardinals when they begin the 2012 season by opening the Marlins' new stadium in Miami.