Pujols entering uncharted territory

Pujols Media Circus.jpgIt’s not often that the best player in baseball gets to explore free agency in the prime of his career, but when the St. Louis Cardinals failed to come to terms on a contract extension with Albert Pujols by the slugger’s 11 a.m. CDT deadline on Wednesday, it became a very real possibility. Perhaps reality.

As it continues to unfold, reports are indicating that the length of contract was not the biggest roadblock. Instead, all signs are pinning the inability to reach agreement on a difference of opinion over the annual salary figure. SI’s Jon Heyman tweeted that the Cardinals offered a 9-yr deal for more than $200 million, but exact details have been hard to come by thus far.

This entire process brings up a rather interesting question: When you are negotiating with perhaps the best player of a generation, how do you set the market value?

Pujols has done nothing but hit at the highest level in the game since bursting on the scene in 2001. He played left field and third base before settling in at first base, where he has captured three MVP awards and finished second on three other occasions.
Pujols has also won five Silver Sluggers and added a pair of Gold Glove Awards to his ever-expanding trophy case.

While the Cardinals will have an exclusive window to negotiate with Pujols following the season, it remains unclear just how much work is needed to bridge the gap between the two parties. One thing appears to be set in stone, Pujols is not interested in rekindling contract talks at any point between now and the end of the World Series.

The only player to reach free agency possessing a skill set remotely close to Pujols is New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. He was able to turn that trip through the employment line into the richest contract in all of baseball. Not once, but twice.

When the Yankees inked the then-31-year-old Rodriguez to his current 10-year $275 million contract in December of 2007, many industry experts cited the obvious effect that it would have when it came time for Pujols to negotiate his next deal. Throughout this process, the A-Rod contract has been the rumored jumping off point for a deal between the Cardinals and Pujols.

I would go into a long and exhaustive study of the numbers between the two, breaking down years of dominance and overall projections of greatness, but I think we can all surmise that both men are supremely talented generational talents. By the time they’ve played their last game, both Pujols and Rodriguez may very well be sitting in the Number 1 and Number 2 spots atop baseball’s all time home run list. The order may be the only question.

Pujols has won three MVP awards in the National League, Rodriguez in the American League. Nine All-Star seasons for Pujols, 13 for Rodriguez. Silver Sluggers? Six for Pujols and 10 for Rodriguez. And, of course, two Gold Gloves for each man.

Those are the kinds of résumés that some players can only dream of, and owners and general managers salivate over adding to their roster. There is absolutely no denying that Pujols’ trip to free agency may end up being the most notable and fascinating such case in baseball history.

Stacking Pujols and Rodriguez side-by-side may be the only peer-to-peer comparison that is available in today’s game. However, the things that Pujols has accomplished in his first 10 seasons in the majors put him in a class all his own. The fact that he will be hitting free agency at roughly the same age as Rodriguez when he cashed in a 10-year deal to stay in the Bronx may suggest that the paths of these two sluggers will remain somewhat similar in yet another aspect.

Pujols has been a stoic figure in Cardinals history despite having some rather large shoes to fill not long after breaking in. Following the retirement of St. Louis legend Ozzie Smith in 1996, Mark McGwire was the face of the franchise in the late 90s. All Big Mac did was break the single season home run record. Pujols was selected NL Rookie of the Year while playing with McGwire in 2001, a season which proved to be McGwire’s final curtain.

For some franchises, the loss of such a prodigious power threat and box office attraction would be a crippling blow. Instead, Pujols stepped in seamlessly and has anchored the heart of the St. Louis order. In 2006, the Pujols-led Cardinals had just enough to capture the NL Central crown and went on to win the World Series. By that time, Pujols was already being anointed as the premier hitter in the game.

St. Louis faces a public relations nightmare should Pujols depart. There is no heir to the throne this time around. When McGwire departed, there was no shortage of sidebar topics that could distract from the luster of his once iconic status in the city. His rapid decline due to knee injury left him just a shell of his former self. Allegations of performance enhancing drug use have all but quieted the mention of the man who inspired the nation to believe in baseball  again, perhaps saving the game in the magical “Summer of ’98.”

True, some club could come along and offer Pujols a mountain of money to leave the only city he has called home. I would guess no less than half a dozen clubs would be willing to put big money offers out there in hopes of wooing him away from St. Louis.

For some reason, I can’t help but feel the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, spurned numerous times by 2010 free agents, would be licking their proverbial chops to have a chance to offer Pujols a high-dollar long term deal to head West. Owner Arte Moreno has to be lying in wait, hoping he gets the chance to at least pull out the check book and make an offer.

I can’t speak for Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, who said the MLB Players Union may have been applying some pressure for Pujols to maximize his value and thereby gumming up the works as it were. That may be true. I somehow doubt that the union is needed to remind Pujols of exactly how valuable he is, and exactly how much money there is to be made in his next contract.

That is exactly the kind of question that Pujols has vowed to avoid throughout Spring Training and all through the 2011 season. He was quite direct when addressing the media around midday in Jupiter, Florida, shortly after reporting to Cardinals camp on Wednesday.

See for yourself (Please excuse any and all video advertisements – a necessary evil to bring you the man himself):

That sounds like a man who is pleased to let all of his talking be done on the field.

Whatever the reason, maintaining a level of respect for the organization, limiting distractions for himself and/or his team, avoiding a media “zoo,” or simply letting nature run its course, Pujols has made up his mind. The negotiations are on a nine-month hiatus.

Till next time,

G-Mc

1 Comment

Thanks for sharing. What a pleasure to read!

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