By Ben Gellman, Broadcasting Assistant
There are few teams in baseball that can say they have a player who truly is the face of the franchise, a singular and team-defining superstar. Derek Jeter, of course, is that for the New York Yankees. The Minnesota Twins have Joe Mauer, the Tampa Bay Rays have Evan Longoria, and the Atlanta Braves have Chipper Jones. But perhaps no single player means more to his team than Albert Pujols does to the St. Louis Cardinals. That’s why the ongoing contract negotiations between Pujols and the Cards are so fascinating to watch: we could see a legitimate superstar in his prime walk away from the team with which he’s spent his entire career, and with which most observers believed he’d spend the rest of his career.
The Cardinals have more than $40 million committed annually to Matt Holliday, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Kyle Lohse, putting a cramp in their budget. Lohse’s contract is the only loser among that bunch, as the other three players have outperformed their salaries for some time. But Pujols wants a game-changing contract, and rightly so, as he’s arguably the greatest right-handed hitter the game has ever seen. He and his agents may be seeking a deal worth upwards of $30 million annually, a nod to the infamous Alex Rodriguez contract with the New York Yankees. What’s more, Pujols cut off negotiations once he arrived at Spring Training on February 16th. So the Cardinals have a rapidly closing window to keep The Machine, El Hombre, Prince Albert in St. Louis, a town that adores him for his on- and off-field achievements.
Pujols is, by almost any statistical measure, demonstrably the best player in baseball, and has been for the last several years since Barry Bonds faded from glory. His defense, baserunning and hitting are all exceptional, and he is certain to be elected to the Hall of Fame on his first ballot. In fact, he may be so undeniable as a candidate for the Hall that he may be elected unanimously. The Cardinals cannot afford to let that kind of player go at ANY price, so expect Bill DeWitt to dig deep in his bank account and pay Pujols every cent he’s worth.
But there IS the possibility that Pujols will somehow wind up leaving the Cardinals at the end of 2011. If that happens, every team in baseball would salivate over him. But who would be the best fit? I’ll take a look at that in a coming blog post.