Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Lving on Sesame Street Or In A Little Pond?

Every once in a while, baseball's winter meetings feature a scenario that subsumes and vastly outstrips the usual banter and speculation about who's ending up where and for how much. In these instances, the proverbial "hot stove" runs on napalm instead of kerosene, so to speak. We've got one such situation on our hands right now, and no mistake: Where is Albert Pujols going to be playing ball next season? For how long, and for what financial compensation?

So far, we have three known contenders for the greatest and (arguably) most important current player in the game. Of that triptych, I choose to disregard the Cubs because, by all accounts at this juncture, they are following their usual modus operandi. That is to say, they are theoretically in contention for a phenomenal prize, but are not to be taken seriously in that pursuit.

Which leaves the Cardinals and Marlins.

(The title of this post is the most horrid pun I could possibly have written, but it had to be done. Next year, Albert Pujols will either be a Big Bird or a Big Fish! Get it? ... Moving on.)

The former team is looking to retain their franchise player and, to some extent, their identity. The latter is hoping to incorporate Pujols as part of an amalgam designed to rejuvenate a fanbase that's currently on life support. And win some games too, I suppose.

Keeping in mind that Miami has set the bar with a 10-year offer, let's go over the risk/reward factors for both clubs.

In the Marlins' case, it's far more critical to acquire Pujols than it is for the Cardinals to retain him. The organization has bet its future on a rebranding experiment, and the odds of that gamble's success would be considerably increased with The Machine on board. The new stadium, the "Miami" rechristening, the Ozzie Guillen move, the Jose Reyes and Heath Bell signings; everything about their recent machinations speaks to a concerted effort to redefine this franchise as serious (read: marketable) contenders.

It's been speculated that the Guillen and Reyes moves, coupled with the club's current star in Hanley Ramirez, have been made not just for the sake of on-field improvement, but to generate badly needed interest among Miami's significant Latino population. Pujols would certainly be the crowned jewel on both counts.

There are a few problems facing the Marlins' gambit. First; the fact that Pujols rejected a lavish offer from the Cardinals before the 2011 season means that any team hoping to acquire his services needs to outbid that offer. Miami's 0rganization has shown its willingness to do so with the proposal yesterday of a 10-year deal* for an undisclosed but likely astronomical dollar amount. The issue: they don't actually have that money at present; the offer is based around speculated earnings from the new stadium and players and their projected ability to bring in fans. It remains to be seen whether Pujols (or agent Dan Lozano) will be amenable to signing a contract "on credit."

Things are further complicated by Miami's team policy against the inclusion of a no-trade clause in any player negotiations, a clause Pujols adamantly desires. Per ESPN's Jayson Stark, the Marlins "have added provisions that would position Pujols as a figurehead of their franchise after his playing career is finished" in lieu of a no-trade agreement, and have asked him to make his decision as quickly as possible so that they can address other aspects of their future.

*A brief note of personal opinion. Albert Pujols is 32 years old, which means a ten-year deal puts him over 40 at its expiration. I realize that the man is a one-in-a-generation talent, but when his inevitable decline comes, the back half of that contract is going to be a least as onerous as what the Yankees are currently suffering through with A-Rod and Jeter. You really shouldn't offer 10-year deals to anyone, but especially not to a player on the wrong side of 30 whose admittedly considerable gifts may already be slipping a notch. Unless they have insider info from a pharmaceutical or biotech company about a major breakthrough coming down the pipeline that will significantly diminish the effects of aging on athletes, the Marlins front office are insane.

The other party engaged in the bidding war for number 5 is, of course, the Saint Louis Cardinals. Given the somewhat acrimonious failure to resolve this situation before 2011 season, the Cards may have expended any good will or "hometown discount" capital already. If they want to retain Pujols, they're going to shell out the dough and years. (How Matt Forte ended up with the "Pay That Man" moniker instead of Pujols is baffling. I suppose when you already have a nickname as sweet as "The Machine", you don't need another to declare your worth to a team, but still.) The fact is that this should have been taken care of ages ago. You don't allow your cornerstone player to walk. Not when he's a dead lock for first-ballot admittance to Cooperstown, not when he's been instrumental in bringing you two World Series trophies, not when he's an All-Time Top 20(ish) talent. Not when he's Albert Pujols, in other words. You don't let that kind of player slip through your hands.

But they might.

I wrote at the top of this piece that it's more important for the Marlins to sign Pujols than it is for the Cards. The reason that's true is that St. Louis has a long, proud history as a baseball town and their fans will be there rain or shine, win or lose. Losing Pujols will cause plenty of anguish, but it won't crush the franchise. The Cards have Lance Berkman available to play at first, they're going to get ace Adam Wainwright back from Tommy John surgery next year, and the emergence (epiphany? revelation? holy %$#^ coming-out party?) of hometown kid David Freese last year means they already have a successor in the wings for the "most beloved athlete in town" title.

By contrast, the Marlins have been concocting ever more innovative ways to be lousy since their last World Series title in 2003. Even at the acme of their success, Miami's fans were less than devoted. Pujols would make the team instantly relevant, both on the field and in terms of attendance figures and jersey sales. If the Marlins are batting Ramirez, Reyes, and Pujols 2-3-4 or 3-4-5 in 2012, that's automatically the scariest trio of hitters in the NL, and maybe baseball period. Combine that with the baseball-savvy media goldmine that is Ozzie Guillen and a few moves regarding their starting rotation, and Miami is not only in the mix for the NL East again, but guaranteed to have people in the seats at that shiny new ballpark of theirs.

Wherever Pujols digs his feet into a batter's box for 81 games next year, he's gong to be doing it for a long time and a lot of green.** Then? We'll spend a decade finding out whether it was worth it for the team in question.

**From a personal standpoint, I'd prefer to see Pujols stay in Saint Louis. Partly because I want the Braves' pitchers facing him as little as possible, but mostly because I can't fathom the image of him in another uniform. The man has been inextricably linked to The Gateway for over a decade now, and my inner grumpy ol' traditionalist wants to see him finish his career there.

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