Free-agent freedom is near for Pujols, Fielder
ST. LOUIS – The last St. Louis Cardinals at-bat Albert Pujols(notes) may ever take at Busch Stadium came with little celebration Friday night. The crowd did not cheer any more than it usually does when he walked to the plate. He did not tip his cap, gaze at the crowd or do anything more than walk back to the dugout following an eighth-inning strikeout.
Maybe the fact the game was not terribly close – the Cardinals were closing out a 7-1 win over the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series – muted the fans, or perhaps they were filled with the certainty he will be back here for the World Series next week. Either way, as unthinkable as it might seem, he could well have taken his final swing at home for the city he has come to own. What would happen then?
The atomic clock for the greatest free-agent battle the NL Central Division has ever known may only be a day away from starting. By Monday night at the latest, either Pujols or Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder(notes) will begin the process of possibly wading away from the only big league city he has ever known. It is the silent subplot of this series, a looming explosion that has been building through the days ready to ignite whenever one finishes his season.
They stand as the two most desirable prospects in an offseason that could also include Jose Reyes(notes) and CC Sabathia(notes): Pujos and Fielder are giant men who have clubbed a combined 675 home runs and are in the prime of their careers and might become too expensive for their teams to keep around. And it is only fitting that they come to the end in this series with the country watching and a chance to make that final run for extra dollars.
Few players have seen as much of Pujols and Fielder over the years as Berkman, who played almost all of his career with the Central Division Houston Astros. If anyone understands what each player has meant to his team, to his city, to his lineup, it’s Berkman. And to Berkman it’s hard to imagine Pujols ever leaving this place that has embraced him so well, the place where he had what might well be the greatest 11-year start to a career in baseball history.
But even as said this, he gave a dry laugh.
“I didn’t think I would play anywhere other than Houston, either,” he said.
They will get paid handsomely for the next few years. Each man might well make more than $200 million in his deal despite the fact Pujols is 31 and just had his worst statistical season and Fielder is listed at 275 pounds and might be a risk for breaking down before the deal is complete. Already there is a sense Fielder will leave the Brewers since it seems Milwaukee won’t be able to afford him, yet Pujols seems to want to get paid whatever the market says he is worth and the market might just say that is in Chicago with the Cubs or Texas or Washington or Anaheim.
The time to find out is drawing near, and with each day this series goes and they are exposed more to the rest of the country, their value grows.
“I know it’s kind of tough for both sides,” said Cardinals relief pitcher Octavio Dotel(notes), who has seen more of Pujols and Fielder than he would have wanted. “Albert has been here 11 years and he’s kind of Superman for this city. I would be big time surprised if he is not here next year. He’s never been in the news for doing this thing or that thing, he’s never been in any trouble. Everything he does in the community is unbelievable. I keep waiting for him to do something wrong and he never does.”
Then a thought crossed Dotel’s mind and he smiled.
“But if St. Louis doesn’t sign Albert Pujols, then I want to see Prince Fielder over here in St. Louis,” he said.
It’s an interesting thought. One Pujols appears to be avoiding in the waning days of his current contract as he has rarely appeared in the clubhouse after these playoff games. It’s not one Fielder seems interested in addressing either as he shrugs when the subject is raised and says “I’m trying to be in the moment and if I think about that then I can’t be thinking about now.”
Still it is here and one way or another Fielder will probably get the prolonged ovation in Milwaukee that Pujols never received in St. Louis this NLCS. The fans will beg him to stay just as they have with Pujols in St. Louis, and perhaps there is some way both players stay in the cities that have come to love them. But the chances are one or both is gone. Berkman thought about the obvious possibilities in situations like this – Boston and New York – but shook his head and said both teams already have first basemen and the last thing they would want to do is sign Pujols or Fielder and make him a designated hitter. It’s too early in their careers for that.
Instead, the biggest free-agent fight the division has ever known is coming fast.
The timer is about to start and the big money is on the way.
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