Suitors will be clamoring for Pujols’ services

Editor’s note: Ben Nicholson-Smith is a staff writer for, the preeminent destination for major league baseball transactions and rumors.

A little more than eight months from now, the best player in baseball will become a free agent and the richest teams will engage in a battle that will remind sports fans of the chase for the NBA’s LeBron James. It’s not every offseason that the active leader in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage hits the open market.

Albert Pujols(notes) and the St. Louis Cardinals did not work out an extension by Wednesday’s deadline and Pujols has said he will not negotiate during the season, so barring a change of heart the three-time MVP will begin fielding offers in November.

Albert Pujols

If you thought Darek Braunecker, the agent for Cliff Lee(notes), was popular last winter, imagine how often Dan Lozano’s cell phone will be ringing next offseason. Pujols’ agent will be taking calls from the many executives intrigued by the 31-year-old first baseman’s decade-long stretch of Hall of Fame-type productivity.

Not every team has a realistic chance of obtaining Pujols. The Padres, for example, had a $37.8 million payroll last year and couldn’t fit Adrian Gonzalez(notes) into their long-term plans. Small-market teams simply cannot afford $30 million players.

But any team with the potential to take on $25-$30 million in annual salary over the next eight to 10 years will surely be intrigued by Pujols (assuming he stands by his self-imposed deadline and stops negotiating with the Cardinals). Here’s an early look at the teams that could pursue Pujols:

The Favorites

• Cardinals – Maybe St. Louis should still be considered the most likely landing place. Pujols has been the face of the franchise for a decade and is a draw for fans and corporate sponsors. The Cardinals will have five days of exclusive negotiating rights with Pujols at the end of the season, but let’s face it: If Pujols waits that long, he’s probably going to test free agency.

Chicago Cubs – The thought of Albert Pujols in a Cubs uniform is a horrifying one for Cardinals fans, but it makes sense. First baseman Carlos Pena signed a one-year deal and the Cubs aren’t afraid of spending on free agents. The Cardinals won their first World Series in 24 years with Pujols around, and the Cubs could sign him in the hopes of ending a considerably longer title drought.

In the mix

Texas Rangers – Texas’ new ownership pursued Cliff Lee and Adrian Beltre(notes) aggressively this offseason and the Rangers don’t have an established first baseman. Imagine Pujols, Beltre, Josh Hamilton(notes), Nelson Cruz(notes) and Ian Kinsler(notes) in the same lineup and it’s easy to understand why the Rangers might be tempted.

San Francisco Giants – Sure, the Giants just locked Aubrey Huff(notes) up for two years and have top prospect Brandon Belt(notes) nearing the majors, but Giants GM Brian Sabean would likely be tempted by Pujols as a successor to Barry Bonds as a franchise icon. Like every National League team, the Giants would likely wonder about Pujols’ ability to play defense at the end of an eight or 10-year deal.

Kendry Morales

Los Angeles Angels – Arguably the loser of the 2010-11 offseason, the Angels could have interest in Pujols next winter. They’ve never signed a player to a $100 million contract, partly because of an apparent reluctance to engage in bidding wars, so owner Arte Moreno could balk at Pujols’ asking price. If the Angels signed Pujols, Kendry Morales(notes) could become the DH, shift to the outfield or become trade bait.

Los Angeles Dodgers – The Dodgers signed Kevin Brown to the first nine-figure deal in baseball history 12 years ago. Could current GM Ned Colletti make history again? James Loney(notes) is not necessarily the team’s long-term answer at first base – he could be non-tendered next winter – but it isn’t easy to imagine Pujols signing with the Dodgers as long as their ownership situation remains uncertain.

Washington Nationals – The Nationals haven’t shied away from pursuing free agents such as Mark Teixeira(notes), Cliff Lee and Jayson Werth(notes) in recent years. They could be interested in adding Pujols to a core that includes Werth, Ryan Zimmerman(notes), Bryce Harper(notes) and Stephen Strasburg(notes).

Toronto Blue Jays – GM Alex Anthopoulos has been preparing the Blue Jays for an extended period of success, though they aren’t there quite yet. “When we do get there, it’s not going to stop. It’s going to be a freight train,” Anthopoulos said last month. Who better to drive the train than Pujols? Toronto isn’t a likely destination for the first baseman, but it’s a possibility.

New York Yankees – When premium players hit free agency, the Yankees inquire. As long as Teixeira is around, the Yankees won’t be a natural fit for Pujols, and the Bronx Bombers know better than anyone that 10-year deals are risky, even for Hall of Fame-caliber players.

Boston Red Sox – It’s easy to assume that the Red Sox’ rumored extension with Adrian Gonzalez is a fait accompli, but the deal isn’t official, so Boston doesn’t have a first baseman under contract for 2012. Even if the Red Sox do sign Gonzalez, they could inquire on Pujols – they can certainly afford premium players.

The long shots

Billy Butler

Kansas City Royals – Pujols went to high school and college in Kansas City and the Royals have payroll to work with. But there’s a difference between having some money to spend and having enough of it to satisfy Pujols, as owner David Glass explained to the Kansas City Star this week. With Billy Butler(notes) established at first base and top prospect Eric Hosmer(notes) about to join him, the Royals have more pressing needs elsewhere.

Baltimore Orioles – The Orioles offered Mark Teixeira a nine-figure deal two offseasons ago and Derrek Lee(notes) is a free agent after the season, so the Orioles make some sense as a possible destination. The team can’t realistically afford a $30 million player in Andy MacPhail’s estimation, though Baltimore’s president of baseball operations didn’t completely rule out signing an exceptional player if “the perfect storm” were to occur.

Atlanta Braves – The Braves committed all of $2.65 million to major league free agents this offseason, so it’s just about impossible to imagine them spending $250 million or more on one player, especially with prospect Freddie Freeman(notes) taking over first base.

New York Mets – First baseman Ike Davis(notes) put together a respectable rookie season in 2010, but he’s no Albert Pujols. Mets ownership faces a $1 billion lawsuit, which would likely be a major obstacle for the club, no matter how much money is coming off the books next winter.

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Updated Wednesday, Feb 16, 2011