From the executive offices at on Clark Street in St. Louis to the bar at Mike Shannon’s place, from the Marina Del Rey, Calif., digs of player agent Dan Lozano to the shaven head of Pujols himself, the question hangs like a curveball thrown the first day of spring.
Perhaps nine months from free agency and at 31 years old the foremost offensive player in the game (and two-time Gold Glove winner), Pujols on Feb. 16 will walk into the clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla.
By then, he will have come to contract terms that will make him a St. Louis Cardinal for life. Or, and this is where things could get aggravating on the tall stools at Shannon’s, he will have begun a season-long stroll toward a distinctive and hallowed place on the open market.
All indications suggest that Pujols and the team that drafted him a dozen years ago are not close to an agreement, and that eight days won’t be time enough to negotiate and consummate not only the richest contract in club history, but possibly the richest in the history of the game. As of the weekend, the Cardinals hadn’t made a concrete offer.
Pujols is thought to be seeking something in the range of Alex Rodriguez’s(notes) contract with the New York Yankees: a 10-year deal that pays $275 million at its base, $305 million including home run milestone bonuses, and $315 million including another $10 million paid by the Texas Rangers for opting out of his previous contract.
A Pujols-imposed gag order has endeavored to keep negotiations, opinions and hysterical outbursts private. Cardinals chairman and general partner Bill DeWitt Jr. broke free long enough, however, to assert that the flush Yankees already regret the A-Rod contract, the logical leap being the mid-market Cardinals were unable – and likely unwilling – to match it for Pujols.
Otherwise, DeWitt has maintained a “hopeful” stance during negotiations that have been sometimes on and mostly off since the sides first met on the subject last spring and generally have failed to gain traction. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak has commented little or none at all. Lozano, who recently left Beverly Hills Sports Council to form his own agency, also has declined comment.
Asked for an update last month by St. Louis writers, a somewhat prickly Pujols said, “My agent is talking with Bill and Mo and let’s leave it up to that. We’ll tell you guys. Whenever a deal gets done, I think everybody’s going to know about it. And that’s it.”
Of course, that’s not it.
The 402nd player selected in the 1999 draft (one spot behind Alfredo Amezaga(notes)), Pujols, a third baseman from Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, needed only two years to charm the citizens of St. Louis, baseball’s version of Whoville. Raised in red, Pujols was Rookie of the Year in 2001, was never out of the top four in National League MVP balloting in his first six years (winning the first of three MVPs in 2005), helped drive the franchise to a World Series title in 2006, then was awarded MVPs Nos. 2 and 3 in 2008 and 2009. By the middle of the decade, a time of decline for Barry Bonds, Pujols became the unquestioned best player in the game. The distinction allowed the phasing out of Mark McGwire to go largely unheeded at the gate, where the Cardinals routinely finished in the NL’s top three in attendance and all but once in the past decade drew fewer than three million fans.
Dewitt, who in 1995 bought the club from the Busch family for $150 million, privately financed and opened a new stadium in 2006 – Busch Stadium, the house that Mac built and Albert paid for. Two years earlier, Pujols signed a contract extension for a guaranteed $100 million over seven seasons that, with the 2011 option, would be worth $111 million over eight years.
Which brings Pujols, DeWitt, the city of St. Louis and baseball to today, barely a week until the deadline established by the Pujols camp to come to terms on an extension, set to minimize the billowing distraction Pujols believes would come from in-season negotiations.
And which brings us to the meeting of elite player and middle market when it comes time to ponying up for services, both rendered and future. At a time when baseball boasts net revenues of approximately $7.1 billion, in an offseason when one-time All Star Jayson Werth(notes) pulled in $126 million and two franchises – the signature Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets – are in financial distress, and in a city where the player is not just appreciated but revered, we ask again, What price Albert Pujols?
“I’ve got $36 million a year,” one prominent agent said. “Now, it’s brand related. Pujols is a brand.”
Over eight years, bringing Pujols to within months of his 40th birthday, that would come to $288 million.
In calculations using metrics of player comparison, estimated production and age curves, hardballtimes.com valued Pujols as high as $275 million over 10 years (almost exactly A-Rod money), fangraphs.com put his value at $267 million over 10 years, and sabernomics.com – factoring in the normal increases in player salaries and league revenues – came in at $350 million over eight years.
Businessinsider.com, which determined Pujols – given his production – was underpaid by as much as $130 million over the life of his current contract, said Pujols’ next eight seasons would be worth as much as $240 million.
Given how negotiations have lagged, the Cardinals would seem to be hesitant to go that high in average annual value, term, or both. And had they a notion to trade Pujols if they fell out of contention this summer, Pujols has notified them he would exercise his full no-trade rights, earned by playing 10 years in the league, the last five with the same team.
The Cardinals seem to be counting on Pujols doing almost anything to stay in St. Louis. Pujols does indeed love it there. The fans, the city, the organization, manager Tony La Russa have been good to him. But, unless he wakes up one morning in the mood to grant a discount to DeWitt, Pujols seems more of the mind to make his money. The discount, after all, was in the past 10 years. At the end of those, the organization needs Pujols more than Pujols needs the organization.
The next 10 are likely to come at full price. Despite the looks of things with Dodgers’ and Mets’ owners, the game has perhaps never been healthier, and by almost any standard. The Cardinals, for one, have thrived under the ownership of DeWitt, a Harvard and Yale graduate many believe is among the smartest men in the game. If there is a way to afford Pujols – and the organization would seem to be able to sustain a payroll well above its current $100 million, thereby maintaining a quality team around Pujols – then DeWitt will find it.
If not, suitors abound. For the player without comparables, and whose price in a bidding climate almost certainly could reach $300 million, the market will be as expansive as it will be fluid. Pujols – and the chance to rebrand an organization – comes around once in a generation.
The possibilities include:
• Chicago Cubs. The opportunity to steal the rival Cardinals’ best player and make themselves relevant again might be too good to pass up for the Cubs. First baseman Carlos Pena is under contract for one year.
• Texas Rangers. The new ownership group is willing to spend, and spend big. The club is committed to Mitch Moreland(notes) at first (so much so they alienated Michael Young(notes) for him), but this is Pujols. The dicey part: Young and Pujols share an agent (Lozano).
• Washington Nationals. The plucky Nats have gone after nearly every high profile free agent of the past couple years. No reason to stop there.
• Baltimore Orioles. Like the Nats, they’re trying to assemble a watchable team. And they need a new Ripken.
• New York Mets. To whom would you rather give $300 mil? Pujols or Irving Picard? If the Wilpons find their sugar daddy, and because of their expiring contracts, Pujols should be a possibility.
• Los Angeles Dodgers. Frank McCourt, too, needs a silent partner. More silent than Jamie.
• Toronto Blue Jays. The heft of the continent’s seventh-largest market and Rogers Communications puts the Jays in play.
In St. Louis, the countdown has started. Only, is it a countdown to mid-February? To mid-November? If, in June, DeWitt came to Pujols with something like an A-Rod contract, would that count as a negotiation? As a distraction?
After a season in which Cardinals fans will slather him in love and song, can Pujols walk away?
The Cardinals fit Pujols like they once did Stan Musial, like they did Ozzie Smith, and those are significant comparisons for him. He will be guided by his faith, and by his wife, and by his conscience.
At a recent baseball clinic in Independence, Mo., a fan gave Pujols a hockey puck. On it, the fan had written: “To Albert, Please Stay in St. Louis.”
Pujols kept the puck.
There will be more gestures like it this summer, during which he will consider staying, and consider leaving, and to the latter almost surely wonder, “What cost, Albert Pujols?”
“No matter what happens,” La Russa told writers in St. Louis, “Albert will be Albert. And thank goodness for that.”