Pitchers and catchers will be reporting to Major League Spring Training camps in a little over a monthâ€™s time, marking the first real sign of the 2011 season coming to life.Â The days are likely to go slowly for most of us, but not for Cardinals fans.
Star slugger Albert Pujolsâ€™ contract with the St. Louis Cardinals runs out at the end of the 2011 season.Â No extension has been agreed yet and he announced recently that he had given the Cardinalsâ€™ Front Office a deadline for talks to be brought to an end, whether an agreement has been reached or not.
That deadline is the start of Spring Training and the days between now and then will be flying off Cardinals fansâ€™ calendars.Â As each day passes, the potential nightmare looms a little larger: Albert Pujols might leave St. Louis.
The brief possibility of Wayne Rooney leaving Man Utd a few months ago was nothing compared to this.
Pujols has become such a talismanic figure for the Cards that itâ€™s difficult to imagine the team ever playing without him.Â Try picturing him in anything other than Cardinal red and you may be left squinting cross-eyed into space, as if trying to make a fiendish Magic Eye picture appear.Â You know what Pujols looks like and you know the uniforms of the other 29 MLB teams, but the brain refuses to put them together.Â It just wouldnâ€™t be right.
The situation is reminiscent of the one Twins fans went through one year ago with hometown hero Joe Mauer.Â That had a happy ending for Minnesota as the catcher signed a lucrative deal to stay with the team until the end of the 2018 season.Â
Itâ€™s more likely than not that the same will happen here.Â Weeks of nerves and remorseless rumours could come to an end with Pujols smiling broadly with a multi-year extension signed, telling everyone he never had any intention of leaving.
However, it might not happen that way.Â
Pujols is the best player in the game right now and will get a contract befitting that status if he hits the free agent market.Â It doesnâ€™t matter how much the Cardinals want to keep him, theyâ€™ll only be able to do so if they can give him a contract extension as jaw-dropping as one of his most brutal blasts with the bat.Â It wasÂ rumoured yesterday that the Cardinals might want to keep the deal within $200m.Â That might not be enough. Matching Alex Rodriguezâ€™s 10 year/$275m contract?Â Maybe dropping a couple of years and pushing the average annual salary to the $30m mark (8 year/$240m)?Â Either seems possible, plus many further combinations besides.
The idea that the Cardinalâ€™s cannot afford not to sign him only goes so far.Â Heâ€™s one player.Â One truly amazing player, but one player all the same.Â Thereâ€™s only so much of their overall budget that the Cardinals can send his way, otherwise theyâ€™ll be spending themselves into the second division.
You could point to the Cardinalsâ€™ decision to sign left-fielder Matt Holliday to a 7 year/$120m contract one year ago as a roadblock, butÂ I donâ€™t see that getting in the way of securing an agreement with Pujols.Â The Cardinals must have spent many an hour working out what it would take to re-sign Pujols before committing to the Holliday contract. It is inconceivable that they would have stretched to that contract if they thought it would stop them offering the deal that they will broadly have had in mind for a while now.
Thereâ€™s no reason to doubt Pujols when he says he wants to stay in St. Louis and he might offer them a small home-town discount to make that happen.Â Itâ€™s still going to take a substantial commitment though, even without him currently being on the open market and able to field offers from other teams.Â He would be able to take those offers at the end of the 2011 season and the Cardinals know plenty will come his way.
Everyone would want him.Â Take three National League rivals at random. The New York Mets have Carlos Beltranâ€™s contract coming off the books this winter and Pujols is a sure-bet to cut through the apparent home-run halting effects of Citi Field.Â The Washington Nationals have showed that they are now prepared to spend big money to make an impact.Â They signed Jayson Werth, made a play for Cliff Lee and then went after Zack Greinke this offseason.Â Add Pujols with Ryan Zimmerman, Werth, StephenÂ Strasburg and Bryce Harper and you’ve got a reason for fans to flock to Nationals Park.Â Carlos Pena is on a one-year deal with the Cubs so there would be a vacancy at first base at Wrigley come winter.
Okay, Iâ€™m teasing Cardinals fans with that last one, but it makes the point that this isnâ€™t a Derek Jeter/New York Yankees situation where realistically (and after plenty of posturing on both sides) no one else was ever going to match what the Yankees were willing to pay their Captain.Â
Setting a deadline is a standard negotiating tactic as they always speed up the process when theÂ chosen dateÂ begins to loom large.Â Pujols has claimed that itâ€™s a product of his desire for the situation not to overshadow Spring Training, stating:
â€œI respect my teammates more than this contract. I think that’s more important to me than anything else. And that’s why you have to set some deadlines on this. And that’s it. If you guys don’t get that, I’m sorry about it. But I respect my teammates too much for me to bring all that into the clubhouseâ€.
Those are noble sentiments and there may be some truth to them.Â Still, the overall idea doesnâ€™t reflect the reality. If everyone arrives at the Cardinalsâ€™ Spring Training camp and the talks have concluded with no deal being reached, thatâ€™s not going to be the end of the story.Â Far from it: he will not be able to go two minutes without someone talking about 2011 potentially being his last season in St. Louis and asking if contract talks will resume.
The only way the hullabaloo will come to an end is if the two sides can come to an agreement on a contract extension. The clock is now ticking a little more quickly.