Albert Pujols: Wading Through The Waves of His Media Coverage

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Albert Pujols: Wading Through The Waves of His Media Coverage
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If you use any article-culling service about the St. Louis Cardinals, baseball, or sports in general, either via Twitter or an RSS feed, you’ve been inundated by Albert Pujols articles in the past few months.  

Cardinals blogs, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, local newspapers, ESPN, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, The MLB Network, Bleacher Report, the Onion—you name it—they’ve all had their pieces on Albert Pujols’ contract negotiations.  

Some articles were pieces on Pujols pieces that had gathered up and summarized other Pujols pieces.  Some were even updates on potential Pujols pieces.

And why not?  Every sports journalist has to cover the biggest pending free agent in baseball history, right?

Even I felt like I had to write one.  I had a draft ready to go as soon as the playoffs ended.  It wasn’t just written as a journalist, but also as a Cards fan trying refute, share or spin anything I felt obligated to.  

I started out addressing the crazy idea of trading Pujols.  Big-market teams needing a first basemen began to drop in number, making my article even easier to write.

But then the daily deluge of Pujols articles began.  I became a bit nauseated and overwhelmed by the waves of Pujols contract coverage, and lost the desire to publish my article.  I wondered if there was there any angle left to cover.

I was especially overwhelmed by the “Potential Pujols free agent destination,” pieces.   Talk about a flooded market.  A lot of them just made me laugh, while others were very well thought out.  

But that speculation is still a season away, and it depends on the big “if” of Pujols not signing an extension by the spring.  We all handicapped the Knicks or Nets as LeBron James’ free agent destinations at this time last year after all.  

Sure it’s fun, gives fans in other markets hope, and is all the rage right now, but to speculate on Pujols’ possible destinations if he were to leave the Cardinals would be just that, speculation.  I avoided the LeBron speculation as much as possible last year, and I’m doing it again now with Pujols.

The Cardinals and Pujols’ agents have kept quiet on the negotiations just as Pujols asked them to, and it’s driving the public and media crazy.  There is a void in information and updates that we’ve tried to fill with the speculation pieces and value estimations.

So what’s left to cover in the contract negotiations?  Perhaps one final attempt to wrap it all up as spring training approaches?  Let’s give a shot.

What we know

Along with the deadline put forward by Pujols and his representation to have a contract extension by spring training before negotiations end for the season, we officially know that Albert Pujols will be a Cardinal for the 2011 season.  

Most of us suspected as much, and it was probably never even in question.  Pujols has earned the power to veto any trade due to his time in the league and with the Cardinals, and he might as well use it.  He wants to be a Cardinal, but also wants a fair contract for his value.

If Pujols won’t negotiate a contract extension with the Cardinals during the season to avoid the distraction, he wouldn’t do it with a team he’d be traded to.  And any team willing to give up the haul of players St. Louis could demand in return for Albert, would want to have an extension in place with Pujols.  

I don’t think the Cardinals ever entertained the idea of trading him either, not with Tony La Russa at the helm for at least one more season.  

Sure, the Cards could get a couple of very good Major Leaguers along with three to four top prospects from the Angels, Dodgers, Giants, Mets or even the Rangers.  That might work in a video game, but I’m sure they’d rather stick it out with the best player in baseball—and the heart of their team—for another season.

They’d rather take another shot at signing him after this season, wooing him to stay with the intangibles of St. Louis even if not officially negotiating a contract during the year.  They could also pick up where they left off in the negotiations if running out of time was the only hang up to getting a deal done.  

I’m sure the Cardinals will take some flack for not resigning Pujols sooner and putting themselves in this situation.  But Pujols’ camp knows what they’re doing.  They weren’t pushing for the extension last season, knowing they could play the no-trade card this year.

Trading Pujols seemed like an unrealistic fan demand anyway, with no idea of who the trade would involve.  The trade-him-if-you-can’t-sign-him movement oddly came from the same fans who have a win-now philosophy too.  

This isn’t like dealing Herschel Walker.  It’s not even like dealing CC Sabathia or Zack Greike.  St. Louis isn’t New York, but it’s not a baseball market suited for rebuilding, nor is the team set up that way contractually or managerially.

I still feel Pujols will stay, and that the negotiations will go right up until spring training.  But I am less confident now than I have been at any point.  I felt there was a 92% chance of him re-signing when the offseason began.  Now I’d probably put the chances of him resigning at around 70% judging by the contract numbers being thrown around.

Hopefully something comes along to spike my confidence back up.  But the silent negotiations that create a lack of updates also gives me little to go on when trying to make an estimate on the likelihood of him re-signing with the Cardinals.

I am at least still very confident the negotiations would have to go horribly wrong for Pujols to end up a Cub next season.  He’d have to hate the Cardinals to want to be hated by Cards fans.  

Albert is not LeBron James, even if they’re following the same pattern of starting up a twitter page and website as they approach free agency.  Pujols also released a new logo that many of us St. Louisans thought looked a lot like James’.  

I don’t think Pujols could deal with being the villain in St. Louis the way LeBron is in Cleveland, and Albert has a lot more going for him in his current city than James did.

There’s a good chance Pujols could break the bank with the Cubs, but there’s also a very good chance he would be miserable as a lovable loser, and I’m pretty sure he’s aware of that.

Also, the Pujols family moved to New York when they first came to the states and it was too much city for them and teenage Albert.  So I have to rule out the Mets at this point to further address all of the potential-destination pieces.

Pujols asked the Cardinals to keep the negotiations quiet.  He didn’t want the public back-and-forth that often comes with contract negotiations like this.  He didn’t want his situation resembling Derek Jeter’s, Mark Texeira’s, Matt Holliday’s or especially LeBron James’ contract negotiations.

And Pujols has taken heat for his demand for silence.  Another example of the catch 22 of trying to do the right thing and still catching flack for it, like Ricky Williams’ rookie contract with the Saints, or steroid use admissions.  

What we don’t know

Perhaps this decree of silence is a test put forth by Pujols’ camp.  Not only is it to avoid public mud slinging and negotiating, but if the Cardinals can avoid taking the bait as an organization to leak info about the negotiations, maybe that’s something Pujols will appreciate and wants to see from the Cardinals.
 
We also only have vague ideas and rumors of what kind of contract Pujols and his agents are asking for.

All of baseball has been speculating as to what kind of contract he’ll get based on other deals that have recently been inked by Joe Mauer, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Matt Holliday, Mark Texeira, and Jayson Werth.

Most figure it will at least rival the contract of Alex Rodriguez.  Maybe it will be configured differently or with deferred money.  Perhaps it will contain more years than salary in comparison to A-Rod’s, or the other way around.  

We’ve heard Pujols’ camp has asked for 10 years and $300 mil as a starting point in the negotiations.  We’ve been told the Cardinals are more receptive to a seven year deal with an average annual value between $25-$28 mil.  

Personally, I could deal with $27-$30 mil per year, but would want to keep it in the seven-year range.  However, I'm not responsible for the Cardinals payroll or their stadium debts, so I can understand their apprehension and desire to creatively structure the contract.

Guaranteeing Pujols $30 mil per season into his early 40s is risky.  He trains harder than any other player in the majors, but the slowdown will eventually happen and the injury risk will rise.

His baseball peers are a select group.  Players like Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Stan Musial are the players he truly compares to at this stage of his career.  

DiMaggio and Gehrig remained productive through age 35 before injuries and illness stopped them respectively.  Aaron, Musial, and Mays were productive through age 40.  Williams remained productive through age 39 and had a big bounce-back year at age 41.

So the potential is there for Albert to remain very valuable to the Cardinals from ages 36 through 42.  But let’s not confuse valuable and productive with the gaudy numbers that deserve being paid the highest salary in the majors.  Even the greats with whom Pujols production matches or exceeds right now saw a decline in their power numbers and games played in their later years.

However, It’s very likely his agent is making the case Pujols deserves $30 mil per season once past his prime since he’s been relatively underpaid during his prime of putting up very gaudy numbers.  They will also bring up Pujols ability to draw fans while chasing records in his twilight like the other aforementioned legends did.

Musial requested a pay cut in 1960 from $100,000 to $75,000 due to his down season in ’59.  If Albert’s willing do to that with his $30 mil per year, then I’ve got no problem offering a 10-year deal.  

However, Musial felt his decline was due to improper conditioning at his age before players trained year round, and we know that won’t be a problem for Pujols.

No contract has touched the annual value of A-Rod's, but there is doubt as to whether or not he is truly the best player in baseball after an admission of steroid use and a downturn in production.  There isn’t any doubt when it comes to Pujols, even if he turns 32 when the extension would start.

What comes next?

Either Pujols will sign an extension by the start of spring training, ending the fervent of speculation, or this will drag on another season.  Whether or not it becomes a distraction depends on how much he’s asked about it by the media and if he extends a no-contract-talk mandate.

If he re-signs with the Cardinals, they will continue with their plan of retaining their core players and producing cheap talent from their drafts.  If he doesn’t sign an extension, they will have roughly $25 mil per season to play with to sign a few free agents.

The ripple effect Albert’s next deal could have on contracts in the future is now being touched on and is worth examining.  Does his extension change how rich baseball contracts can be when the best player in baseball’s price is established in his prime?

It all depends if GMs and owners are willing to put their foot down.  Will they say, “No, this is how much the best player in baseball costs, and your guy’s not better than him.”

Will they be able to resist boisterous claims by agents that their player will be better than Pujols or that their client plays a more premium position?

If the owners hold their ground, they can finally change the direction of contracts in baseball.  It will be there in dollars, signed on the dotted line by Albert Pujols, the best player in baseball.

So here we are.  Waiting and waiting.  Driven mad by the silence.  

It harkens back to a day before immediate access to information and multiple media outlets gave us play-by-play on negotiations like this.  A time a 35 year old like myself can only vaguely remember.  Contracts still got done back then, and baseball players still played.  

Pujols himself is a throwback to simpler times in the way he carries himself in public, treats the people in his life, and expresses his faith.  I think his old-school style will continue as he’ll stay with the team that drafted him, when he’s ready, and on his terms.

www.twitter.com/timfitz76

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