Albert Pujols: How Playing 3rd Base Affects His Upcoming Contract

Evan BruschiniCorrespondent IMay 17, 2011

Photo Credit: Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Photo Credit: Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-DispatchKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Three-time MVP Albert Pujols made a splash Monday night when he volunteered to start at third base for the St. Louis Cardinals.

It was the first start Pujols had made at the hot corner since Game 4 of the 2002 NLCS and just his second game there in the last nine seasons.

The move certainly benefited St. Louis, both offensively and defensively, as it allowed Lance Berkman and Allen Craig to play first base and right field, respectively and thus bat against lefty Cliff Lee.

Pujols and Nick Punto, who played second instead of Craig, both excelled on defense. Pujols had five chances, and although he bobbled a potential double-play ball in the second and the Phillies ended up scoring on Ben Francisco’s RBI single, he otherwise looked comfortable. He made one dazzling play on a Ben Francisco grounder in the seventh and also started a double play.

Punto also made a nice play to start a twin killing on Jimmy Rollins' sharp grounder in the eighth to help Eduardo Sanchez avoid a jam.

Pujols won't play at third again on Tuesday, manager Tony LaRussa said, but it may not be the last time he appears there.

"It's nothing new," Pujols told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Whatever the team needs. It's not about me."

Yet, it might just end up affecting Pujols in a big way.

It's no secret that the superstar, who usually plays first base exclusively, is due for a new contract at the end of this season. Some have speculated that he could become the highest-paid player in baseball history.

So could his voluntary move to third be an audition for potential free-agent suitors? After all, teams like Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati and New York have only been prevented from chasing Pujols because they already have stars entrenched at first base.

Perhaps a move across the diamond would help Albert fit into their plans.

However, Pujols dismissed any claims that the move was about anything other than helping the Cardinals win.

"You know it's not about Albert Pujols, it's not about Allen Craig, it's about how can we contribute to our ballclub, and I was like, 'Hey, give me a shot there, and if I don't look good, then you know that will be the last time that I approach it,'" Pujols said.

In fact, there's a huge possibility that playing third base will do more harm to Pujols' free-agent campaign than good.

The biggest reason Pujols moved from third to left field and then later to first in 2003 was that he was and still is battling a torn ligament in his right elbow. Two surgeries have helped keep the elbow stable, but there's still a torn ligament, which is always an injury risk.

Of all the positions Pujols can handle, third puts the most strain on his elbow.

"Everybody is thinking about my arm," Pujols said. "My arm is great. You know I got it fixed two years ago and I feel good."

Even if he's only going to see time at third sporadically, Pujols is leaving himself more and more vulnerable to injury.

What if he blows out the ligament while trying to make a tough throw across the diamond? A significant injury like that would clearly impact his free-agent value.

I don't know how many guys in Pujols' position would volunteer to put themselves at such a risk.

Of course, that could just be the latest sign that Albert Pujols is entirely committed to the Cardinals and winning in 2011.

He's made it no secret that he wants to retire as a Cardinal and his main goal is to bring another championship to the city of St. Louis, even if he risks sacrificing millions of dollars.