MLB 2011: Time for St. Louis Cardinals to Worry About Albert Pujols to the Cubs

James Stewart-MeudtCorrespondent IIMay 12, 2011

Call it the Hug Heard Round the World.

It's bad enough that the St. Louis Cardinals were unable to work out an extension with first baseman Albert Pujols this offseason, but at least they can hold onto hope that they can get a deal done during the season.

And of course, Pujols will be the most sought after free agent this offseason.

The Cardinals can take some solace in the fact that many of the teams that can afford to sign Pujols to a long-term contract don't need a first baseman right now. The New York Yankees have Mark Teixeira and the Boston Red Sox have Adrian Gonzalez.

Pujols is reportedly seeking a $300 million contract. It's not hard to imagine Pujols could price himself out of a lot of teams and simply remain in St. Louis.

But there are teams out there in need Pujols' bat and with the bank accounts to get him.

Those who love to stoke the fires of the hot stove gained a little more fuel yesterday, when Pujols was photographed embracing the Cardinals' public enemy No. 1, Chicago Cubs general manager, Jim Hendry.

The Cubs are one of those teams with both the need and ability to lure Pujols out of St. Louis when he enters the first free agency of his career.

The Cubs could certainly make a run at signing Pujols, but the photograph has ignited a fire storm of speculation that perhaps the Cubs and Pujols have already made some sort of unspoken commitment to each other.

Major league baseball has rules that prevent team officials from discussing the contract status of another team's player. Hendry is not permitted to talk about a contract or salary demands with Pujols until after the season, when every team can do so.

Pujols can't make any commitments either.

For now, no matter how temporary, Pujols is still a Cardinal.

But it's easy to see how the photograph can send Cardinals fans scrambling for every bit of information.

They have a right to be worried.

"Albert and I had always had a good relationship," Hendry told on Wednesday. "I think the world of him, and that has nothing to do with what type of baseball player he is. I have all the respect in the world for him, way beyond him being a great player, and he knows that."

Hendry also told that he was "shocked" by how much attention the photograph is getting, claiming Pujols hugged him first.

Hendry and Pujols have had a friendly relationship for years now, so the thought of them hugging it out during batting practice yesterday when the Cardinals were in Chicago isn't ridiculous.

And it's almost crazy to think that either Hendry or Pujols would do anything to jeopardize the upcoming free agent signing period. Put simply, Pujols wants to get paid and Hendry would be a fool to not at least try to sign Pujols.

Why ruin that chance now?

But if the Cubs do make a run at Pujols, and let's say Pujols does sign with the Cubs, Cardinals fans and conspiracy theorists alike will point to that photograph as proof that something was going on. Major league baseball would have to launch an investigation at that point and you can let your imagination go from there.

The "Pujols Watch" this offseason will make the LeBron James sweepstakes look like a flea circus. That media cannon will be aimed directly at Pujols and whatever team seems close to signing him.

Does this photograph mean the Cubs will not try to sign Pujols? Would Hendry want to face the questions this photograph would raise should Pujols sign in Chicago?

It has to make him think twice at least.

But if there's nothing for Hendry to worry about, then there's plenty to worry about for the Cardinals because Hendry clearly doesn't think his relationship with Pujols is wrong and it won't affect his decision regarding the first baseman one way or the other.

But this certainly gives the Cardinals something to think about and Cardinals fans something to worry about.