Except, of course, the Cardinals.
It was Pujols’ hefty asking price (somewhere in the area of $200 million over 10 years) that (until recently) shrunk his suitor list to a select few. However, that was when Pujols still reigned supreme in every baseball person's mind. It’s when he hadn’t showed any signs of rust on his machine-like 10-year résumé. It was when, well, he was still Albert Pujols.
Yet every week that passes where Albert hovers under .300, where he doesn’t lead the league in jacks, where he doesn’t cause pitchers to stain their knicker-legs (ya know, stuff he’s been doing since 2001) pushes the door open ever so slightly for more interested teams to peek in.
See, despite his age (31), Albert Pujols is still the baddest hitter there is (you can take that Jose Bautista nonsense and stuff it back where it came from).
Yet inexplicably, in this, the one year he needs to prove his talent to be age-defying, his aura has faded, and his prowess has been questioned. As of this writing, Pujols’ slash line reads .278/.353/.473, and all he leads the league in is fantasy owner suicides.
Personally, I fully expect Pujols’ numbers to be fantastic when September ends. He’s just too good. However, if his dalliance with mediocrity continues for long, his historically large asking price is sure to come down. Should that occur, there will undoubtedly be teams salivating over the prospect of buying low.
Here are five dark horse teams whose eyebrows could rise if Pujols becomes more affordable...
For each team on the list, it’s necessary to examine two main areas: team need and affordability.
For the Jays, it will come down to area two.
Currently, Toronto has a payroll of about $62.5 million—good for 23rd in baseball. Nothing about the history of the franchise tells me it wants to add a highly paid 31-year-old to the mix.
However, unless the Jays do something bold, they will never win. Period.
Sure, the Jays have a stocked farm system (currently ranked fourth), but the Red Sox and Yankees aren’t going to be beaten by prospects. Not anytime soon, anyway.
At only 4.5 games back in the division, the Blue Jays may be in a position to bring relevance to a city that hasn’t had it since Joe Carter. Designated hitter/left fielder Juan Rivera is gone next year, taking his $5.2 million salary off the books. With only $31 million in guaranteed money for 2012, if Toronto could trade for Pujols on the “cheap,” it would fortify a lineup that already features Adam Lind, Aaron Hill and Jose Bautista.
The East is currently a three-team race. With The Machine on board, the Blue Jays would join in.
This one could be far-fetched for a number of reasons.
Second, at $87 million in payroll, the Braves already have $65 million committed in 2012. Guys like Derek Lowe ($15 million) and Chipper Jones ($14 million) could come off the books after next season, but that wouldn't mitigate 2011 expenses.
Third, the Braves just spent a fortune in the offseason on second baseman Dan Uggla (five years, $62 million), a deal that so far has been the equivalent of a steaming dump in owner John Malone’s wallet.
Still, the Braves are by no means a small-market team, and like Toronto, they reside in a division where pursuing a title is like trying to take down a tank with a crossbow.
Atlanta has the pitching to compete with the Phillies (especially with the emergence of Jair Jurrjens and Brandon Beachy). It's also 12th in the league offensively. Thus, if taking on a chunk of change and moving Freeman to left field means adding the missing offensive piece, it has to be considered.
The first couple months of this season were a dream for the Tribe.
After suffering a crushing community blow when LeBron James walked out the door, no one in Cleveland expected such a blazing start from their hardball team, fueled by resurgent efforts by past heroes Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore.
However, after starting 30-15 and blowing the doors off the AL Central, the Indians have scuffled. Hafner has been sidelined for an undisclosed amount of time, Sizemore has been on-again, off-again gimpy and the Tribe have dropped 10 of their last 13.
Most tellingly, after being the AL's best offense in April, they were 12th in May and are seventh so far in June. Clearly, the offense is struggling without Pronk.
Of course, any contending team (especially a title-starved squad like Cleveland) would love to infuse its offense with the power of Pujols. However, the question for the Tribe would be one of money, as well as one of philosophy.
After this season, young Indians stars Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo and Chris Perez are all eligible for arbitration. They all look to get pay hikes, so the Indians payroll almost surely will rise.
However, Cleveland could use something to get excited about.
Cleveland’s first baseman of the future (Matt LaPorta) hasn’t done much to impress at the big-league level, so if the Tribe feels like making a splash, landing Prince Albert could do wonders for a downtrodden town. If Albert’s price continues to drop, a marriage in Cleveland could become a possibility.
No one could fault the Nationals for steering clear of Pujols this offseason.
Signing Pujols would mean paying another guy eight figures a year for the next 10, and, well, that hasn’t worked out too well for them with Jayson Werth. (Yeah, I fully understand we’re only like one-quatrillionth of the way through Werth’s 97-year contract, but anyone who thinks they didn’t overpay is straight perpin’.)
However, this is another team that hasn’t shied away from spending money (clearly), and they, like the Braves, are fully aware of the difficulty a team like Philadelphia poses to any team in the East that wants to sniff the playoffs.
In an ESPN Insider blog published today by Buster Olney, the author discusses the talent that's being assembled in Washington and suggests the addition of Prince Fielder this offseason would make the Nats immediate contenders.
It’s hard to argue with that contention, seeing as a 2012 Washington lineup could feature Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and this year’s top draft pick, Anthony Rendon.
If Fielder-to-Washington speculation has merit, there’s very little reason to assume the Nats won’t take a look at Pujols as well.
That lineup could be scary.
Ahhh, the golden opportunity that no one is talking about.
Fact: After winning the 2010 World Series, the Giants have baseball’s second most pathetic offense (ranked 29th).
Fact: The Giants have three part-time players in their lineup (Cody Ross, Mark DeRosa, Miguel Tejada) who all make $6 million or more in 2011.
Fact: All three are off the books in 2012.
All Tejada does currently is keep third base warm for Pablo Sandoval as the Kung Fu Panda recovers from injury. Ross splits time in left field. DeRosa? Injured, contributing squat.
When Ross, DeRosa and Tejada (average age of 35) take their combined batting average of .012 out the door (it’s actually like .240, but who’s counting?), $18 million will be available, and their departure will leave the door open for guys that actually contribute.
Guys like Brandon Belt, the organization’s top prospect and someone who could easily be moved to left field, should baseball royalty come to town. (Current left fielder Pat Burrell most closely resembles a slower version of Zach Galifianakis, so Belt would surely be serviceable.)
The Giants need offense, and they need it now. Otherwise, the talents of arguably baseball’s best rotation (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner and Barry Zito) are wasted.
Adding Albert Pujols, especially if his price is lowered, would be an absolute boon for the reigning world champs.