The Free Agency pool of 2011/12 is a populated one.
This being said, there may be less teams than expected looking to hook the biggest fish of all in Albert Pujols when the time to negotiate deals arrives after the World Series.
Prior to the start of the 2011 season, it was noted that Pujols could be looking for a deal in the ballpark of $300 Million over 10 years.
Now whether or not you think any player has ever been worth $30M/year is up to your moral code (mine says absolutely not), but as it stands, fans don't have a say in contract negotiations for star players. Or, any players for that matter (but could you imagine)?
Now, Pujols is currently struggling through the worst statistical year of his career (.288 avg, 31 home runs, 78 RBI), and while $30M/year is dreamer talk for any player, when the figures in brackets represent the worst of 11 seasons, a contract somewhere in the neighborhood of $25M/year may be a more swing-able deal for Pujols.
Yet, even a $5M/year discount to what he was looking for seems to have generated little banter among teams who would be considered viable options for Pujols.
That's right, after the infamous amicable invasion of each others' personal space, now known as "The Hug", Pujols shared with Cubs GM Jim Hendry back in May, the trail has more or less gone cold.
That leaves us to question whether the interest in one of the top 10 best baseball players of all time is wavering; whether there will really be a mad dash to be the first to contend an offer, or a small handful of teams coming up short to the highest bidder.
The bottom line is that Pujols' stock seems to be depreciating, and while his numbers in 2011 would be considered career years for a vast number of players, they are significant decreases from his previous 10 seasons, and a 10 year contract valued at $250-$300 million is starting to look less and less plausible.
So without further adieu, here are who I think have the best chance to make a run at Albert Pujols.
Any of these teams could very well end up with Pujols at the end of free agency. However, their current circumstances would seem to pose as roadblocks for that to happen and so I think it is safe to say neither of them will lay claim to No. 5 when all is said and done.
Toronto Blue Jays
While the Jays have recently dumped two of the worst contracts in recent memory (Alex Rios + Vernon Wells = $190 Million), and made one of the most valuable signings in the majors in Jose Bautista's $64 Million, five year deal, Albert Pujols would not only be attainable for the Blue Birds, but wise.
Wise solely in the sense that they have the money to spend.
Sure a three-four-five of Pujols, Bautista, and Lind would be one of the most lethal combinations in baseball, the fact of the matter is, Pujols will not be shifted to a permanent designated hitter's position, after enjoying full time first baseman's duties for 11 years, and similarly, Adam Lind also likely wouldn't take too kindly to a permanent DH's role.
Boston Red Sox
I know that when there is a big fish on the market, you can never rule out the Red Sox or the Yankees, but I'm breaking that rule this time around.
Not to say that they won't contend offers, but to say that there is no way Pujols will land either in Beantown, or the Big Apple.
While Pujols and the Green Monster would go together like Sweet Caroline and the seventh inning stretch, I just cannot find a way to rationalize the permanent fixture of Pujols, or Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez at the designated hitter's position.
With that being said, I also cannot find a way to rationalize $25-$30 Million for a designated hitter.
New York Yankees
Again, I am aware of the financial strength of the Yankees. I am also aware that that Brian Cashman doesn't like to waste money...anymore (See: AJ Burnett).
Jesus Montero is looking to be called up any time now, and in 2012 he will hope to make the big team out of Spring Training. Montero has been known for his shortcomings on the defensive side of the plate, putting him on the fast track to DH.
His development would not be facilitated as easily if New York were working with Pujols at DH and Mark Teixeira at first base.
The Nationals are a team we will likely be seeing in the playoffs in the next few years. Young talent highlights every facet of their lineup from pitching with Stephen Strassburg and Jordan Zimmerman, to their hitting with Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and phenom Bryce Harper.
Washington hasn't had problems with offering mammoth contracts in the past with Adam Dunn and Jayson Werth, but after a disappointing season from Jayson Werth, it is likely the Nationals will be more conservative with their resources.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Prior to the soap opera put on by the McCourts this season, and the collapse of one of America's most beloved baseball teams, the Dodgers would have been among the top players in the Albert Pujols sweepstakes.
However, Frank McCourt did get divorced, and Dodgers home game attendance has dropped by 2000 people since 2010.
This will prevent the Dodgers from making any $300 Million offers any time soon.
The Giants, coming off of their first World Series Championship since moving from New York, were poised to make a playoff run once again in 2011.
These hopes are slowly burning away as more and more ground is gained by the division leading Arizona Diamondbacks.
While you can't always pinpoint the reasons for a team's collapse, or shortcomings, it is done for the Giants with ease and conviction.
San Francisco, while only four games behind in the race for the NL West division, are last in the Major Leagues in runs scored.
The potential addition of Albert Pujols to the lineup could not seemingly come at a better time.
Current Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff is signed through 2012, which is not as big of a problem as if he were signed through 2014.
Huff's less than stellar outfield defensive capabilities will surely do for a season where he is paid $10 Million if he can continue to produce with his bat.
There is also the question of what will happen to first base prospect Brandon Belt.
The simple answer to this question is that he becomes an outfield prospect.
Belt is more than capable to play in the outfield, and did so in more than a third of his minor league games leading up to his introduction to the majors.
With a young core of players in Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Belt, and Nate Schierholtz, coupled with one of the game's most electric young rotations and bullpens, Albert Pujols would be hard pressed not to consider any offer made to him by the San Francisco Giants.
This is the face of the man who was seen sharing a non-intimate hug with Albert Pujols at a Cardinals-Cubs game in May of this year.
This is Jim Hendry, former GM of the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs were the earliest frontrunners for the Albert Pujols sweepstakes with an opening at first base coming at the end of 2011, and the desperate need for a consistent bat and power hitter to be added to their rag tag lineup of perennial failures.
While preschool is generally the only time when hugs are more important in closing a deal than signatures, this familiar transaction between the slugger and the man formerly in control of Chicago's money supply seemed to really advance the idea that Pujols will be a Cub by the start of the 2012 season.
So lets get back to the Cubs' desperate need for a consistent hitter in their lineup.
Even without Pujols in the picture, the massive shadow that has been cast over the Cubs organization for the better part of a 100 years seems to be moving on, slowly.
With the electric, young, talented middle infield of Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney, and the inconsistent, but promising 28-year-old catcher in Geovany Soto, the Cubbies have the young core of players that is necessary for any team in a rebuild.
Pujols offers veteran leadership, as well as a sturdy middle of the order hitter, who will most certainly add balance to Soto's game, and give him the ability to provide the Cubs with some consistency to his 2008 season.
For now, we're getting ahead of ourselves in discussing the Cubs potential acquisition of Albert Pujols until they can find a new general manager.
The firing of Jim Hendry puts the talks of Pujols in Chicago on hold as his signing will depend on how aggressively a new GM will take the helm.
If whoever gets hired wants to begin his new job with a step forward for the organization, don't be surprised to see the Cubs with their eyes on Pujols in the free agency.
When the Angels lost first baseman Kendry Morales to a home run celebration gone wrong, there was an immediate problem in the infield.
Who would replace Morales? Nobody in the organization could, adequately.
That is, until Mark Trumbo came along.
Trumbo has hit 23 home runs and 71 RBI in his rookie season and is in discussions for Rookie of the Year. He has been a very good fill in for Los Angeles at first base, but that's not to say that he couldn't still be moved to the outfield to make room for Pujols.
If Trumbo could acclimate himself to being an outfielder, Kendry Morales could be moved to DH after 2012, when Bobby Abreu's contract is up.
The Angels have had their nose in on most of the big ticket players of the previous two free agencies; contending offers to Mark Teixeira and Carl Crawford.
It's not the most likely of places for Pujols to land, but after missing out on Teixeira in 09, there is no doubt that the Angels will try to make nice on the spoiled opportunities for the Yankees' current first base All Star.
In the extremely competitive American League East, it would bode well for the Baltimore Orioles to show interest in Albert Pujols.
They have the resources, and the need at first base, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see them dabble in the free agent pond this winter.
With the departure of the ever diminishing bat of Derek Lee, strikeout artist Mark Reynolds has been switched over from the hot corner.
Albert Pujols offers a veteran bat to the lineup, and a power element to the opposite corner of Reynolds, (home run artist).
With players like Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, J.J Hardy, and Mark Reynolds all on the right side of 30 years old, Pujols offers an opportunity for an added leadership quality to the lineup and you can bet his Hall of Fame bat skills would benefit the rest of the sometimes struggling Orioles. (See: Mark Reynolds, Strikeouts.)
This is the most likely destination for Albert Pujols: his own clubhouse.
It could be said that Pujols is the pride of St. Louis, and there aren't many who would disagree with you for saying it.
Through the first 11 years of his storied career, Pujols has averaged a line of .328/.421/.618, with 439 home runs, 1308 RBI, and 2034 hits.
It would be naive for any of us to believe St. Louis would let one of the best baseball players, and flat out nicest people of all time walk over a contract dispute.
If anyone knows the true value of No. 5, it's the St. Louis Cardinals, and while many teams may be rethinking offers, the Cards will have more than ample opportunity to throw a reasonable amount of money his way.
It is unlikely that $30M/year will be a workable figure for any team, so if Pujols is forced to take a discount, there is no doubt the discount offered by his home team will satisfy him.
As fans, we all love to see All Stars changing their geography, but none of us should be the least bit surprised to see Albert Pujols right back in St. Louis in 2012.