Albert Pujols may create the biggest splash in the history of free agency this offseason.
Unfortunately for Pujols, he is having the worst statistical season of his career. Amazingly enough, he's still putting up MVP-like numbers despite missing significant time with a wrist injury.
Although it seems like a no-brainer that the three-time MVP will remain a Cardinal, there are several reasons that might cause Pujols to bolt St. Louis.
Even in a down year, Pujols still leads the league in home runs and is on pace for his 11th straight 100-plus-RBI season. He lives up to his nickname by being a "machine" at the plate.
No one is doubting his abilities in the field, as he's able to play first, third and the outfield early in his career. Without the wear and tear of the daily grind in the field, however, Pujols may be able to extend his career as an elite-level hitter.
Placing Pujols as a designated hitter in an American League team's lineup would almost ensure his power numbers to continue well into his thirties.
Pujols may be a three-time MVP, but Prince Fielder looks like he could win his first MVP award this year. He's a major reason why the Milwaukee Brewers are poised to win their first division title since 1982.
It may seem like a silly thought to consider Fielder a better long-term option than Pujols, but it isn't completely ridiculous. Pujols will be 32 at the beginning of next season, while Fielder won't turn 28 until six weeks into the 2012 season.
Fielder seems destined to leave Milwaukee and that could have an impact on where Pujols signs. The Cardinals could see Fielder as the better hitting threat over the next few years, even if Pujols is a better all-around option. This could leave Pujols searching for a new home.
The Cardinals are doing everything they can to make St. Louis as attractive of an option as possible for Pujols, especially with the Chris Carpenter extension.
However, the Cardinals have already committed over $60 million in contracts in 2012 for Carpenter, Matt Holliday, Kyle Lohse, Adam Wainwright and Jake Westbrook. Lance Berkman has also said he'd like to re-sign with the team next year.
Add in another $20-plus million for Pujols and that's over $80 million for just six players. The Cardinals have gradually increased their payroll over the years, but that doesn't mean they'll have much left to sign enough talent to compete annually for a division title or wildcard spot. As much as Pujols wants and deserves to be the league's highest paid player, he won't sign with the Cardinals to be on a perennial .500 team.
The Philadelphia Phillies have turned themselves into a National League powerhouse. What's scary for the rest of the league is the fact that most of their players are under contract for the next couple seasons. It's going to take more than a little luck to have a legitimate shot at dethroning the Phillies between now and 2015.
Pujols could look at the situation in Philly and realize St. Louis isn't properly equipped to compete with the Phillies on a year in, year out basis. That could become a major factor in deciding to leave the Gateway to the West.
Could St. Louis Cardinal fans ever forgive Pujols if he would sign with the hated Chicago Cubs? Conversely, would the rest of us be able to live with Cub fans if he did?
The Cubs are an absolute mess right now. They are still bogged down with terrible contracts but could find a bit of relief if anyone is willing to take a gamble on Carlos Zambrano this winter. Pujols would go a long way in turning around the fortunes of the North-siders. He would take away many of the deficiencies currently ailing the team.
It may seem like baseball armageddon for Cardinal fans, but Pujols to Chicago wouldn't be as shocking as some may think.
Pujols has played for one manager his entire big league career: Tony La Russa. La Russa's status in St. Louis is just as cloudy as his first baseman's.
La Russa has a mutual option with the Cards for 2012, but many have speculated he may move on after this year, perhaps to the White Sox should they fire Ozzie Guillen or even to the Cubs. If La Russa does leave St. Louis, Pujols may take that as a sign that management is looking to rebuild, something he has no interest in doing at this point in his career.
If Pujols was entering free agency in 1972 not 2012, priorities may be different. As much as any sports fan may hope for a player's loyalty, the bottom line is about making money and being properly compensated for one's talents.
Pujols has been as underpaid as any human being could be for playing under a seven-year, $100 million contract. Despite his career-low numbers this year, he will still command an annual salary well over $20 million per season. Signing for anything less with the Cardinals may be seen as a sign of loyalty to the fans, but it would be a horrendous business decision by Pujols.
As attractive as other teams may look to Pujols, he's going to sign whichever team is willing to pay him what he feels is fair to him and his considerable talents. Leaving St. Louis may not be what is best for baseball, but Pujols cannot concern himself with those thoughts. Instead, he needs to do what is best for the rest of what may turn out to be the greatest career in the game's history.