MLB

Cards have tough decision on Pujols

The Cardinals have a dilemma when it comes to re-signing All-Star Albert Pujols.
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Tracy Ringolsby

Tracy Ringolsby is a Hall of Fame baseball writer. He is in his 37th year covering Major League Baseball, is a co-founder of Baseball America, and is in his fourth year as pregame and postgame analyst for Colorado Rockies games on Root Sports.

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Now that the St. Louis Cardinals have put to rest the annual October Tony La Russa soap opera by re-signing their manager for next season, it's time for ownership to decide just what direction it plans the team to follow, not in 2011, but beyond.

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It's time to decide whether Albert Pujols fits into the long-range plan. Yes, that Albert Pujols.

They either need to get him signed to a multi-year extension this winter or trade him while they can still get maximum value on the trade market.

Pujols has given the Cardinals 10 years of greatness, establishing himself as the best player in the game. And because the Cardinals dragged their feet a year ago, he's put himself in position to demand the highest annual salary in baseball history.

When the 2010 season ended, Pujols became a 10-5 man — 10 years in the big leagues and at least the last five years with the same team (in his case, all 10). That means he can veto any trade. He's shown no desire to leave St. Louis. The only way it could happen is if a team was to first satisfy the demands of the Cardinals, then overwhelm Pujols with a contract offer he couldn't refuse.

A year ago, they re-signed free agent Matt Holliday, even though he'd spent only 66 games with them after coming over from Oakland in a July 2009 trade. And in light of the seven-year, $120 million deal he received, it's safe to say Pujols' salary sights were set at $20 million a year.

The Cardinals, however, didn't engage Pujols in serious talks about an extension.

Then, last April, Philadelphia signed first baseman Ryan Howard to a five-year extension that averaged $25 million a year. How does $26 million or so sound for Pujols?

So far, there has been no strong effort to get him signed. The closer Pujols gets to free agency, the easier it is for him to see what's available on the open market.

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And don't overlook the fact he'll play next year at age 31.

It would be a surprise if Pujols commits for less than seven years. That means he'd be 37 in the final year of an extended contract with the Cardinals.

Signing him to an extension a year ago would have lessened the age risk. It also could have proved to be financially beneficial. Say the Cardinals did sign him for $20 million a year before the 2010 season. His current contract is for $16 million annually, so that would have merely raised his salary $4 million (vs. the potential $10 million plus per season Pujols could secure) and removed one year of risk at the back end of the deal.

And that's why the Cardinals have a decision to make on Pujols, who's coming off a season in which he led the National League with 42 home runs (giving him 408 in his career) and 118 RBI, while also hitting .312 (tied for fifth in the NL).

The only players the Cardinals have under contract for 2012 are Holliday, who averages $17 million annually, and Kyle Lohse, who'll make $12.18 million. Is ownership willing to push the payroll to sign Pujols, who at $26 million would give the teams only three players under contracts worth $55.18 million? And if it is, will the owners come up with enough money to sign the other players necessary to contend?

This is an ownership group that has been reluctant to add annual payroll because Busch Stadium already is sold out every night, limiting additional revenue to generate.

If they decide Pujols is too rich for their pocketbooks, even with his three MVPs and three MVP runner-up finishes, they need to maximize the opportunity to move him. To get a quality package in return, they're going to have to give interested teams time to work out a contract extension with him.

And if they decide to trade him, they will have to develop thick skin to the fan reaction. Pujols is an icon in St. Louis. But then, so is Stan Musial, and the Cardinals have been able to move along even after his retirement. The Yankees still wear pinstripes, even though Babe Ruth is dead.

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Besides, if the Cardinals make the right moves and wind up in the postseason, they'll find out how short the memory of a fan can be. Those red-clad folks will miss Pujols and forever talk about having watched him play with the Cardinals, but they'll still be cheering the Cardinals.

The Rockies found that out two years ago. Knowing they weren't going to be able to re-sign Holliday after the 2009 season, they shipped him to Oakland for a three-player package that Denver media panned as being a red-light special. By the end of the 2009 season, when Huston Street was closing and Carlos Gonzalez turned the corner from prospect to budding superstar, the fans' focus was on the playoffs and the heist the Rockies pulled on the A's.

EXPANDING THE FIELD

If the big push behind Major League Baseball considering playoff expansion is the television networks wanting more products to offer advertisers (which in turn means higher rights fees for Major League Baseball), that's one thing. But don't think that by adding a second wild-card team there's going to suddenly be an opportunity for new faces to show up in October.

In the past decade, Baltimore, Toronto, Kansas City, Washington and Pittsburgh are the only teams that haven't made a postseason appearance. Had there been a second wild card in each league, those five teams still would have been left out.

If there had been an additional wild card, the New York Yankees, who have advanced to the postseason nine times in the past 10 years, would be a perfect 10-for-10, having earned the second American League wild card in 2009. The other AL teams that would have benefited from a second wild card were Boston in 2010, Texas in 2009, Detroit in 2007, the Chicago White Sox in 2006, Cleveland in 2005, Oakland in 2004, Seattle in 2003 and Minnesota 2001. Seattle and Boston would have tied for the spot in 2002, forcing a one-game playoff.

San Francisco would have been the second NL wild card in 2009, 2004 and 2001. Other NL teams to benefit would have been St. Louis in 2010, the New York Mets in 2008, San Diego in 2007, Philadelphia in 2006 and 2005, Houston in 2003 and Los Angeles in 2002.

NO GUARANTEES

Only three times since the advent of the wild card in 1995 has the team with the best record in baseball won the World Series — the Yankees in 1998 and 2009 and Boston in 2007.

This year's champion, San Francisco, had the fifth-best record. Philadelphia (knocked off in the NLCS by the Giants) had the best record this season. Tampa Bay (a first-round loser to Texas) was second, followed by the Yankees (eliminated by the Rangers in the ALCS) and Minnesota (a Division Series loser to the Yankees).

St. Louis was the biggest long shot to win a world championship, in 2006, when the Cardinals won the NL Central and then the World Series despite having the 13th-best regular-season record and record-low 83 wins for a Series champion.

NO TEE TIMES FOR YOU!

Commissioner Bud Selig canceled the traditional general managers meetings, which were scheduled to begin Monday, and instead will have the GMs meet in Orlando the week of Nov. 15, the same time and place as the owners' quarterly meetings.

And as opposed to past meetings when general managers would bring members of the front office staff, this year's session is arranged for GMs only, and the schedule will run throughout the day instead of including afternoon breaks for golf.

A primary consideration is that the GMs frequently come up with recommendations during their meetings, forwarding them to the owners. This way, the GMs can meet with the owners to discuss the ideas.

Among the issues that will be considered are the addition of a second postseason wild card for each league and adjustments to the first-year player draft held every June.

Tagged: Cardinals, Rockies, Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday

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