Let’s try to be rational for a moment, even though the history of baseball’s free-agent market is practically a case study in irrationality.
Let’s assume the owners finally figure out that signing free agents into their late 30s almost never is a good idea.
And let’s assume that they finally draw the line this offseason, when Albert Pujols, one of the greatest players of all time, hits the open market.
OK, back to our regularly scheduled irrationality.
If there was ever any doubt — and maybe there was for a second or two when he struggled early in the regular season — Pujols is going to hit the jackpot at age 31.
Saturday night sealed it. An owner or three watching Pujols’ historic performance in Game 3 of the World Series surely blurted out, “I’ve got to have that.”
“After that performance, he might get his $300 million,” said former White Sox slugger Frank Thomas, who is working the Series for MLB.com.
One general manager disagreed.
“I don’t think baseball works that way anymore,” the GM said. “I don’t think one day, or even weeks, can make or lose a player a substantial amount of money.”
Perhaps the GM is correct. Small sample, right? But all it takes is one team to take a contrary position. And I’m guessing that for Pujols, more than one will jump.
I can cite all the recent examples of ill-conceived long-term deals — Alex Rodriguez, Joe Mauer, Jayson Werth, Carl Crawford.
And I will tell you, it’s not going to matter.
For Pujols, this is a business decision. He will give the Cardinals the first chance to sign him. He may give them the last chance. But lest anyone forget, he already has rejected a nine-year offer from the team in the range of $190 million to $200 million, according to major league sources.
Suffice it to say that Pujols is going to want at least nine years, $225 million — $25 million per year. Chances are, he’ll get considerably more.
“There are no comparables,” the Cardinals’ Skip Schumaker said. “I have 50 (similar) guys in my arbitration case. Who’s his?”
Well, Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson are the only other players to hit three home runs in a World Series game.
Pujols is their rightful heir. He also makes an impact off the field with his work ethic and community service.
The Cardinals will regret allowing a player of such stature to hit the open market. Game 3 might be remembered as the night that Pujols priced himself out of St. Louis for good. Or, it might be remembered as the night that the Cardinals decided that they could not afford to let him ago.
There is no way to predict how all this will play out.
In the coming weeks, like clockwork, you will read all about teams professing not to be interested in Pujols for one reason or another.
Cue the negative forecasts . . .
The Yankees and Red Sox already are set at first with accomplished, high-priced players. The Cubs will shun older free agents the way their new president of baseball operations, Theo Epstein, did with the Red Sox.
The Angels are overloaded at the first base/DH positions. The Rangers need a starting pitcher more than another slugger. And just about every other club — except maybe a wild card such as the Marlins or Nationals — will be priced out of the Pujols market.
Believe all that if you must.
But when the best player in the game is available, all bets are off.
I don’t know how the Yankees, for example, could clear a spot at first for Pujols, not with Mark Teixeira signed through 2016 at $22.5 million per season. But I guarantee you that they will at least discuss the idea internally. Ditto for the Red Sox, who are set with Adrian Gonzalez at first, but, like the Yankees, face a potential opening at DH with David Ortiz a free agent.
Epstein and Cubs owner Tom Ricketts will face tremendous pressure to lure Pujols from the rival Cardinals, whether it’s the right move or not. The Angels also cannot ignore the Pujols sweepstakes, and if a new labor agreement is in place by the time the market opens, look out. Teams historically spend more after such deals are done.
I don’t expect Pujols to conduct a complete money grab and sign with, say, the Marlins, if they are the high bidder. But the Cardinals are going to face competition, more competition than they imagined when Pujols was batting only .257 with a .326 on-base percentage and .395 slugging average with eight homers on May 29.
Yet, Pujols’ rate stats are in a three-year decline, and over the next three years his regression might only accelerate. But we already know that the Cardinals offered him nine years. Maybe other clubs will offer him fewer years and greater dollars, along the lines of what the Phillies did with free-agent left-hander Cliff Lee last offseason.
Either way, Pujols wins. He was always going to win. And Game 3 of the World Series offered a vivid reminder of why he is such a transcendent figure within the sport.
In the middle of writing this I received an email from MLB Network asking me to construct a Mount Rushmore of hitters for a poll the network is conducting among its on-air personnel. I included Pujols, along with Ruth, Ted Williams and Hank Aaron.
Teams want to be rational, and it is not rational to award lengthy contracts to players in their 30s. But on Saturday night, Pujols again showed that he is an exceptional case, one mighty swing at a time.
Back to our regularly scheduled irrationality. Again.