Cardinals take hefty gamble on Pujols

When it comes to guessing the price of great players in free agency, I always bet the “over.”

Even less-than-great players often are overpaid in the open market. Exceptions occur, but the great ones generally take a hit only in extraordinary circumstances. A dramatic misreading of the market. A case of collusion by the owners. A national economic crisis.

Albert Pujols will not be an exception.

The Cardinals are betting the “under” on Pujols’ free-agent value, betting that he somehow will not get the deal he is seeking, betting that he will come back to them in the end.

Maybe they are right.

Maybe Pujols will get hurt. Maybe the Yankees and Red Sox will refrain from pursuing another expensive first baseman (I’ll believe it when I see it). Maybe no other team will give Pujols $300 million for 10 years, or whatever number he has in mind.

It is the Cardinals’ only hope. And it is darned thin.

The Cardinals, truth be told, are in a tough spot. Pujols’ next 10 seasons probably will not be as good as his first 10. Big-market teams operate with greater payroll flexibility. A monster deal for Pujols, in many ways, might not be in the club’s long-term interests.

Still, the Cardinals should have made a stronger push for Pujols last offseason, at the same time they signed free-agent outfielder Matt Holliday to a seven-year, $120 million, free-agent contract.

They also should have made a stronger push for Pujols this time around, but a source told that they offered to pay him only about the 10th-highest average salary in the game.

The range of such an offer likely was between $19 million and $21 million per season. The exact length of the proposal is not known. But at the high end, it would have translated to eight years, $168 million, nine years, $189 million or 10 years, $210 million.

The latter figure would have amounted to the third highest guarantee in major league history. An equity stake in the franchise also was discussed, but ultimately did not figure prominently in the discussions, sources said.

For Pujols, the average salary evidently was the rub. Never mind… the most frequently used yardstick for Pujols — Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez and his inflated 10-year, $275 million contract. The Phillies signed a lesser first baseman than Pujols, Ryan Howard, to a five-year, $125 million extension more than 18 months before Howard was set to hit free agency.

For Pujols, for any great player, the issue is pride as well as money.

And now the Cardinals are stuck.

Pujols’ deadline for reaching an agreement passed Wednesday at noon ET. He does not intend to negotiate again with the Cardinals until the season ends, and by then he will be weeks from free agency, perhaps less.

"Once the 2011 season is over, we hope to revisit those talks … The last thing anyone in this clubhouse needs to worry about, is what’s going to happen to me after the season." Pujols said in a statement Wednesday.

Yes, Pujols is 31, followed by whispers that he may be even older. Yes, the game is trending away from awarding players long-term deals into their late 30s. Yes, as Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt said Wednesday, it’s difficult to judge exactly what the market for Pujols will bear.

Well, for the Cardinals to strike a deal with Pujols by the deadline, they needed to make him an offer above Howard’s average salary, and maybe above A-Rod’s. They either could not or would not make such an offer, but all but pledged to submit a stronger bid at the end of the season.

Even then, you wonder how high they will go.

“I certainly think one of the things we try to do here in St. Louis is have some flexibility,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. “We understand we are competing against other markets that can outspend us. We do have to be creative, innovative on how we allocate our resources.”

DeWitt was even more direct when asked if the Cardinals could spend “Yankee money” on Pujols.

“What’s their payroll, $200 million?” DeWitt asked. “We can’t have a $200 million payroll. We made it pretty clear that our payroll this year is well in excess of $100 (million), under $110 (million).

“As we go forward, that’s the area we’re talking about. The bigger markets obviously have much more capability to get their payrolls in the $150-$200 (million) range.”

DeWitt spoke of gaining “clarity” in free agency once teams begin submitting competing bids. But the only way such clarity will benefit the Cardinals is if the market for Pujols falls well below the player’s expectations.

Don’t count on it.

DeWitt conceded that, “It only takes one club to do something that maybe is beyond what all the other clubs might be willing to do.” He also conceded that players of Pujols’ caliber “don’t generally get disappointed” in free agency.

Pujols will want to play for a winner, so that could limit his options — he almost certainly will not, for example, pull a Jayson Werth and sign with a non-contender such as the Nationals.

I don’t know which club will sign him. I don’t know what the final number will be. But teams will move mountains to get the greatest hitter of this generation under contract. When it happens, the Cardinals will be helpless to respond.

Bet the over. Bet on Albert.