Series win may keep Pujols in St. Louis

BY foxsports • October 18, 2011

Albert Pujols has a double standard about baseball’s forthcoming free-agent frenzy.

As long as it relates to someone else — say, rival Prince Fielder — then Pujols has no problem referencing business matters (at least indirectly) on the field of play. Pujols did it Sunday night in Milwaukee, when he called timeout in an effort to prolong the ovation before what was probably Fielder’s final at-bat with the Brewers.

But ask Pujols about his own free agency, when he will compete with Fielder for dollars and attention, and he swats at the question like a hanging curveball.

“Let’s talk about something else,” Pujols said Tuesday at World Series media day. “Let’s talk about baseball. I’m not concentrated on that.”

When another reporter tried . . .

“I don’t think about free (agency) right now,” he said. “Let’s talk about the World Series and how I can help the Cardinals win.”

To be clear, I’m not criticizing Pujols for Sunday’s timeout. I actually applaud him for it. It was a gesture of respect toward Fielder and a sign of how keenly Pujols perceives the connection between a star player and his fans.

But it also teased us. By acknowledging the likelihood of Fielder’s departure, Pujols unwittingly reminded us of how little he’s told us about his own plans. And if anything, the contrast has made Pujols’ future that much more fascinating to ponder.

Each player has the right to handle free agency in the manner he chooses. That’s why they call it “free.” Fielder chose candor, perhaps because he knows the Brewers won’t be able to match the big-market dollars that are certain to be offered. Pujols, by contrast, has stiff-armed inquiries since his grand arrival at spring training. That fits with the mystery surrounding what exactly the Cardinals offered him last winter and their capability to compete for his services this offseason.

“It would be really hard to see him in another uniform,” Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire said. “But then again, with the game and the way things are today, it’s a lot different than when I played. A lot more guys move on.”

In the absence of any recent illumination from Prince Albert, baseball players, executives, writers, fans and all others outside the Pujols Circle are left to ponder one mesmerizing question before the start of this year’s World Series.

If the Cardinals beat the Rangers, would it increase the odds that Pujols will stay?

“Hard to say,” teammate Lance Berkman said.

“I don’t have any idea, honestly,” Matt Holliday replied. “I would think it would help.”

“Something you’d have to ask him,” infielder Ryan Theriot suggested.

Believe me. We’ve tried.

My opinion: A second World Series ring absolutely would improve the Cardinals’ sales pitch to Pujols this offseason. I don’t buy the notion that Pujols is planning for a world championship to be his parting gift to Cardinals fans — right before Theo Epstein signs him to play first base for the Cubs.

That said, the magnetism of a ring probably isn’t as great as you and I suspect. I still believe, for example, that Cliff Lee was likely to leave Texas for Philadelphia even if the Rangers won the World Series last year. But championships mean legacies, and legacies are important to a player like Pujols. He has a chance to be this generation’s Stan Musial, minus the US Navy service.

But money will matter, because money always matters. However, the Cardinals should be able to get close enough to everyone else that Pujols decides to stay in St. Louis.

To use the Lee example one more time: Lee didn’t sign with the Phillies because they offered the most money. In fact, we know they didn’t offer the most money. But they did offer something close to it, and Lee wanted to pitch in Philadelphia. So that’s where he went.

If Pujols truly wants to remain in St. Louis, the Cardinals will make him a fair offer to do it. And if their coffers are stacked with World Series revenues, well, that can only help.

“I think he wants to come back here,” backup catcher Gerald Laird said. “Winning it would make him want to come back. The fans adore him here. With signing Berkman, having Holliday here, and having (Adam) Wainwright get healthy, this team has a chance to win next year, too.

“I know Albert. He’s a competitor. He wants to win. So I don’t think there’s anywhere else he’d rather be. If it’s truly about winning — and I know it is — I think he’ll end up back here.”

When the season began, there was a credible exit strategy for Pujols: If the Cardinals finished out of the money, and if manager Tony La Russa left for the White Sox or elsewhere, then Pujols could take stock of the situation and say, “Well, maybe it’s time.”

He can’t do that now. The Cardinals are in the World Series for the third time in his illustrious career. La Russa isn’t going to the White Sox, and he’s probably not going anywhere at all. Pujols is hitting in the best lineup in the National League, one that is deeper now with the emergence of NLCS MVP David Freese. As Laird said, this team should be as good — and maybe even better — next year.

In effect, Pujols is running out of good reasons to leave St. Louis. They have surrounded him with enough talent, they have won enough games and they should offer him enough money. But just in case you’re not convinced, scan the field before Pujols’ final Busch Stadium at-bat in this series. It won’t take long to count the number of Texas Rangers asking for time, to prolong Albert’s not-so-final hurrah.

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