Albert Pujols has been the best player in baseball for the better part of the past decade and appeared to be hitting the free agent market at the perfect time this fall. The all-star first baseman just led the Cardinals to their second World Series championship during his tenure in St. Louis, becoming just the third player to blast three home runs in a World Series game in the process in Game 3 against the Rangers.
So, why do there appear to be so few teams vying for his services?
The truth is, in many ways, the timing of Pujols’ free agency couldn’t have been worse. There are usually at most 10 to 12 teams that have the resources to match or exceed the nine year, $200 million offer the Dominican slugger turned down from the Cardinals during last spring training. However, due to lack of need or finances, many of those teams simply aren’t interested.
The first rule of baseball free agency is to try and involve the Yankees in the negotiations. The Steinbrenner clan is often willing to pay way over market rate to get their man (See Alex Rodriguez and C.C. Sabathia). Typically, even if a player has no interest in donning the Pinstripes, he can count on the Yankees upping the ante for other teams interested in his services.
The problem is the Yankees have one of the best all around first basemen in baseball, Mark Teixeira, locked up to a long term deal. Teix is too good in the field to move to DH in order to make room for Pujols and even if Pujols were willing to DH for the Yankees, which is unlikely, the Yanks want to keep the DH spot available for the aging left side of their infield, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. The team’s primary concern is beefing up a shallow starting rotation, not adding a big bat.
The team usually vying with the Yankees for elite talent on the market, their arch rival, the Boston Red Sox, are set at first base as well, having locked up Adrian Gonzalez through 2018. They too are focused on adding a couple of arms to a patchwork rotation which fell apart this past September.
Two big market teams that are usually willing to throw around big dollars have fallen on hard times financially. New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon is embroiled in a lawsuit stemming from the Bernie Madoff scandal and is reluctant to spend an exorbitant amount of money before that matter is resolved. He just let the team’s best player Jose Reyes sign with the division rival Miami Marlins. Even if Wilpon were willing to dish out the cash, the Mets are several players away from being serious contenders and appear to be in rebuilding mode, a situation which doesn’t appeal to Pujols.
The Dodgers, another historically high spending team are in complete turmoil. Contentious divorce proceedings caused owner Frank McCourt to file for bankruptcy and led Major League Baseball to compel him to sell the team. Despite the uncertainty of the situation, the team recently re-signed five-tool centerfielder Matt Kemp to an eight year $160 deal, but don’t expect them to extend another contract offer of that magnitude before a new owner is on board and by that time Pujols will have signed elsewhere.
Other big market teams, such as the Phillies and White Sox are set at first base, with Ryan Howard and Paul Konerko. The Angels’ Mark Trumbo led rookies in home runs and RBIs this past season and the team anticipates the return of Kendry Morales from knee surgery. They have more pressing needs to address than first base, specifically, the left side of their infield.
All of these circumstances have left the game’s best player flirting with the Miami Marlins and visiting with the Toronto Blue Jays, in an attempt to gain leverage in negotiations with the Cardinals. The Chicago Cubs have long been considered a potential suitor for the three-time MVP winner, though their interest has only been lukewarm to this point.
It’s questionable whether Pujols would even be willing to play for a rebuilding team like the Cubs and Chicago’s new General Manager Theo Epstein will certainly take into consideration another factor which is working against Pujols, his age. Prince Albert turns 32 in January, which may have meant nothing during the steroid era, but with more stringent drug testing in place, even the best conditioned players are slowing down in their mid to late 30s.
Prospective suitors need look no further than Alex Rodriguez. In 2007, at the age of 31, the Yankees third baseman hit 54 home runs and drove in 156 runs on the way to his third MVP award. After that season the Yankees signed him to an outrageous $270 million, 10 year deal.
Since then he hasn’t played more than 137 games or hit over 30 home runs in any of the past three seasons. The Yankees are stuck paying him $27 million a year (possibly more if he breaks the home run record) through the age of 42. Teams are understandably wary of making the same mistake with Pujols.
The few teams that have an opening and the means to sign a first baseman of or near Pujols stature also have the luxury of a younger and cheaper alternative in Prince Fielder. Cecil’s son is only 27 years-old and his numbers were very similar to Pujols last season. He’d make a nice consolation prize for the Cubs or Cardinals, which places less pressure on them to increase their offers for Pujols. The Orioles, Mariners and his former team, the Brewers, have expressed interest in Fielder.
Baseball’s winter meetings began yesterday in Dallas and as the hot stove heats up, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a couple of other teams like the Rangers or Nationals throw their hat in the ring with a serious offer to Pujols. However, as of now, the greatest player in the game is garnering minimal interest on the free agent market. He may have to settle for the nine year, $200 million deal the Cardinals offered him last spring.