With the self-imposed deadline come and gone, it appears that for now, Albert Pujols will play out his contract, and have the option to test free agency come November. The potential suitors who could vie for his services if he actually reaches free agency have been written about ad nauseum, but I think it’s important to look at the actual impact Pujols will have on the game itself.
If He Returns to the Cardinals
If Albert returns to the Cardinals, two things stand out potentially for him. He could be the next great lifetime Cardinal, in the ilk of Stan Musial and Bob Gibson, as famous for being a Cardinal as a great ballplayer. His numbers to this point clearly indicate that he is already a great player, one of the greats of all time in just 10 seasons. But he could also make a run at some of the great Cardinal records, many of which are held by Musial.
The other thing that he could end up being is the player whose contract was the final straw that broke the Cardinals franchise for years to come. Even without a new contract for Pujols, the Cardinals already have committed nearly $50 million to just 4 players. Add a contract that is anticipated to be somewhere between $20 and $30 million, and you’ve now committed between $70 and $80 million to just 5 players. For a team which has not spent over $100 million until this season, getting Pujols under contract could force the payroll into the stratosphere, and potentially tie the hands of the franchise for years to come.
If He Leaves the Cardinals
If Albert were to leave St. Louis, it really comes down to how his departure comes about that will determine his legacy in St. Louis. He is not going to be faulted for taking the best offer, but there is a distinct possibility that he could be viewed poorly if the offer he takes is not substantially better than one that the Cardinals make to him. For example, if he gets a contract for between $30-$32 M AAV, when the Cardinals were offering him a contract that was in the $25-$27 M AAV range, he will probably not be viewed very well in St. Louis.
His destination can also have a major impact on how he is viewed. Cardinals fans will simply never forgive him if he ends up on the North side of Chicago, playing for the hated Cubs. That one team would easily be the worst case scenario for the Cardinals and their fans, more so than even New York or Los Angeles.
Overall, it is going to be interesting to watch the negotiations come November. Two other players can substantially affect the market for Pujols at that time: Prince Fielder and Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzalez is widely expected to sign a contract extension with the Red Sox, but if for some reason that does not occur, the Red Sox could very well become suitors for Albert and drive up the price for the Cardinals. The other player only really has an impact in my opinion if he is traded and signs an extension before the end of the season. Fielder is likely to get a very large contract, and if he is traded it would probably be almost required that he sign an extension prior to hitting free agency. If that were to occur, he would take another suitor off the market for Pujols.