Perception is the key to all leverage and in the case of the Chicago Cubs' interest in free agents Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the perception that they are interested in both players should help them hone in on the one they really want.
Having the Cubs as a possible suitor for both star first basemen allows the agents for both players to have a big market like Chicago help boost the price of the contract. Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said president of baseball operations Theo Epstein has the go-ahead to sign a free agent mega deal if Epstein believes that is the way to go.
"Like I've always said there is only one person making those decisions [Epstein] and one person accountable for those results so if he feels strongly that is in the best interest of the team he has my full support," Ricketts said Tuesday.
If Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer are truly interested in Pujols and Fielder then using one agent against the other is probably a pretty sound strategy. The Cubs, who were planning to rebuild the franchises by spending big money in the amateur draft, have been stymied by the new Major League Baseball collective bargaining agreement with the players association. The pool of money for the draft will be controlled and taxed heavily if a team goes over their cap.
That new process alone may have changed the Cubs' plan of attack over the next five years.
Scott Boras, Fielder's agent, had a meeting with Epstein and Hoyer at the general managers meetings on Nov. 15 in Milwaukee. Boras' clients also include Cubs free agent first baseman Carlos Pena. When Boras was asked about Fielder and the Cubs he didn't back away from the fact that Fielder has hit well at Wrigley Field in his career.
The perception that the Cubs would pursue Pujols would also give them a chance to make life miserable for their top rival, the St. Louis Cardinals. Reports have the Cardinals still having a long-term offer on the table for Pujols. The Cubs would like nothing more than to drive up the price for Pujols and ultimately get him out of the league or at least the National League Central.
"We never talk about free agent players," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "As I stated in the past, we are a major market team and we will be involved across the spectrum. So I'm not going to address if we are on or off individual players. We've been in contact with a lot of different teams and a lot of agents and we're doing everything we can to improve the team now and in the future."
In comparing the two players, the only areas that Pujols is superior is defense and batting average. At 27, Fielder is a building block Epstein and Co. can build around. Pujols, at age 32, doesn't seem like a fit for the Cubs.
The Cardinals have $80 million committed to nine players for their 2012 payroll. Pujols' price tag alone would bring it to $105 million to $110 million for next year. The Cubs have $60 million coming off the books, and the perception is they could fit a big-ticket player such as Pujols or Fielder into their budget.
The Cubs have $70 million committed to seven players for 2012. Matt Garza, Randy Wells, Geovany Soto and Jeff Baker are arbitration eligible and could bring that figure up to $90 million for 11 players.
Originally the Cubs were going to spend most of their baseball budget on the draft. But now with the new CBA, Pujols and Fielder may be at the forefront of their plans for the future.