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Sunday, February 13, 2011
Could 'Mystery Team' tempt Pujols?

By Craig Brown

Tick, tick, tick …

The sound of another edition of “60 Minutes"? Hardly. How about the countdown on the deadline for the Cardinals to sign Albert Pujols to a contract extension. As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, Pujols has set a deadline of the beginning of spring training for the sides to come to an agreement, or he will play out the 2011 season and hit the free-agent market at season’s end.

Albert Pujols
St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols can become a free agent after the coming season.
With the Cardinals pitchers and catchers reporting to Jupiter today, and Pujols due to report on Wednesday, the pressure is on both sides to reach an agreement. What’s adding to the pressure is the fact the Cardinals aren’t exactly sure where the deadline falls. Is it today? Is it Wednesday? Is it arbitrary and able to change at a moment’s notice?

This is one of those negotiations where you want to grab a box of popcorn. The next couple of days should be some kind of fun.

Jason Rosenberg did an excellent job detailing the potential suitors should Pujols enter the market next winter, narrowing the list down to the usual suspects -- including the Red Sox, Yankees, Angels and Cubs. Of course, there could be a Mystery Team. You know the Mystery Team. They’re always lurking, ready to strike when you least expect it. A team cloaked in secrecy, shrouded in inscrutability, and covered in question marks. Yet chock full of stealth, and with it’s pockets lined with cold, hard cash.

According to Jeff Gordon from STLtoday, that mystery team could be in the same state as the Cardinals.
“But wouldn’t the Royals offer the ultimate free-agency option for Pujols?

Kansas City is home for Albert and Dee Dee, to a significant degree. That is where they met. That is where Pujols played high school and college ball. It's where he worked with his hitting/training mentor to become the machine that he is.

The Royals are loaded with prospects that player development experts love. They have Tampa Bay Rays-like potential, with plenty of big arms and big bats on the way.

That team has significant money committed to just one player beyond 2011, Billy Butler. The Royals loaded up with veterans on one-year deals this season, including pitcher Jeff Francis and outfielder Jeff Francoeur.

They possess maximum payroll flexibility for 2012. More than most franchises, the Royals can afford to spend $30 million (or more) per season for one hitter.”

Gordon pretty much speaks the truth. Yes, Pujols spent his formative years in the Kansas City area. Yes, the Royals system is loaded. Yes, the Royals have a number of players on one-year contracts. And yes, the Royals have payroll flexibility for 2012 and beyond.

But can the Royals afford to spend $30 million for one player?

As Jason pointed out in his post, committing more than a quarter of your payroll for one player isn’t just bad business, it’s potentially franchise crippling. As such, for a $30 million player to fit, the team must operate with a payroll north of $120 million.

The Royals Opening Day payroll in 2010 was a franchise record $74.9 million. Take the 25th man off the Royals roster -- say Mitch Maier and his $415,000 salary -- and replace him with Pujols and his $30 million, and you’re looking at the first baseman gobbling up roughly 29 percent of the payroll. It’s not the 25 percent that seems to be the accepted amount, but it’s close. Maybe that’s not a killer. Maybe that’s doable.

However, that was last season. After a couple of years of escalating payroll, the Royals have sliced and diced costs in an effort to prepare for what some have termed Project 2012 -- when the majority of the team’s pool of young talent is slated to reach the majors. After dealing Zack Greinke to the Brewers and getting the $12 million gift that was the Gil Meche retirement, the Royals are looking at an Opening Day payroll that will be in the neighborhood of $35 million.

To look at it another way, the Royals Opening Day payroll will be just $5 million more than Pujols is seeking for his next contract.

The Royals diminished payroll for the upcoming season is all part of The Process. With the Royals’ system flush with talent in the minors, the Royals have a unique situation in which they will be able to either complement their young players with some major league free agents, or they have the flexibility to lock in those young players to club-friendly, long-term contracts. You can never say never, especially when it comes to the actions of Dayton Moore at the major-league level, but it’s highly unlikely Moore will squander his flexibility with a single contract. After all, Moore has been fairly vocal about how he has gotten the Royals to this point regarding payroll, and how he plans to maintain the flexibility. Of course, he also once said he valued on-base percentage …

(Quick aside: Time for a perspective check from one Royals fan …

Pujols? Why do we need Pujols? We have Billy Butler, who can rake. Kila Ki’ahuie is a monster who is going to set the baseball universe on its axis and will undoubtedly start a streak of 10 consecutive All-Star Game appearances this summer. And then Eric Hosmer has the best looking swing in the history of whatever and will be ready for the majors in 2012.

Honestly, tell me where Pujols fits. I just don’t see it.

Ummmm … Yeah. That was fun. Perspective check over.)

While the thought of Pujols driving west on I-70 might be enough to cause heartburn on the Hill in St. Louis, and while Pujols might feel the pull of his hometown should he hit the open market, Kansas City won’t be a player in the Pujols Sweepstakes.

Craig Brown writes for the Royals blog, Royals Authority and about fantasy baseball for Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on Twitter.