- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Although discussions between team officials and agent Dan Lozano are in the early stages, the Cubs appear poised to join the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins in an active pursuit of Pujols, a nine-time All-Star who hit the free-agent market in October.
The Cubs' overtures to Pujols come amid speculation that they also have interest in former Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder. The speculation was ratcheted up a notch last week when the team hired former Brewers coach Dale Sveum as its new manager.
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have been busy with the managerial hire and other front offices moves but are expected to begin addressing the free-agent and trade markets in earnest in advance of the MLB winter meetings next week in Dallas.
Pujols and Fielder are the two biggest names in a relatively thin free-agent market, and Lozano and Fielder's agent, Scott Boras, will be front and center at the Dallas meetings. Boras has prepared an extensive, eight-section binder on Fielder that proclaims him as "Historically Great Through Age 27," and distributed it to interested teams.
Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said Tuesday that the decision on big-name free agents is Epstein's.
"Like I've always said, there is one person responsible for making those decisions, and one person accountable for those results," he said to reporters. "So if (Epstein) believes strongly that's what's in the best interests of the team, then he's got my support."
The Texas Rangers also have been mentioned as a potential landing site for Pujols or Fielder, although club president Nolan Ryan said recently that the team is more likely to stick with Mitch Moreland at first base and upgrade in other areas. "Making a seven-or-eight year deal for Fielder or Pujols is not something our organization is prepared to do. I very much expect Mitch Moreland to be our first baseman next year," Ryan told reporters three weeks ago.
The Washington Nationals are reportedly a suitor for Fielder, and GM Mike Rizzo and Boras have a long history of productive negotiations. But Rizzo has made it clear that he wants to upgrade the team's starting rotation and center field spot, and he might find it a challenge to squeeze Fielder into the team's budget in 2012 and beyond.
Pujols, who turns 32 in January, rebounded from a slow start and a midseason wrist injury to hit .299 with 37 homers and 99 RBIs this season. He also tied a record shared by Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson with three home runs in Game 3 of the World Series.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa retired after the season. One baseball source said that while Pujols was "surprised" by the team's decision to replace La Russa with Mike Matheny, who has never managed at any level, Pujols likes and respects Matheny personally. The Matheny hiring is not expected to play a major role in Pujols' decision to re-sign with the Cardinals or leave St. Louis.
St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak met with Lozano during the recent GM meetings in Milwaukee and told reporters, "Our goal is to try to find a way to keep Albert Pujols, and that's what we'll focus on as we move forward."
Epstein and Hoyer have a busy agenda as they try to reshape a Cubs team that finished fourth in the National League Central division with a 71-91 record last season. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez is a free agent and won't return to Chicago, and management is saddled with the big contracts of pitcher Carlos Zambrano and outfielder Alfonso Soriano. If the Cubs don't sign Pujols or Fielder, they have the option of doing a one-year deal with incumbent first baseman Carlos Pena, who hit .225 with 28 home runs in 153 games last season. Pena also is a Boras client.
There's also an ancillary benefit for Epstein and Hoyer in pursuing Pujols: Even if the Cubs don't sign him, they could help drive up the price for St. Louis. The Cardinals offered Pujols a nine-year deal in the spring, but sources said the proposal fell slightly short of $200 million total.
Miami also has offered Pujols a nine-year deal, baseball sources have confirmed. Although reports of the Marlins' proposed contract vary, the team expressed its interest by bringing in Pujols for a ballpark tour earlier this month. Free agent shortstop Jose Reyes and pitchers Mark Buehrle and C.J. Wilson also have toured the Marlins' new stadium and received contract offers from the club.
Senior writer Jerry Crasnick covers MLB for ESPN.com. Information from ESPNChicago.com's Bruce Levine was used in this report.
12hRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com