Commentary

Clock ticking on Albert Pujols, Cards

Bask in the title glow while it lasts, because free agency is fast approaching

Updated: October 29, 2011, 11:13 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- At exactly 10:22 local time Friday night, when David Murphy's fly ball settled into the webbing of left fielder Allen Craig's glove and the St. Louis Cardinals had won the World Series, a different kind of clock began ticking.

The free-agent clock. And wearing the biggest wristwatch is none other than Albert Pujols.

Moments after the final out of the Cardinals' 6-2, Game 7 win against the Texas Rangers, Pujols looked toward the sky and pointed upward. He then dropped to a knee, as if to say a brief prayer, jumped in the air, ran across the infield and enveloped little Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal in a bearhug near the mound.

Cardinals fans are praying too. Praying that the 31-year-old Pujols, the goateed face and indispensible centerpiece of this franchise for the better part of 11 seasons, returns to St. Louis for a 12th year -- and much, much longer.

With him, the Cardinals have won two world championships and played for a third. Without him -- well, nobody here wants to imagine what that would be like.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesWow, indeed. Albert Pujols willl probably make a few headlines himself this offseason.

"The Cardinals have to do something," teammate Octavio Dotel said over the postgame din of the Busch Stadium crowd. "They cannot let Albert go. Nothing against the Cardinals, but if they let Albert go, it's not going to be the same thing."

And Dotel has only been a Cardinal since a late July trade brought him to St. Louis. First base coach Dave McKay has been here for 16 seasons, long enough to see the full impact of Pujols on the franchise.

"I would love to see him stay," McKay said. "Everybody would love to see him stay. It would break my heart if he went someplace else. But that's the business side of things. This is where he belongs."

McKay is right. In a perfect world, Pujols would begin and end his career in a Cardinals uniform. But big league baseball is a cold-hearted business dressed in World Series bunting, ceremonial first pitches and $8.75 ballpark beers. It is played with bats and balls, but played under the unflinching eyes of accountants and payroll conscious management.

That's why the reign of Pujols as a Cardinal -- as the Cardinal during most of these past 11 years -- could be at an end.

If it happens, Cardinals ownership should be ashamed of itself. It simply can't afford not to re-sign Pujols.

"You don't like to think about that, particularly in a moment like this," Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. said shortly after the trophy presentation. "It's the system we have and, if free agency is here in a few days, I know he'll test the market. But having said that, we'd obviously love to keep him for the rest of his career and try to keep this great run going."

Pujols isn't just going to test the market. He's going to dive in and do laps around the free-agent pool. He has earned the right to do exactly that.

After watching the Rangers' Michael Young -- a DH playing first base -- have his share of defensive problems, can you imagine Pujols in a Texas uni and batting third or fourth in that lineup? The Rangers, under general manager Jon Daniels and team president Nolan Ryan, have been daring and financially creative when it comes to free-agent moves.

The Washington Nationals have money and aren't afraid to spend it. The prevailing wisdom is that the Nationals would top whatever offer the Cardinals make.

The Chicago Cubs have a new president of baseball operations (Theo Epstein) and a new GM (Jed Hoyer). Just think if the Cardinals' rivals money-whipped Pujols into Cubbie blue.

Come back. Let's try to do this thing again.

-- Lance Berkman

In short, can you conceive of a Cardinals world in which Pujols isn't a resident?

"I'm going to try not to," Cards GM John Mozeliak said. "That day will come when we have to work on that and we'll address it this offseason. But I think tonight is about 25 players who pulled together and pulled in one direction."

But one of those players -- the Cardinals' best player -- could be going another direction.

Relatively speaking, Pujols has been a baseball bargain. Not once during a career that has included three league MVP awards, nine All-Star Games, two Gold Gloves and those two World Series championships has Pujols ever been in the top 15 in annual salary. According to the USA Today salary database, only once has he cracked the top 25 -- 2006, when his $14 million salary was tied for 17th-highest in MLB.

He earned $16 million this season. Teammate Matt Holliday received $17 million and is on the books for $17 million for each of the next five years.

Jon Heyman of SI.com floated an agent-sourced wish-list figure of six years, $240 million for Pujols' next contract. Last offseason the Cardinals reportedly offered Pujols a nine-year deal worth somewhere between $195 million and $200 million. That's not a gap, that's a canyon.

Spending more doesn't guarantee a thing. The Chicago White Sox won the World Series in 2005, increased their payroll by about $27 million and didn't reach the postseason in 2006.

The Cardinals won it all in 2006, bumped up their payroll by a couple of million in 2007 and failed to reach the playoffs.

The Philadelphia Phillies increased their payroll by nearly $18 million after winning the Series in 2008, but couldn't go back-to-back.

Same thing for the New York Yankees in 2010, whose $213 million payroll was $12 million more than in 2009. They were beaten in the American League Championship Series.

And the San Francisco Giants won the 2010 World Series with a $96 million payroll but couldn't reach this year's playoffs with a $118 million payroll.

But in many ways, Pujols' worth, especially in St. Louis, transcends conventional measurements. He's the all-time leader in home runs and RBIs for a player in his first 11 seasons. He's either second or third all time in every meaningful Cardinals offensive category.

One baseball executive told me Friday evening that if he were the Cardinals, he'd offer a five-year deal that started at $25 million per season. You'll hear other baseball people say an eight- or nine-year deal worth between $26 million and $28 million annually would be enough to keep Pujols a Cardinal.

But if, say, the Nationals came in with a 10-year, $300 million offer?

This isn't all on the Cardinals, of course. In many ways Pujols has to decide if he wants to be a big statue or a little statue. There's a difference in St. Louis.

Stan Musial spent his entire 22-season career in a Cardinals uniform, became a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee and ranks in front of the Arch in popularity. Stan The Man has a big statue in front of Busch Stadium.

The rest of the Cardinals' greats have little statues at Busch. If Pujols left, he'd join them.

"Listen, I'm going to be prayerful about it," Pujols said about his free-agency options. "Whatever decision I make hopefully is the best decision I make for my family and the fans and everybody. … But to talk about my contract right now, that's the last thing that I'm thinking about."

It wasn't the last thing on teammate Lance Berkman's mind. After the Game 7 victory, Berkman told Pujols, "Come back. Let's try to do this thing again."

Pujols' response?

"He just laughed," Berkman said. "He's not thinking about that right now, and he shouldn't be."

Pujols won't talk about his future. And until the Cardinals won this Series, manager Tony La Russa wouldn't address the topic either. But, said La Russa late Friday night, "The season is over and now it's time to start talking about it. [Cardinals ownership is] going to try and make it work, and we'll see if it can work or not. … [T]he organization is going to try to keep him here and Albert wants to stay here and, best effort, we'll see if it comes off or not."

Nothing against any other suitor, but Pujols in another team's uniform offends the senses. The Cardinals have to find a way to make this work. "He's St. Louis," McKay said. "He is St. Louis."

But I reminded the Cardinals coach that there's only one big statue outside Busch Stadium.

"I'll tell you what," he said, "if he sticks around, there might be two."

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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