Commentary

The market for Pujols and Fielder

How many years? How many millions? And where will the sluggers land?

Updated: November 11, 2011, 12:33 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It isn't every baseball winter that free-agent mashers such as Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder hit the market at the same time -- at the same position, no less.

What you have here is something extraordinary -- something, in fact, that gets more extraordinary the more you think about it.

Albert and Prince are two of only six active players who have hit at least 30 home runs in each of the last five seasons. (More on that in our Triviality section.)

They're also two of just seven active players with at least 200 career homers, a .900 OPS, a .535 slugging percentage and a .389 on-base percentage. And they're the ONLY two players in that group who are younger than 35.

So what are the odds that they'd both be sitting on the shelves of the local Free Agent Supermarket at the very same time? A lot slimmer than the odds of Aaron Miles and Jose Lopez being free agents at the same time. Put it that way.

"I really don't remember anything like this," one longtime baseball executive said this week. "You're talking about two of the best first basemen in the game, out there in the same year. That's very unusual."

OK, that's the good news for those two guys. Now here's the bad news:

"There's only one problem," the same exec said. "They picked the wrong year -- because they don't have the Yankees and the Red Sox, or the Phillies, to jack up their price. And the Mets are on life support."

Hey, it's always something, right? Nobody doubts that Pujols and Fielder are going to be very rich humans by the time next season rolls around. But how rich will they get? Where might they end up? And what are the unique twists and turns their contract deliberations could take? Join with us now as Rumblings and Grumblings takes a look at those very questions:

What's the price tag?

Rumblings surveyed a dozen executives from clubs that are unlikely to participate in this auction and asked them to predict A) how many years and dollars each player would get, and B) what team would give it to them. Here is what we found:

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesAfter two World Series titles, three MVP awards and 445 home runs in 11 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, it'd be hard to imagine Albert Pujols wearing another uniform.

The Pujols prognostications were fascinating. They ranged from 10 years, $300 million to one (mostly tongue-in-cheek) prediction of three years, $90 million. But otherwise, nobody forecast a deal shorter than seven years. And the average contract worked out to 8.5 years, at just over $28 million a year.

If that's how it turns out, Pujols would break Alex Rodriguez's record for highest annual value in any multiyear contract in history. And wiping A-Rod off that line in the books is exactly what Sir Albert and his agent, Dan Lozano, have in mind.

Over in Prince's neighborhood, half of the guesses came in at precisely seven years, $175 million ($25 million a year on the nose). But several of the other predictions came in at $20 million or $21 million a year. So the consensus was that Fielder would end up with a seven-year deal at between $22 million and $23 million a year.

That would leave Prince just south of Mark Teixeira's total contract (eight years, $180 million), the current record for a first baseman. And that's a number Fielder and agent Scott Boras could probably swallow.

But it would also rank him considerably below the $25-million-a-year average annual value of Ryan Howard's five-year extension. And why do we have a feeling Boras is determined to beat Howard's AAV if it takes him all winter? Aw, just a hunch.

Where is Pujols going?

In Albert's case, this was a landslide. All but one of the execs we polled predicted this guy won't even have to bother forwarding his mail -- because he's not going anywhere (except back to St. Louis). But the AL exec who disagreed (and picked the Cubs) made a case worthy of serious reflection.

"I've always had a feeling," he said, "that the people in St. Louis were putting up a front, that, 'We really, really want him back,' but down deep, they wouldn't mind covering their tracks by saying, in the end, that, 'The price just got so high, we couldn't compete.'

"If they were always going to do whatever it took to sign him, I don't think they would have done the [Matt] Holliday deal at the level they did it, or some of these other deals they've done. I think they've been positioning themselves to move on. It just seems to me that if they were always willing to step up and do whatever it took, they already would have stepped up and done it."

Hmmm. Makes you think. Doesn't it? He just might be right that if there's any other team willing to go eight to 10 years, at $28 to 30 million, the Cardinals might very well wave sayonara. But it's too early in the game to know if those teams are out there, only that the buzz in the industry is that the Cubs, Marlins and Rangers are gearing up to make a run at this man.

Are any of those teams -- or others -- ready to allot 25 to 30 percent of the payroll just to Albert? That's what we're about to spend this winter finding out.

Where is Fielder heading?

The Prince predictions in our poll were all over the map -- literally: Texas, Seattle, Baltimore, Washington, South Florida and the North Side of Chicago all got votes. The Rangers wound up as the most popular pick, but with only three votes.

[+] EnlargeTBD
AP Photo/David J. PhillipPrince Fielder, who turns 28 on May 9, has missed only one game in the past three seasons, hitting 116 home runs and driving in 343 runs during that span.

There are legitimate reasons to connect Prince with all those teams. But if Boras and Fielder are on a mission to sign for at least seven years -- which they are, of course -- logic suggests this fellow would almost have to wind up on an American League roster. Wouldn't he?

"Realistically," one agent wondered, "how could a National League team give a guy with a body like that seven or eight years? I think he could get five years at good money from a National League team, but not seven or eight."

One baseball executive echoed those sentiments, and not just because of Prince's svelte physique. The other big factor here: "His genes."

"Even though he's only 27, which is super young for a guy entering free agency, you have to look beyond that," the exec said. "Anybody who cites his age should also look at his dad."

That would be Cecil Fielder, another wide-bodied bopper whose aging pattern could be very instructive for teams looking hard at Prince. Cecil hit 51 homers at age 26 and 44 at age 27 and then never hit 40 again. He also ceased to be a full-time first baseman after 30, never playing more than 80 games in the field in any of his final four seasons. And he was done for good after 34.

"Scott is looking for eight years and $200 million for this guy," said an NL executive. "And if that's the price, he'll be the last guy out there. Maybe, in the end, somebody gives him seven [years] times $25 [million]. But even that's scary."

Other factors

• There's the Battle of the Super-Agents. In one corner, you have Lozano, who could cement his stature as a major force in the agent cosmos by landing a historic contract for Pujols. In the other corner, there's Boras, whose only hope for an eye-popping free-agent deal this winter is a Powerball payout for Fielder. A fun little subplot to watch in these negotiations.

• There's also the Franchise Changer sales pitch. If you're just looking at signing Albert Pujols the baseball player, you might not give this man eight or 10 years at age 32, no matter how great a player he is. But say you're a team like the Marlins, trying to put your franchise on the map as you move into a new ballpark. Or say you're the Dodgers, desperate to restore the luster of the franchise. Then signing The Best Player in Baseball becomes more than just a baseball transaction. "If I was running the Dodgers, I'd sign Albert Pujols in a heartbeat," one veteran agent said. "He could enhance the value of the franchise by $200-250 million. I know that sounds high, but you have to look at the ability to market [the player], the ability to raise prices. The TV contract alone would go up at least 20 percent. This isn't just another player we're talking about. This is Albert Pujols."

• There's the Age Gap factor. OK, so Prince doesn't have Albert's aura. But he's FOUR years younger. So if you sign him, at least you're buying his prime years. You'll be hearing that talk all winter, so get ready. "He's the youngest of the group, and he plays with energy," one NL exec said. "That son of a gun comes to play every day. You can call him fat, or you can call him chunky, or you can call him cakey, but he comes to play. He's quiet. He does his own thing. But he's a producer. And he likes the game. He plays like he likes to play the game. That's a major selling point for the baseball side."

• There's the Front-loaded Contract factor. We keep hearing people ask how a team could even think about paying a player like Pujols $28-30 million a year when he gets into his upper 30s. The answer is: You don't have to. "When I look at Albert, I assume he'll still be great for five more years," one longtime exec said. "So you tell him, 'For five years, we'll make you the highest-paid player in the history of the game.' But if he needs a 10-year deal, then the last five years are going to be at $10 million a year, so if worse comes to worse and you need to cut the guy, you can say, 'At least we're only paying him $10 million a year.' So you front load it. But if he's still Albert Pujols at the back end, it's easy to build in incentives that get him back up to $20-30 million a year. It's really not that complicated."

• And finally, there's the Grass Isn't Greener portion of this equation. It doesn't apply to Fielder because it's a lock he's leaving Milwaukee. But it might be the biggest force of all in the Pujols negotiations. Maybe there's a team out there that will offer Sir Albert more years and dollars than the Cardinals. But there's a value the Cardinals can offer him that can't be measured in money, said the same longtime exec quoted above. For one thing, staying would make Pujols the Stan Musial of this generation. For another, the exec said, "If he stays in St. Louis, he can start to decline and he'll still be revered. If he goes somewhere else, I can guarantee you one thing: He won't be if he declines. So he should stay in St. Louis and not have to worry about the blowback if he starts to show his age and he's not the same player. There are actually many benefits if he stays. But he needs to recognize that if he feels like he needs to go somewhere else for five more cents, there are consequences."

So there sure is a lot for these men -- and the teams chasing them -- to reflect on. Eventually, many dollar bills will change hands. Eventually, they'll both find a home. Eventually, baseball history might very well be made, even if it's only financial history.

But in the meantime, we have two great players out there, preparing to get rich and provide us weeks of offseason entertainment and intrigue. Stuff like this doesn't happen every winter, gang. So settle in for a fun, fun ride on Albert and Prince's free-agent roller coaster.

Ready to Rumble

Manny Ramirez
Ramirez

• How about this for an international incident waiting to happen: Manny Ramirez in Japan? A source with ties to Japanese baseball tells Rumblings that Manny had a Florida tryout for a Japanese team (the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks) a couple of weeks ago, but "it didn't go well." And what was the hang-up? "The Japanese don't like 'baggage' in a player," the source said, "no matter how talented he might be." Wait. Manny has baggage? Never noticed.

• If this labor deal ever gets done, the schedule is about to undergo a dramatic change. We'll be heading for 15 teams in each league, five teams in each of the six divisions and an interleague game every day. But the biggest change could be nearly TWICE as many interleague games, because every team in a division would play exactly the same schedule. Here's the new format we've heard is on the drawing board:

Eighteen games against each of the other four teams in your division; six games against each of the other 10 teams in your league; three interleague games against each of the five teams in the corresponding division in the other league (i.e., AL East versus NL East); three more interleague games against each team in one of the other two divisions (i.e., AL East versus NL Central one year, NL West the next).

three interleague games against two divisions in the other league

Add that up and you get 72 intra-division games, 60 more intra-league games and 30 interleague games a year -- up from the current 15 to 18 interleague games a year. The other net result of that change: Only three "rivalry" games (Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox, etc.) every season instead of six.

Nationals

• Despite all the predictions we've heard that Fielder could eventually wind up in Washington, teams that have spoken with the Nationals report they seem much more focused on finding A) a veteran starting pitcher and B) a center fielder who could lead off. Their center-field expedition could take them in all kinds of directions. But on the pitching front, one exec who spoke with them says he believes that in a perfect world, they'd prefer Mark Buehrle over either C.J. Wilson or Roy Oswalt, the two starters they've been most linked to on the rumor mill. They're not expected to make a big push on Yu Darvish.

• And while we're on the subject of Darvish, the longer he waits to announce he's ready to come to America, the more some teams are beginning to wonder if he's heading this way at all. He still hasn't been posted by his team in Japan, remember. And even that posting just launches a bidding duel among U.S. teams, which is followed by a negotiating period with the player. So even if he's posted tomorrow, interested teams wouldn't know their fate until at least late December. "We're already into free agency," one AL executive said. "So when is he going to post? If he waits much longer, by the time he's ready to negotiate, teams won't have any money to spend."

Marlins

• The Marlins may not have officially announced which free-agent position player ranks No. 1 on their shopping list, but they've already made it fairly clear. Their owner (Jeffrey Loria), president (David Samson) and president for baseball operations (Larry Beinfest) were spotted in a New York hotel bar, meeting with Jose Reyes and his agents just after midnight last Thursday, minutes after the free-agent negotiating period had begun. Any more questions?

Michael Cuddyer isn't the only longtime Twins player the Phillies are pursuing. We're hearing they're also in on Jason Kubel. They've also checked in on Grady Sizemore, but sounds as if they're mostly kicking tires at this point.

• One friend of Jimmy Rollins tells Rumblings he has more than a half-dozen teams interested in him. An educated guess on five of them: Phillies, Cardinals, Brewers, Braves and Giants.

Jair Jurrjens
Jurrjens

• Teams that have spoken with the Braves report they're continuing to "float" Jair Jurrjens' name, even after their potential deal to send him to Kansas City fell through. "They're not really pushing him. They're floating him," said an executive of one team that spoke with them. "The impression we got is they've got to unload money. They want to get a bat, and the only way to do it is to unload money. The one guy they'd move, no problem, is Martin Prado. He seems like he's fallen from grace over there."

• Speaking of Kansas City, teams that have been in touch with the Royals say they're no longer looking to make a deal for a potential top-of-the-rotation starter, now that they've traded for Jonathan Sanchez. At this point, the Royals prefer to hang onto their prospects and fish for back-of-the-rotation options in the free-agent pool. One potential option if they can't re-sign Bruce Chen: Chris Capuano.

• Despite all those rumors about the Red Sox pursuing Cuddyer or Carlos Beltran to play right field, we keep hearing their first order of lineup business is determining whether they can sign David Ortiz. If they bring Ortiz back, they're less likely to pursue a big-name right fielder.

Bud Selig
Selig

• When Bud Selig was asked during the World Series if there was a "mechanism" in place to choose his successor, his wife, Sue, began shaking her head and chuckling out loud. Theoretically, Selig is supposed to be just 13.5 months away from retiring as commissioner. But it's safe to say his wife isn't the only one laughing about the likelihood of that ever happening.

"I think we all know where this is leading," said one of Selig's longtime associates in baseball. "Let me just ask this: If he's really leaving in a year, wouldn't the process have started already? But I haven't heard one word about it. Have you?"

Tweets of the Week

• From Late Show tweeting genius @EricStangel:

MLB says McCourt stole $190 mil from Dodgers, Dodgers say Darren Dreifort & Andruw Jones stole $91 mil from the Dodgers

• From the hilarious Batting Stance Guy (@BattingStanceG), Gar Ryness, on the future of the Dodgers:

You know what no one would see coming? Peter O'Malley buys the Dodgers and moves them back to Brooklyn.

• And finally, here's this bulletin from @MLBFakeRumors:

Occupy Huston Street movement grows to 20 more cities.

Headliner of the Week

And this just in from the headline crawl at the always-irreverent Sportspickle.com:

HOT STOVE QUICKLY TURNED OFF SO CC SABATHIA CAN EAT

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com