St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols yells at first base umpire Dan Bellino after Chicago Cubs' Kosuke Fukudome scored on a throwing error by St. Louis Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson in the third inning during a baseball game in Chicago, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2010.

While the 2010-11 baseball hot stove season may not be closed out as of yet with still some big name but older free agents out there, it’s time to take a look at the possible big fish for 2012.  That would be one, Albert Pujols currently of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Pujols is on record of telling the Cardinals that he will not negotiate contract extension during the 2011 season as he just wants to concentrate on baseball.  He says if he is not signed by the start of spring training he will become a free agent at season’s end.  So in a little less than three weeks from now St. Louis fans could be preparing themselves to see Sir Albert walk away. 

Could the Cardinals really lose the best player in baseball?

It appears that St. Louis management has basically been given a drop dead date of February 18th.  It is rumored that Pujols wants Alex Rodriguez-type dollars.  A-Rod’s last deal signed after the 2007 season was for 10 years and $275 million plus different incentives based on his milestone numbers and awards that push the potential value of the deal well past $300 million if they are all achieved.  Insiders say that while the Cardinals brass and Albert and his reps have always gotten along word is that things may not be so cozy behind closed doors and chances are slim of the Cards getting an extension beyond February 18th.

So this leaves St. Louis with three options:

  1. Sign Pujols in the next few weeks and break the bank for the Player of the Decade.
  2. Look to trade him during the season before the deadline, hoping to get one good player and prospects in return.
  3. Ride the season out and see if you can hang with the big boys in the free agent market.

While most baseball “experts” and talking heads will try to tell you (they’ve already started by the way) that the Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies are already all set at first base and have no interest in Pujols, do not believe it.  You are not going to try to sneak the best player in the game by these three teams without them trying to at least kick the tires.

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Most people also forget that even though Pujols is a first baseman now, earlier in his career he was a jack of all trades.  When he first came to the majors in 2001 he played third base, left field, right field and DH in addition to first.  And he did this until he became the Cards everyday first baseman in 2004.  In fact in 20003 he played 113 games in left field to 62 at first base (I’m sure there were games where he played both positions at some time that’s why the numbers don’t add up).  He’s only 31, he is definitely not too old to play a corner outfield spot and get some DH time with an American League club.

With that in mind I fully expect the following to happen if Pujols gets to free agency after the 2011 season:

  1. Philadelphia will look at him but after sinking all that money into the rotation, Howard, Utley and Rollins there’s no way they’ll pay Pujols $30 million a year.  I don’t think they can over extend themselves that much but they will be in on the bidding, just to drive up the final numbers.
  2. New York, the Yankees not the Mets, will be in on this.  Who would you rather have Nick Swisher patrolling right field or Albert Pujols?  Do you want an aging Jorge Posada as your DH or Pujols?  Hank and Hal have already proved to have the crazy Steinbrenner gene.  They, not GM Brian Cashman, gave ARod that contract that’s killing them; they also gave the go ahead to sign Raphael Soriano when Cashman didn’t want to lose the draft pick.  They will be in the bidding long and hard especially after the Cliff Lee embarrassment.  On one side will be Hank and Hal wearing their spinning propelling beanies, sucking on giant lollipops looking to spend their inheritance on the newest shiny toy.  While Cashman sits across the table preaching patience and talking up the growing farm system.  It will once again be ugly for the Yankee family; it will once again make it to the press and this time no matter how it end’s it will send Cashman running from the Bronx.
  3. Boston will bid on Pujols. Theo and the Trio much like the Phils and Yanks will not this one pass regardless of how well put they seem to be. But unlike the other two teams talks will be quiet and secret making Sox fans and Boston media want to scream for lack of news.  It’s how Theo operates.  Covertly, discreetly in the dark shadows and amongst the bodies of the teams who have failed. There are two teams out there who can pay Pujols $30 a year or more.  They are the Yankees and the Red Sox.  But the difference between them is that Boston while still being loaded is clearing a whopping $61 million off the payroll from 2011.  Gone are the big contracts of David Ortiz, Jonathan Papelbon, J.D. Drew, Mike Cameron, Jason Varitek, Hideki Okajima and Marco Scutaro (dual option for 2012).

If the Red Sox don’t re-sign Drew and Ortiz the lineup needs a power bat in one of those spots and a right handed one to boot.  Pujols could easily be moved to right field with some occasional at bats at DH, while you find a veteran bat to be the everyday DH.  I’ve said if before, I’ll say it again even if they give Albert $30 million a year there’s still plenty of money to come off the books to allow them to get a DH, maybe re-sign Ortiz for a year or two, and add to the bullpen and strengthen their catching.

Theo and his baseball bunch are brilliant at working these things out.  I’d love to see them win over Pujols with how they do business and with the product they have on the field.  It is a reality if he gets to free agency.

In the end I feel Pujols wants to stay in St. Louis badly but if given the opportunity to see what else is out there he may get overwhelmed.  St. Louis and Boston are baseball towns, the fans love their teams.  I think Albert would see a parallel and could be persuaded to come to Boston.

If he leaves, St. Louis will not be a good place to be.

Follow Steve on Twitter @djstevem

Photo credit: AP Photo