The big risk for the Cardinals—and the biggest fear for Cardinal nation—is that they cannot reach a deal to re-sign Albert Pujols before his self-imposed deadline next week. Although they might decide to extend negotiations through spring training, I think that Albert wants to test the free-agent market. This is not automatically the end of the world for the Cardinals, however. As we saw with the Matt Holliday deal last year, free agency is not an automatic ticket out of the Gateway City.
FEAR #1: Pujols signs with a big-market team. Five years ago, this was a legitimate concern. But who out there has $30 million dollars to spend? The Yankees? They're already paying A-Rod, Jeter and Texiera a ton of money; can even their payroll afford that kind of money? The Red Sox have already shown a willingness to pass up huge long-term contracts on older players. I hear the Angels mentioned a lot, and that might be likely, but how happy would Albert be in the American League?
FEAR #2: Pujols signs with the Cubs. Please. Albert said he wants to be on a team that contends. He also said he wants to be the Cardinals successor to Stan Musial. The Man would never have played for the Cubs. Going to the Cubs, for any reason, would destroy Pujols' reputation in St. Louis. Plus, the chances of the Cubs seriously contending for a World Series title, even with Pujols, are just laughable.
FEAR #3: Small-market club throws big money to change their fortunes. Kansas City has been mentioned along with a few other teams. But the reality of these situations is that in order to sign Pujols, they would have to sacrifice pitching salary, which rules out competing for a title. Look at last season—the Giants and the Rangers made it to the Fall Classic on great pitching, not on the back of a single big-time slugger. Even McGwire and Bonds in their PED primes didn't carry a substandard team to a championship.
While it is conceivable that one of these scenarios could come to pass, what's more likely is that Albert will still find the best deal for the rest of his career in St. Louis. But why should Cards management handcuff themselves to one of the situations described above? Why should they limit or even eliminate their ability to keep a competitive pitching staff and sign other young talent because all their money is tied up with an aging and possibly injured superstar?
So what's the solution? If Pujols won't sign for any less than $300 million over 10 years, the Cardinals will take their chances as a free-agent bidder. What should they offer now, then? Well, he should make more than Ryan Howard, so let's say $29 million a year. What about time? Sign him for eight years until he's 40, then give him the option for year nine, then make it a club option for year 10. Load up the last 2-4 years with performance incentives that could raise the actual value of the contract to $300 million. Is this going to happen? Nobody really knows but Albert.