Diehard St. Louis Cardinals fans have not been this anxious about free agency since … well, they’ve never been this anxious about free agency. Their beloved slugger, Albert Pujols, is one Cardinal who will test the free agency market at the conclusion of the 2011 season. Pujols also happens to be one of the greatest all-around first basemen of all time – an irreplaceable figure in the baseball town’s storied history.
The Redbird has spent his entire career within the Cardinals organization, and he is on track to break the remaining St. Louis records he has left standing. The all-time homerun mark is not out of the question. Even so, if Pujols retired tomorrow, Busch Stadium would sport a statue of his iconic batting stance by next Opening Day.
Money is always a factor, however, and No. 5 seems to think the Cardinals tried to lowball him before the beginning of the season, causing him to cut off negotiations until free agency begins. So now the questions fly. Will he resign? Is he committed to St. Louis? Or will he get a Godfather offer from another team and skip town?
I have to admit I have changed my mind on this one. During the season I thought the Cardinals had not shown Pujols the same love the fans had and his eyes were wandering toward greener pastures. Not anymore. I think Pujols wants to stay, and it makes sense for him to stay. Here are the five main reasons I expect Pujols to be in the Cardinals lineup next year:
1. The Cards are winning.
As I sit down to write this, the World Series has not ended and Game 6 and (possibly) Game 7 have not yet been played. Whatever the Series outcome, though, the Cardinals have established their ability to win big games with the current group of players.
This team is winning now. Pujols will not find a team that is better prepared to win a championship; he is already in the World Series. The Cardinals’ executives have carefully crafted a lineup of talented hitters and pitchers around Albert to be successful past this year, which leads to:
2. The team’s future is bright.
With a combination of good defense, veteran hitters and mature players everywhere to be found in the Cardinals’ system right now, it’s easy to be optimistic about the future of baseball in St. Louis. The 2011 season is by no means a last ditch effort for Pujols to get his second World Series ring. With Pujols batting third in an already stacked lineup, and with ace pitcher Adam Wainwright set to come back from injury to add to an already deep staff, fans should have plenty to cheer about for a while in St. Louis.
3. The big spenders don’t need first basemen this year.
You would think every team out there would make the effort to find a place for Pujols, but that’s just not the case. The Yankees and the Red Sox already have tons of dough invested in first basemen. With Prince Fielder set to sign with someone for a little less than what Pujols should bring, there are not too many high rollers actively seeking first basemen. Some have made a half-hearted argument that he could go play for the Cubs, but it’s hard to envision that level of apostasy from the life-long Cardinal. There will be teams in play for Pujols, but St. Louis should offer him enough, based on the demands of the open market this year.
4. Pujols will keep the coaching staff intact.
Not every Cardinals fan likes this, but it needs to happen. Tony LaRussa needs to be the manager of the Cardinals next year. If LaRussa goes, so does his genius pitching coach Dave Duncan and first base coach Dave McKay, who have followed LaRussa around baseball since Little League. The Cards would probably also lose hitting coach Mark McGwire and third base coach Jose Oquendo, fixtures around St. Louis. Replacing Tony LaRussa would not just be about finding a new strategist, it would mean having to hire a whole new coaching staff that may or may not gel with the talented team already in place. Team chemistry is in balance. If Pujols leaves, it’s quite possible team chemistry (in the form of LaRussa’s staff) goes with him.
5. Pujols needs to finish what he started.
Pujols has the opportunity to cement his status as an elite player who is synonymous with a single city. If Pujols leaves for another locale, his inevitable decline over time will not be received as graciously by local fans as it would in St. Louis. Cardinal fans will forever remember a career of accomplishment Pujols brought to the city, and he will be no less immortalized in the twilight of his career as he is now.
The slugger can continue to break records, win playoff games, collect MVP trophies and earn buckets of cash without ever leaving Busch Stadium. At 32, Pujols can decide to finish what he began in a city that loves him and will appreciate him until the end.
Resigning with the Cards is the right move, and I think he’ll do it. Until then, for Cards fans, the wait continues.