Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes, C.J. Wilson, Jonathan Papelbon, Carlos Beltran, and David Ortiz. But none of these stars shine as bright or will be more coveted than Albert Pujols. The three time NL MVP is unquestionably the game's most productive hitter of the new millenium, but the soon to be 32 year old just finished his worst season of his career (monster postseason notwithstanding). After a tumultuous offseason in which the Cardinals and Pujols seemed worlds apart in contract negotiations (Pujols turned down a 9 year, $200 million offer), Phat Albert failed to hit .300 and knock in 100 runs for the first time while also setting career lows in hits, doubles, walks, OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+ and total bases (he also had the dubious distinction of leading the Senior Circuit in double plays grounded into, which he also accomplished in the other worst season of his career-2007).
2011 was clearly not the kind of Adrian Beltre walk-year Pujols wanted to have for leverage at the bargaining table, instead leading many to question whether he has entered the decline phase of his career. He's in a similar situation to the one Derek Jeter was in last winter, minus the advanced age and positional difference, who skidded into free agency after completing a long term deal and ultimately handstrung the Yankees to grossly overpay him during the twilight of his career. Pujols may end up doing the same, especially if he commands the Alex Rodriguez kind of money that New York will still be paying after the next two presidential elections.
But A-Rod is another good comparison for Pujols, since both were widely regarded as the premier player in baseball and hit the market prior to their age 32 seasons. The difference, of course, is that pre-steroid revelation Rodriguez enjoyed a banner year in the Bronx with 143 runs, 54 big flies, 156 RBI, a 1.067 OPS and countless clutch hits while manning the hot corner. He opted out, and no one could afford the kind of money he was looking for, but the Steinbrenner boys handed him a 10 year, $275 million dollar contract with an additional $30 million in home run milestone incentives. A-Rod hasn't been the same player since, and New York will have to eat every penny as he continues to break down over the next six seasons.
No one seems capable of affording a Rodriguez contract combining length and annual salary, especially since the Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies are all set at first base for years to come with Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Teixeira and Ryan Howard. After making half as much as Rodriguez during the prime cut of his career, Pujols deserves a massive pay raise but will likely have to settle for a shorter term deal with a higher annual salary (say six or seven years, 200 mil) especially since teams are becoming more cautious about signing players in their thirties to long term deals (unless you're the Nationals and want Jayson Werth at all costs). Having a World Series winning team should help the organization persuade their superstar to return, but new rings didn't stop Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Johnny Damon, and Hideki Matsui from moving on in the recent past.
But Prince Albert should stay put in St. Louis. Here's why:
1. The Machine has built up a lot of good will in St. Louis, where he's the most popular everyday player since Stan "The Man" Musial. He took over the reins from Mark McGwire, became the face of the franchise, and helped bring a pair of World Series titles to a hungry baseball fanbase. He's done some special things for that town, and while I'm not saying Cardinal fans will start burning his jerseys and give him the LeBron James treatment, a heartbreaking departure (especially if he goes to the rival Cubs) after long, drawn out negotiations would leave a sour taste in the city's mouth. We already saw how last winter's failed contract negotiations stained his otherwise perfect resume, and skipping town would make him just like every other heartless mercenary ballplayer who followed the money. In the free agent era, spending an entire career with one team is incredibly rare (off the top of my head I can't think of any active players besides Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Todd Helton who have played careers of at least 15 seasons for just one franchise), so staying in St. Louis would just make his historic career even more unique.
2. With a trophy case overflowing with MVPs, Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers and All-Star nods, Pujols' focus should be on winning more titles, and the 2011 champs have a great chance to repeat next year, assuming Adam Wainwright returns to health and Lance Berkman doesn't completely fall apart/stop exercising and report to spring training thirty pounds heavier. The Brewers will be tough, even if they lose Fielder, and the Cubs could bounce back under Theo Epstein's guidance, but you have to give the Cards credit for surviving the loss of Wainwright and down years from Pujols, Chris Carpenter, and Matt Holliday. David Freese and Allen Craig appear primed for breakout seasons in 2012, and if Edwin Jackson returns he can solidify the front three of Wainwright, Carp, and Jaime Garcia. Not sure how the team will adapt to a new skipper now that Tony LaRussa retired, but at least the guys in the bullpen can stop pulling their hair out. St. Louis has reached the postseason in seven of the past eleven seasons and won more games in October than any other team over that span, and as we see every year once you get in anything can happen. Pujols should return to help defend the crown.
3. It's the right thing to do. I know it sounds corny, but he's already made over $100 million from player salaries alone, and the Cardinals have surrounded him with talent. What more could you ask for from a midmarket team playing in the Heart of America? Based on their payroll, it's just unreasonable for him to expect A-Rod money from them. They're not the Yankees, but no one is and they shouldn't have to pay the price for that.