Over the next couple of years, we will discover that Albert Pujols is baseball’s LeBron. The biggest name in the game, and the one who will ultimately command the most money, is going to become apparent between now and the end of the 2011 season.
But the Cardinals slugger is in no rush. Currently one year away from the conclusion of a seven-year, $100 million contract signed with St. Louis prior to the 2004 season, Pujols should be eyeing the free-agent market in the hopes of cashing in big in the future. But at the moment, he’s not concerned with it.
“I’m not desperate to sign a contract extension,” Pujols told the Associated Press last week. “I still have a one-year contract in 2010 with a club option for 2011. The rest I leave in God’s hands.”
More likely, it will lie in the hands of 30 general managers desperately chasing the best pure hitter of his generation.
Pujols isn’t going anywhere right away. The Cardinals’ deal with their franchise slugger includes a $16 million club option for the 2011 season, or a $5 million buyout to cut him loose. The Cards’ front office would have to be criminally insane to cut Pujols loose after 2010 — which means he’ll be in St. Louis for another two years.
But then what? Pujols is only 29 — he’ll be 31 when his contract is up in two years. With his unparalleled prowess at the plate, he could keep going strong for another decade. It’s a wonder the Cardinals haven’t tried harder to lock him down for the future.
Throughout his first nine seasons in the major leagues, Pujols has hit over .300 every year. His on-base percentage has topped .400 in seven straight years. For his career, he’s a .334 hitter with 366 home runs to his name. And he’s not even 30 yet.
Pujols has the potential to age very, very well. And if his twenties were this good, one can only imagine how productive he’ll be when he reaches the other side of 30.
It’s hard to put a price tag on that production. But he’ll certainly command a bigger yearly salary than the $22 million that Mark Teixeira‘s making in New York, and he could even surpass the $27 million figure the Yankees are throwing at Alex Rodriguez.
Hall of Fame candidate Mark McGwire, who knows a thing or two about being a high-paid slugger in a Cardinals uniform, even said Thursday that Pujols could be worth “$30 million-plus” when he hits the market.
And yet Pujols himself insists that it isn’t even about money. At least not entirely.
Pujols told ESPN.com last week that while he expects to be paid well, that’s certainly not all he cares about.
“We have not sat down to talk about contracts yet,” Pujols said. “Last week, the GM [John Mozeliak] called me, and I told them to talk to my lawyer. But I reiterate that money is not everything — it’s better to have a competitive team that can go to the postseason.”
So for the Cardinals, or any other team that wants to secure his services for the second decade of his career, the challenge becomes twofold. You have to show him the money — but you also have to show him your commitment to money.
The Cardinals have been on an upswing recently. After a pair of 100-win seasons in 2004 and ’05 and World Series glory in 2006, the Cards finally got back to the playoffs this season, winning 91 games and the NL Central. They were driven not just by big bats, but by a stellar starting rotation headlined by Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.
If the nucleus currently in place can keep winning, it will go a long way toward proving that St. Louis should be Albert Pujols’ home for the long haul.