The Cardinals might need to get creative not with Albert Pujols to get the game's best player under contract as much as they need to get creative with his supporting cast.
I don't understand all the hand wringing about how much Albert is going to get. Unlike the Matt Holliday negotiations when you're bidding against unseen competing offers, the Cardinals can rest assured that their contract offer is going to have to be at least as much as Philadelphia first baseman Ryan Howard's deal that averages $25 million a season over five years. And, if the Birds are to be taken at their word, they can't match the nearly $30 million average of Alex Rodriguez's Yankee contract or its length of 10 years.
Albert's deal is going to have to be somewhere between those two contracts, plain and simple. It's the way they get there that is the question.
To fit that big pact under the payroll umbrella, the Cardinals need to fill other holes more cheaply. And it might not be as hard as it seems on the surface.
First, Kyle Lohse's four-year contract is dead money. He gets $11.875 million over each of the next two seasons. It doesn't look like there is any way in the world the Cardinals could trade Lohse and recoup a reasonable portion of that money. But at least the Birds can take a little bit of solace in the fact that when Lohse is gone he doesn't need to be replaced with a player of the similar price. Lohse, who was signed to be much more, is nothing more than a fifth starter. He will likely be replaced by a pitcher who makes $2 million or less a year, saving the Birds nearly $10 million to go toward Pujols.
Since Pujols already makes $16 million a year, the Cardinals could pay him nearly $26 million a year after 2012 without significantly altering the rest of the roster.
The other place the Birds need to get creative is with Chris Carpenter.
Carp was seriously underpaid in 2004 and 2005. The first season he made $300,000 to win 15 games, the second, he won the Cy Young Award while taking home a $2 million paycheck. But the Cardinals more than made up for that in 2006 when Carpenter signed a five-year, $63.5-million contract with an option for 2012. The righty hurler made $19 million in 2007 and 2008 when he managed to pitch only 21 1/3 innings thanks to arm trouble. So, let's tear up that $15 million club option for 2012 and pay Carpenter a guaranteed $22 million over 2012-13 to reduce the payroll burden and give him a year of security.
Could Carpenter get more somewhere else? Maybe. He's going to be 37 years old with a major injury track record by the time 2012 is over. So teams might be reluctant to dish out a longterm contract. Besides, Carp is a loyal sort of guy who appreciates what the Cardinals did for him when they picked him up from Toronto's scrap heap and paid him while they waited for him to get healthy.
If he isn't agreeable, the Cardinals will likely have to walk away. But they would be searching for more or a second or third starter than a staff ace with Adam Wainwright taking that mantle.
By making those two moves, the Cardinals could more than cover Pujols' new paycheck while not breaking up a competitive roster.