How could the Cubs pass up the chance to try to sign Albert Pujols? That's what baseball fans and pundits have wondered loudly ever since the Cardinals failed to sign their superstar to a contract extension over the off-season.
But my question is, what team in baseball could afford less to take a huge financial gamble on a longterm contract for an aging player than the Cubs?
The Cubs already count Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez as mega contract free agent busts. Soriano, who averaged 34 homers and 37 stolen bases with the Yankees, Rangers and Nationals suddenly shrank to 23 homers and 10 stolen bases a year after Chicago gave him a $136-million contract that pays him through 2014.
Ramirez may be a free agent after the season. But the Wee Bears' coffers have been depleted by his current five-year, $75 million contract for the last half decade. Meanwhile, his power has all but disappeared -- he has one homer this season and he's sporting a .380 slugging percentage at the age of 33 and he's struggled to stay healthy.
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I bet those factors make the Cubs more than a little nervous that Albert Pujols, a career .331 hitter over the first decade of his career, is struggling around the .250 mark in his walk year.
If the Cardinals give Albert Pujols the 10-year, $300-million contract he supposedly seeks, would the odds be greater that the Cubs make the Cardinals regret letting the big guy go for the next decade -- or that Pujols weighs down the Wee Bears' payroll for the last 5-7 years of the deal? It would almost be as if the Cubs were subsidizing Albert's glory years in St. Louis when he's 38-39-40 years old...
Should Pujols' last .300 season, his last 40 homer season or his last 100 RBI year be behind him, the investment would be devistating to Chicago.
It's, for some reason, assumed that the Cubs can afford to spend a whole lot more money on payroll than the Cardinals because they play in a larger city. But the Cubs financial advantage isn't as big as the census results might indicate. The Cardinals annually out-draw the Wee Bears who are locked into undersized Wrigley Field. And, if you've been paying attention lately, you'd notice that a growing number of those seats on the North Side are going unfilled these days. True, the Cubs have a more lucrative local television contract. But that's only one piece of the financial pie. The Cubs don't have the limitless checkbooks that the Yankees and Red Sox have. They can't afford to make a third of a billion dollar mistake.
If the Birds sign Pujols to an extension, even as Pujols fades his paydays average out and he remains a franchise icon for the rest of his life. He'll always have those MVP awards and his World Series rings won in St. Louis. If he goes to the Cubs and he fades, it's going to look like the Cardinals snookered Chicago again. Think of it as Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio, just with a whole lot more zeroes.
It would be a much smarter move for the Cubs to pay a whole lot less dollars to bring Prince Fielder to town than it would be make an all or nothing move for Pujols. Not only would the investment be substantially less. But the risk -- in terms of finance, pride and performance -- would be much less also.
I still believe that Pujols is a smart enough guy to realize that he'll have more money than he knows how to spend no matter where he ends up -- or if he retires tomorrow. I don't think he's going to go to the highest bidder no matter what. And, while the Cubs are the nightmare scenario for Cardinals fans, I worry more that the Angels or Red Sox will be the big money players at the table when Albert hits free agency.