Like Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols' Contract Strife Links Back to A-Rod
JUPITER, Fla. -- Baseball has two superstars whose identities have become inseparable from their team's identity.
And this offseason, both Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter went through contract negotiations with their franchises that left everyone, player and team, taking criticism.
We can blame the Steinbrenner brothers for both.
Hank and Hal are the ones who gave Alex Rodriguez -- at age 32, after their general manager said he would not re-sign A-Rod if he opted out and he opted out anyway -- a 10-year, $275 million deal.
Jeter, rightfully, could feel he had done more for the Yankees than A-Rod and thus deserved to be richly rewarded.
Pujols, rightfully, could feel he is, right now, a better player than A-Rod and deserves a richer contract.
The Cardinals on Wednesday announced they could not reach a deal for a contract extension with Pujols, and at Pujols' request will cease "negotiations" -- we put that in quotes because the Cardinals acknowledged having made just one offer, about six weeks ago -- until after the season.
It's an unsatisfactory position for the team, its fans and perhaps their favorite player. Cardinal Nation is left to choose sides, feeling either Pujols is greedy or the Cards aren't taking care of their icon.
In a statement, agent Dan Lozano said, "While both parties were hopeful that an agreement could be reached, a difference of opinion in determining Albert's value simply could not be resolved. Albert's production over the last 10 years is nothing short of historic. He is not only the best player in baseball, and on his way to having a Hall of Fame career, but an iconic figure in sports. The expiration of today's deadline does not eliminate the possibility of Albert returning to the Cardinals in 2012, but simply delays negotiations until the conclusion of the Cardinals' season."
Asked to compare the Pujols talks with Jeter's, St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak said they have similar status in their cities but, "We're not looking to position this in any way or start trying to negotiate points or sides via the media, so there's a stark difference."
Yes, at least this saga didn't include a smear campaign by the team against the player, as the Yankees did with Jeter. But one element of the ugly back-and-forth between Jeter and the Yankees seems to apply here too: a taunt to test the open market.
Back in late November, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, knowing Jeter's market value as a 36-year-old shortstop, told ESPNNewYork.com, "We've encouraged him to test the market and see if there's something he would prefer other than this. If he can, fine. That's the way it works."
Pujols is closer to his prime, and St. Louis management has been more subtle.
"It's hard to speculate what the open market really is," Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said.
One interpretation of that quote is the Cardinals feel that with three big-money franchises set at first base -- the Yankees (Mark Teixeira), Red Sox (Adrian Gonzalez) and Phillies (Ryan Howard) -- no one will come up with an offer so far above St. Louis' that Pujols will want to leave.
Seems risky. The Yankees and Red Sox could move their guy to DH. All it takes is one team to give Pujols the number he seeks for him to bolt, and there will be non-Northeast teams with strong revenues who could use a first baseman, including the rival Cubs.
Wednesday's words left us with the feeling that Pujols, unlike Jeter, may not stay where he belongs.
DeWitt said he was disappointed no deal could be struck and that the team made "every effort" to extend Pujols, but did they really make "every" effort?
Later in the news conference, Mozeliak was asked to be more specific about negotiations.
"We made one offer ... shortly after the first of the year," Mozeliak said.
DeWitt added there were "exploratory discussions about modifying that," but didn't dispute that there was basically one dollar amount offered. Which doesn't really meet the usual definition of "every effort."
Over and over Wednesday, the Cardinals sent the message that paying Pujols more than St. Louis wanted would result in his playing on a non-contender.
"We felt very good about the offer we made," Mozeliak said said. "We felt that it recognized his iconic status and also still allowed us to put a successful club out there."
Said DeWitt, "We made a very strong effort, a lot of money, a number of years, that could enable us to have a competitive team throughout that period of time.
"If it plays out the way it appears, and he goes to the end of the season and scopes out the market, I believe that we've got a great chance to keep him because we've got a wonderful franchise, an environment of winning and a packed house every night. You know, that doesn't happen in every city."
Whether or not you feel Pujols should take a hometown discount, before we allow the Cardinals to cry budget constraints, let's remember that they should have seen this coming.
Unless the team was being ignorant 13 months ago, there were two possibilities when it signed Matt Holliday to a seven-year, $120 million deal:
• They felt they still had enough payroll room to re-sign Pujols;
• Or they decided to hitch their team's fortunes to Holliday instead of Pujols for the long-term.
If it was (a), they miscalculated greatly. If it was (b), they betrayed their fans.
(There's also the question of how a team that has sold 2.9 million or more tickets for 13 straight seasons has a payroll in the $100-110 million range.)
Asked about the benchmark set by A-Rod's deal, DeWitt said, "I'm not going to second-guess what an organization does with one of their players. The Yankees had a reason for that contract. They negotiated it, and they executed it. You respect the decision-making that went into that process. Far be it for me to say they should have done it, they shouldn't have done it, or that it's bad for baseball. It is what it is. It's out there."
Yes it is, thanks to H&H.
If Pujols, who is expected to arrive in camp Thursday, sticks to his stance of not negotiating until after the season, the Cardinals will have a short exclusivity window. And even then, Pujols will be so close to being able to field other offers, it would make no sense to not test the market.
"We didn't run out of time," DeWitt said of Wednesday's deadline, "we just didn't get it done."
That explanation won't fly in November if Pujols, unlike Jeter, gets a new uniform.
Steve Phillips examines both sides of the Albert Pujols story. Click to watch: