Last spring, the highly-publicized embrace between then-St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols and then-Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry received wide attention as a potential signal of a future relationship budding.
Tuesday’s report that the Northsiders are interested in signing the top player on the market may serve as new Cubs president Theo Epstein’s virtual bro hug with now-free agent Pujols.
What a difference 24 hours made in the heat level of Major League Baseball’s hot stove.
On Monday, Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan commented about the “surprisingly quiet” market for Pujols. Passan had spoken with three baseball executives who characterized the Cardinals as “heavy, heavy favorites” to retain the first baseman. “I’m 100 percent certain he’s going back there,” one executive reportedly told the writer.
The FOX report had an interesting angle on why, noting the new labor agreement between players and owners was designed to scale back team spending on amateurs. That had been a major element of Epstein’s past formula for success with the Boston Red Sox.
Despite having good major league teams that meant annually drafting late in the first round, the Sox did a consistently solid job of building a strong minor league pipeline. Those players helped fuel major league success that included two World Championships. One route that could be used to accomplish that was having the means to overpay if necessary to secure top amateur talent.
If Epstein is being forced to modify that proven blueprint because of stiff financial penalties for overspending on amateurs in the future, his Achilles heel as a GM may be exposed in Chicago.
With Boston, Theo had a very mixed record over the years with major league free agent acquisitions. Problem contracts with John Lackey and Carl Crawford last winter offer the most recent examples of concerns that go back at least to the days of Edgar Renteria and Julio Lugo. In between, there were J.D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka among others.
In fact, Epstein shares that legacy with Hendry, effectively his predecessor leading the Cubs. Over his nine years in the GM chair, Hendry saddled the Baby Bears with numerous bad contracts including Alfonso Soriano, Milton Bradley, Carlos Zambrano and many more.
As Rosenthal notes, Fielder is also in the mix in Chicago. He may be had for fewer years than the nine the Cardinals have allegedly offered Pujols, though Fielder’s per-season price tag could be higher, since he is more than three years younger. Of course, like Pujols’ age, Fielder’s weight remains a concern of some potential buyers.
Another proven weapon in Epstein’s bag of tricks in Boston was to drive up the price of free agents to his nemesis, the New York Yankees. One recent example was his move to try to snare Yankees icon Mariano Rivera away from his long-time home. Though he was unsuccessful, Epstein’s initiative raised the ante paid by his primary competitor.
Whether the Cubs end up with Pujols, or Fielder or neither one of them, it seems risky to not take the overtures seriously.
To date, the Cardinals have enjoyed the upper hand with Pujols. Due to a lack of competition, they seem to have had no reason to increase their February offer, one that Pujols rejected. It may be in the nine years, $200 million range.
Scott Boras, Fielder’s agent, and Dan Lozano, the embattled representative of Pujols, must love the Tuesday news. Each may be hoping the other first sets the market while leaving the final premier first-baseman standing to elicit a bidding war from desperate suitors.
At this point, no one knows if any clubs will reach a desperation level, however. In fact, the first question is whether or not any teams will become legitimate bidders. The Marlins kicked the tires on Pujols, but no other club has made an offer to either free agent – at least that has been reported.
Other teams could jump into the fray, including Texas, Washington, Seattle or the Angels, but no one yet knows for sure.
For a point of comparison, click here to see the results of this same poll, conducted here at The Cardinal Nation Blog in May.
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