February 16, 2011
Albert Pujols and the Big Nothing
High noon came and went, and there was no news, no actual historical act, no splendiferous cashgasm that would leave Cardinals fans basking in the safe, fuzzy, warm knowledge that nothing was going to change, ever.
Which was news, because Albert Pujols agreeing to nothing is what passes for a story this time of year. That's silly, because the spectacular non-importance of this artificial non-decision cannot be overstated. Self-imposed lines in the sand on negotiating contracts are sort of like 10-and-5 rights or no-trade clauses: sure, they might matter, and they often matter, but they might also be just a matter of negotiation. The funereal intonations on the end of an era in St. Louis loses sight of the fact that, while the jabbercrats will have moved on to some new source of transient controversy and ephemeral significance, conversations between consenting adults on matters of actual import can still happen.
Of course, even if Albert doesn't prove pliable now that the hysteria has spent itself, there's also the possibility that he goes... nowhere. Ever. There will still be the club's exclusive negotiating window after the season. And after that, even once Pujols arms himself with the freedom to comparison-shop on the market, that only means that the Cardinals will be in the same position as before, to make a choice. They can make his Albertosity a fair offer, which as we know from the way the Cliff Lee deal worked out, isn't necessarily about reported dollar values—as Eric Seidman documented last month, not all dollar amounts are equally valuable from market to market.
If that costs the DeWitts and their associated business partners and their anciliary corporate hangers-on some extra pretty penny, what does that matter? If John Mozeliak was not empowered to make Pujols an offer he could not refuse, that's on the Cardinals, for now, but not forever. As we know from the expensive extensions for Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, the ill-conceived contract for Kyle Lohse, or the pricey retention of Matt Holliday to keep him from walking away, expense is not a frightening proposition for these people. The organization has more than half of its payroll commitments coming off the books after 2011, and that's with one more year of Lohse to pay off. The club's long-term financial picture is good. This is not just a great fan base, with the club drawing three million paying customers or more in 12 of the last 13 seasons, it's also one spoiled yet secure in the knowledge that the franchise hasn't lost 90 games in a season in 20 years, and hasn't lost 100 since the last time the Cubs won the World Series. A Pujols defection represents the only thing that might actually hurt their bottom line, a matter of brand management you can be sure enters into their calculations. If this latest round of financial negotiations was fruitless for the moment, that''s not to say it wasn't informative for both parties, and might provide the basis of a deal, by providing the opportunities for frank exchanges on the subject of expectations.
So, Albert Pujols is a Cardinal, and he's overwhelmingly likely to be one for the duration as far as this season's and the balance of his contract is concerned. Albert Pujols is a Cardinal, and his club has as good a chance as ever to win the NL Central. Albert Pujols is a Cardinal, now and perhaps forever, because there is nothing—nothing—that stands in the way of that being the case, save rational consideration and everyone's capacity to agree to disagree. It's a free country, and Albert Pujols freely chose—to do nothing. I'd suggest, in their responses, that folks take their cue from him, because that's all it is: nothing happened.