Albert Pujols' future was the overriding topic of conversation over the Cardinals Care Winter Warm-Up last weekend in St. Louis, trumping all other Redbird-related matters. Whether or not the record-setting first baseman will sign a contract extension before his self-imposed deadline of February 13, the day pitchers and catchers report to Jupiter (the town in Florida, not the planet) was all everyone seemed to care about.
Pujols says if he does not have a deal in place by Valentine's Day eve, he and agent Danny Lozano will cut off negotiations and he will file for free agency after the season. Pujols became irritated when asked about the situation during a sometimes testy session with media during the Cardinals' fan festival.
Ironically, one person who did not seem obsessed by the Pujols situation was a man who has been known to also be contentious on occasion with the media. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said he will be a neutral observer as the saga continues to unfold.
"This is probably the only time I've tried to read what the papers are saying or listen to what the TV and radio guys say are saying," La Russa said. "That's how I'm getting my information. Normally, I'd have my own way of finding things out but in this case I'm not going to ask ownership or Albert what's going on. I know they're working on it and when they have a resolution then we'll all know what it is."
If Pujols fails to come to terms by February 13, it is only natural to wonder if he might become distracted by the attention given to his unsettled status. Left fielder Matt Holliday was in that situation during the 2009 season before becoming a free agent and re-signing with the Cardinals for seven years and $120 million the following offseason. Holliday observed that, "You get asked about it a lot and you eventually get sick of it but it's really what you make of it. Knowing Albert, I don't think it'll bother him."
La Russa is also certain that Pujols will not be fazed, stating that, "I couldn't feel better about Albert whether he is on a day-to-day contract or a 10-year contract. Albert answers to higher powers. He's got too much motivation and too much pride. He's too committed. It's not going to affect Albert at all. I know the type of man he is. However it turns out, Albert will be Albert and thank goodness for that."
Lost amongst the Pujols talk is that the Cardinals have retooled their roster this winter in an attempt to get to the top of the National League Central. After winning the division in 2009, they fell to second place last season, finishing five games behind the Reds with an 86-76 record.
General manager John Mozeliak's biggest off-season acquisition was signing free agent Lance Berkman to a one-year, $8 million contract. The move comes with some risk, as Berkman is both coming off the worst season of his 12-year career and being asked to move from first base back to the outfield. Berkman underwent knee surgery in spring training last year, then had a .297 TAv with the Astros in 358 plate appearances and saw that figure slip to .258 in 123 PA after being dealt to the Yankees at the trade deadline. Berkman has not played in the outfield since 2007 but has been working with a personal trainer throughout the offseason to get into top shape.
La Russa is not concerned that the Cardinals' defense might be compromised after they finished sixth in the NL and 13th in the majors with a .693 Defensive Efficiency last season. Instead, he likes the idea of Berkman, who has a .317 career TAv, joining Pujols and Holliday in the middle of the lineup for an offense that was sixth in the league and 14th in the majors with an average of 4.54 runs a game in 2010.
"I've heard that thing discussed forever, giving up defense for offense, and I'm not sure I understand that perspective," La Russa said. "If you've got a good defensive right field that can't hit then you don't win. All over the field, you want guys who make the routine plays and can hit. If you have that, you'll win. Lance will make the routine play. He's a good athlete and it's just a matter of him being healthy. He's got a helluva bat, so I don't feel we're giving up anything at all. We improved ourselves by adding him to our lineup."
The Cardinals also traded with the Dodgers for Ryan Theriot, who will replace shortstop Brendan Ryan, and re-signed right-hander Jake Westbrook, who had 1.7 SNLVAR in 12 starts and 75 innings after being acquired from the Indians in a deadline trade summer. The moves figure to push the payroll into the $110 million range, the highest ever for the Cardinals.
"I'm a Cardinal fan and I feel good about ownership and how it actually went over budget, to make this a better club," La Russa said. "(Mozeliak) and has staff acted smartly and quickly this winter to get us the help we needed."
The Cardinals' biggest off-season acquisition is certainly excited, as Berkman said, "I know the Phillies have that great starting rotation but I look around the National League and I don't see a team better than us. We have the pitching and the hitting to match up with anybody. I don't see any reason why we shouldn't win a lot of games."
It was as if Royals owner David Glass looked down and found $12.4 million lying on the sidewalk as he was walking down the street. That is how much the Royals will save this upcoming season after right-hander Gil Meche announced his retirement this week and in the process forfeited his 2011 salary for the last year of his five-year, $55 million contract.
The only case similar to Meche's came when Mark McGwire retired following the 2001 season, after he had agreed in principle to a two-year, $30 million contract extension. However, McGwire never actually signed the contract.
Knowing he would be unlikely to help the Royals this season because of an injured shoulder, Meche felt he would help his team more by walking away from the money. Meche observed, "It's just the right thing to do. I'm not trying to look good. I just know I wouldn't be able to handle it if I got hurt again and wouldn't be able to play. Hopefully, the Royals can find some guys to (spend) that money on and help the team win."
The Royals will instead bank the money, stick to their rebuilding plan that will be fueled by a fertile farm system and have a payroll of approximately $40 million this upcoming season. As general manager Dayton Moore commented, “Our plan is not going to change with regards to the young players we have on the horizon. We aren’t going to do anything with long-term contracts that will restrict their transition to the majors. I don’t see a lot out there that’s better than what we have or will potentially have in 2011 or 2012."
Angels manager Mike Scioscia was a critic of baseball's post-season setup the last time his team qualified for the playoffs in 2009. Scioscia is now getting a chance to make his viewpoints heard as a member of Commissioner Bud Selig's special committee for on-field matters.
"We've talked about a lot of things concerning the postseason," Scioscia said.
It seems most likely that an extra wild-card team from each league will be added to the post-season field in 2012. Scioscia, for the most part, is on board with having 10 of the 30 clubs qualify for the postseason instead of the current eight.
"In baseball, there has to be a balance of having 162 (regular-season) games mean more than just seeding, like it does in some other sports, with the competitiveness of giving more teams more room to make the playoffs or try to get into playoffs," Scioscia said. "I don't think anybody's in favor of having a setup where you have 16 teams make the playoffs or 14 teams make the playoffs but there seems to be balance there that hopefully would be explored."
Selig is reportedly in favor of a setup in which the two wild-card teams in each league would either play an elimination game or a three-game series with the winner advancing to the Division Series round. Scioscia realizes such a short series might be inherently unfair but is also realistic enough to know that owners aren't going to shorten the regular season to accommodate a longer postseason and thus deprive them of revenue.
"In some cases (being discussed), you're forced into an elimination game," Scioscia said. "It's like putting the team to a Game Five or Game Seven in a series. I think there will be a lot of excitement. I think there are a lot of things to be discussed before we'll start saying what is fair or unfair. I would think a longer series obviously favors a deeper team but, logistically, there has to be some balance to how many games you're going to be able to get in or what you're going to be able to do."
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel still feels the sting of how last season ended for his club. The Phillies had the best record in major leagues during the regular season at 97-65 yet lost to the Giants in the National League Championship Series, missing a chance to win a third straight pennant.
"Winning's hard, but losing is really hard," Manuel said. "Also I think sometimes that people forget how hard it is to win. Winning, there is nothing easy about winning. Winning, you have a price to pay, and it's dedication, it's hard work. It takes guys like [Roy Halladay] and [Chase Utley], and guys like that to have a lot of determination and their makeup and everything. That builds in with your team. When you do all that and you get beat, hey, it's tough. If you care anything about the game and winning is what you're about or what you're thinking about, then, yeah. it's going to hurt for a while."
The good news for the Phillies is that spring training begins in less than a month and they will be the favorite to win the NL.
"You get over losing because you're looking forward to the next day and you're looking to go back out there and get better," Manuel said. "I look at it as I want to see us get better and go back out there to see who else we can beat again."