With yesterday's announcement that Matt Holliday will return to the Cardinals on a seven-year, $120 million deal (which could be eight years, $137 million if he meets a 2016 vesting option -- hey, those numbers sound familiar to anyone?), the Cardinals' next target should be their own superstar, Albert Pujols, who will be a free agent after the 2010 season.
The question I immediately thought of was, "But can they afford him?" Even with a "hometown discount", Pujols could command a deal of seven or eight years and close to $200 million. Some may say that the Cardinals can't afford not to sign him, given what he means to their franchise (similar to the Twins' current dilemma with Joe Mauer).
But who knows? Mauer might become a Yankee. And I can think of a scenario by which Pujols becomes a Cub. Farfetched? Maybe. Follow me after the jump to see how it could happen, and I would argue, should happen in order to really make the Cubs the marquee (not Marquis) franchise we all want them to be.
Currently, the highest-paid player in the game is Alex Rodriguez, who will average $27 million over the next eight years in a deal that we might call a "reverse Hendry" -- in other words, it's front-loaded; A-Rod's salary tops out at $32 million in 2009 and 2010 and declines from there (all figures from Cot's Baseball Contracts).
I don't think there's any doubt in anyone's mind that Pujols has surpassed A-Rod as the best hitter in baseball right now, and will probably stay there for many years to come. He's playing first base better than anyone, and even if you signed him to an eight-year deal -- taking him till he's age 39, presuming it begins with the 2011 season -- he'll probably still be a capable 1B when that deal ended.
So how could he become a Cub? First, Tom Ricketts would have to understand the value of signing the best hitter in the game. Besides the obvious on-field contributions of Pujols, he'd be making a statement that the Cubs want to play with the big boys -- and a further benefit would be sticking it to the Cubs' biggest rival.
Win-win, if you ask me, and even though it would be an enormous contract, can you imagine the number of Cubs Pujols jerseys and T-shirts that would be sold over the term of the deal? Might help amortize some of the money.
In any case, I suspect that an eight-year deal approaching $200 million -- or about $25 million a year, perhaps frontloaded the way A-Rod's is -- would do it. How do you pay for this?
First, we all love Derrek Lee. He has had a productive six years as a Cub and I expect he'll be close to his 2009 production in 2010. But he will be 35 in September and I think in order to get a better hitter who's five years younger, you say goodbye to Derrek, thank him for the wonderful service, and let him go to an AL team where he can DH part of the time. That frees up about half ($13 million) of the money you'd need. I think it might also be time to say farewell to Ted Lilly, who will also have given the Cubs four good years but will turn 35 himself in January 2011. Ted's making $12 million in 2010.
Voila! There's $25 million right there. Kosuke Fukudome's deal comes off the books after 2011 -- you can save $13 million with that, and the Cubs won't be paying Carlos Silva after 2011 either, another $11.5 million saved.
Thus, the Cubs could easily pay for the first two years of a Pujols deal simply with the money from expiring contracts -- without increasing payroll at all. We'd hope, of course, that the Cubs would find cheaper replacements for Fukudome (maybe Brett Jackson?) and Silva and Lilly (from the farm system -- Andrew Cashner, maybe?), and thus could spend some money in other areas after 2011. You'd also figure that maybe the Cubs would win a World Series with Pujols in 2011, and the extra dough that you know would roll in from corporate sponsorships, etc. and maybe higher ad rates for TV and radio, could fund further payroll increases beginning in 2012.
Yeah, I know. It's all a pipedream, right? Still -- if Tom Ricketts wants to be the Cubs boss we all hope he can be, to lead the Cubs to the next level, he should encourage his GM, whether it's Jim Hendry or someone else, to investigate every possible way of putting Albert Pujols in blue pinstripes for 2011.