Albert Pujols is Officially a Free Agent: Let the Panic Begin

Albert Pujols’ impending free agency has Cardinals fans worked up, but there’s nothing to worry about.

The tears on the cheeks of Rangers fans have not yet dried and all eyes are already fixated on free agency.

After all, there is a nice stable of stars out there to be had by the highest bidder. C.J. Wilson, postseason struggles and all, is a solid lefty starter that is thought to the Yankees’ top target this offseason. Prince Fielder, the slugging first baseman formerly of the Milwaukee Brewers, will also have suitors lining up.

But neither of those players will draw the interest, or the money, of Albert Pujols, the biggest fish in the free agency pond.

Let’s make one thing clear. Albert Pujols will be a St. Louis Cardinal in 2012. He will be a St. Louis Cardinal for the rest of his career.

There’s just little reason to think otherwise. Sure, negotiations prior to spring training broke down, but I’m not convinced that was anything more than Pujols agent, Dan Lozano, and the Cardinals organization jockeying for position  ahead of the negotiations really heating up.

At some point, they will reach an agreement. Pujols doesn’t want to leave St. Louis. The Cardinals certainly don’t want to lose Pujols.

It will also help the Cardinals’ case that many of the usual suspects to sign high-profile free agents are already set at first base. The Yankees have Mark Teixeira and the Red Sox have Adrian Gonzalez. This may not stop those teams from throwing their names in the hat, but I doubt Pujols is going to be interested in going to a team that is going to split his time at first base and designated hitter.

But these facts won’t keep Cardinals fans from panicking. Who could blame them?

He has been the best pure hitter in the game since he came into the league in 2001 and for my money, he may very well be the best pure hitter of all time. There. I said it. His combination of skills is unmatched and I’d put him up against any hitter in the history of the game. The fact that he is also a Gold Glove first baseman is basically a bonus.

Pujols has been so much more than an All-Star first baseman for the franchise, though. He has been the face of the team, the leader in the clubhouse and an upstanding member of the community he plays in. You can say that about any number of players in Major League Baseball, but this is the Cardinals and their fans we are talking about.

No fans love their team like the Cardinals fans love their team and when a player like Pujols comes along, which isn’t often, he becomes more than just a player they root for. He’s a member of their extended family in some strange way.

It’s that distinct difference that separates Pujols from a Prince Fielder. Fielder is a great player in his own right, he will certainly get paid in a big way and the Brewers’ fans have all but pleaded with him to come back. But with all due respect to the Brewers and their fans, it’s just different. Milwaukee has been behind their Brewers in the last several seasons, but they can’t hold a candle to St. Louis.

When you begin to understand the relationship Pujols has with the city, you can begin to understand why fans are so worried. Seeing Pujols wearing another jersey, like that of the Chicago Cubs (gasp!), would be a traumatic experience.

The ball is in the Cardinals’ court. If money is all that is keeping the two sides from getting this deal done, the Cardinals just need to give him what he and his agent want at all costs. To be frank, I think they should operate as if his salary is separate from the rest of the payroll. The hit the team would take on the field and on the PR front would be too great to try to get into an intense negotiation with Pujols over money.

That’s precisely why Pujols will be right back in St. Louis. The Cardinals know what is at stake. They aren’t dumb. They did just win the World Series after all.

Fret not Cardinals fans. Albert Pujols will be back next year ready to defend the crown.

Joseph Healy writes for TheFanManifesto.

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