© 2011 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
Unquestionably and quite predictably, the two players who have generated the most Hot Stove discussion in these weeks leading up to the Winter Meetings have been Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder.
Of course, discussion and interest are two very different things, and Pujols and Fielder, given their position and price tags, haven't drawn nearly as much of the latter as they have the former.
The markets for two of the game's most productive players have been soft, and that's a product of the unsurprising lack of interest shown by the Yankees and Red Sox, who have been known to drive up a price tag or two but are not currently in the market for a first baseman.
So it is that the only known offers to either player are the roughly $200 million over nine years the Cardinals reportedly offered Pujols before Spring Training and a Marlins offer to Pujols that was for the same number of years but reportedly less money.
For Pujols, the three teams known to be in play are his "hometown" Cardinals, the Marlins and the Cubs. But the exact motives of those last two teams have come into question, given that the Marlins' reported initial offer to Pujols didn't even match the money he turned down 10 months ago, and the Cubs' new regime had made it appear its focus was on ridding themselves of big contracts, not taking on new ones.
For Fielder, the Brewers, surprisingly, remain a possibility, only because his other potential suitors -- including the Nationals, Marlins and Cubs -- haven't bowled him over just yet, and no other clubs have had their interest, if it exists at all, made public.
At this point, that's about all we know.
But we also know that this sort of thing is always prone to surprises, as the Jayson Werth megadeal with the Nationals demonstrated a year ago. That seven-year, $126 million contract was sealed on the eve of the Winter Meetings, and who's to say Pujols and Fielder won't see the interest amplified in the game's most competitive off-the-field setting?
The smart money all along has been on Pujols remaining with the Cards, simply because he means more to them than anybody else. Only a handful of teams can afford to make a 31-year-old the most highly paid player in the game for anything approaching a decade. St. Louis is the one place Pujols, his legend established, can age gracefully.
Ultimately, Pujols' loyalty can't be measured until somebody else steps up with a serious offer, and that's what makes the Cubs' sudden participation, calculated as it might be, so intriguing.
If removed from all emotion on either side, it's entertaining to think about what Pujols bolting for big(ger) bucks at Wrigley would mean for that rivalry. It wouldn't be the greatest defection in the recent professional sports landscape (LeBron James leaving his home state -- ringless, no less -- takes that prize), but it would certainly be one of baseball's great Benedict Arnold moments.
For now, though, it's hard to imagine -- not because Pujols is fiercely loyal to his team (face it, few players are), but because, one would think, with a ring for each hand and a hunger for more in his 30s, he would want to surround himself with a better competitive situation. Long-term -- and given the percentage of payroll he'd eat up in St. Louis -- perhaps that situation is on the North Side. But in the immediate, the Cubs are more than an Albert Pujols away from being considered serious contenders.
Anyway, the whole conversation could be moot if the Cubs' interest is only in driving up the price for their Cardinals competitors and not actually landing Pujols for themselves. The newly announced changes to the Draft, which will undoubtedly affect Theo Epstein's vision of building Chicago from the ground up, offer a convenient excuse to publicly show interest in Pujols or Fielder. But signing either guy would be a drastic departure from all Epstein, who has been burned by free agency quite a bit in the recent past, hinted at when he took the job.
If this is, indeed, all just a competitive ploy, you can't blame the Cubbies. After all, it's free to browse.
"Like I've always said, there is one person responsible for making [free-agent] decisions, and one person accountable for those results," Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said. "So if [Epstein] believes strongly that's what's in the best interests of the team, then he's got my support."
The thinking all along with Fielder has been that loyalty won't be an issue at all. He already shoveled his path to the exit and held what can be classified as a farewell press conference after the Brewers got bounced from the National League Championship Series. He's made it clear all along that money talks and he's not afraid to walk.
If everything remained as is for the remainder of the offseason, it would not be inconceivable to see Fielder stay in Milwaukee. But don't bet on it. There are other, more cost-effective ways for the Brewers to remain competitive, and eventually the interest in Fielder elsewhere will intensify.
The Nats have reportedly made Fielder their top target, and the Werth deal demonstrated their willingness to overpay in this avenue. The Mariners have money to spend and a GM, Jack Zduriencik, who drafted Fielder when he was with Milwaukee.
For Fielder, either option has its drawbacks. The Nats are still trying to build toward their first winning season in Washington, counting heavily on a healthy Stephen Strasburg and the eventual emergence of Bryce Harper to guide the way. And the Mariners have an anemic offense and play in a ballpark (Safeco Field) that would compromise some of Prince's pop.
Again, though, money talks, and every team believes it is one or two moves away from contention.
Bringing in a 27-year-old slugger in his prime never hurts.
"There's no question we could use a big bat in the middle of our lineup, but where is your limitation and threshold?" Zduriencik said. "We'll go down that road and experiment and see where it ends up, but until things get more definitive, we'll just have to wait and see."
The American League makes the most sense for Fielder, because of his body. Entering the land of the designated hitter is not a stated goal for him, but it could be enough enticement to make an AL team outbid the rest.
That's why nobody should count out the M's, who can sell Fielder on the fact that they have two aces in Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda. Don't count out the Rangers, who have a gargantuan TV deal taking effect in 2015. And don't count out the Blue Jays, who have made their plans to drastically expand their player payroll in the near future quite clear. If they're waiting for the right moment to strike in free agency, it's a certainty that they'll be waiting a long while for another top-end, 27-year-old talent like Fielder to come along.
Fielder's agent, Scott Boras, is known for dragging out negotiations as long as possible (Werth was an exception to this rule), so it's quite possible Pujols will be the first domino to fall, setting a comparable contract for Prince.
At the moment, the market for either player is anything but ripe. The Winter Meetings, though, have a way of speeding up the ripening process.