Barring an unforeseen circumstance (and acknowledging that Major League Baseball presents plenty such circumstances in a given year), arguably the greatest player on the planet will, in 8 1/2 months, become the greatest player on the open market.
Five days after the conclusion of the World Series, Albert Pujols -- a player synonymous with St. Louis -- will be eligible to field offers from any team in baseball. A circus could ensue.
Already, we've seen that Pujols is serious enough about finding a contract befitting his statistics and his place in the game that he is potentially willing to put his Cardinals' legacy on the line.
Of course, just because Pujols broke off negotiations with the club that watched him grow from a 13th-round Draft pick to a perennial MVP candidate doesn't mean his Cardinals days are definitively numbered. We must not rule out the possibility of Pujols and the Cards revisiting the contract issue and coming to an agreement at, say, the All-Star break or during the club's exclusive five-day window after the Fall Classic.
But if we're reading the tea leaves correctly, Pujols will hit the market looking for the richest contract in the game. Richer, even, than the 10-year, $275 million contract Alex Rodriguez signed with the Yankees in 2007. This could be Pujols' chance to become baseball's first $300 million man.
So, which teams are in a position to make such an outlandish contract a reality?
Frankly, it's a question that can't yet be answered, because of those aforementioned unforeseen circumstances and the always-evolving economics of team construction. But what we can do, at this early juncture, is take a look at rosters and payrolls across the league and make a few educated guesses.
Here, then, are nine teams that might possibly have a shot at Pujols in free agency, with varying degrees of plausibility.
Already, the guess that makes the most sense, considering the team's position and payroll, and doubles as the most jolting to Cardinals fans is this: Pujols taking his talents to Wrigley.
To followers of the Cards, it's a scenario that is equal parts unnatural, unnerving and unacceptable. To those who have embraced the realities of player movement and the limits of loyalty, it's a scenario that is 100-percent plausible.
The Cubs just signed Carlos Pena to a one-year, $10 million contract, hoping he rebounds from the .196 average he posted for the Rays last year. Rebound or no rebound, the Cubs have no contractual ties to Pena beyond 2011, and they will have significant money coming off the books at season's end, when the big-money contracts of third baseman Aramis Ramirez ($14.6 million this season), outfielder Kosuke Fukudome ($13.5 million) and pitcher Carlos Silva ($11.5 million) are cleared.
That newfound financial flexibility could be enough to spur the Cubs into movement on Pujols. It would certainly be a way for new owner Tom Ricketts to engender good feelings from the fan base.
Highest-paid players in the game
Below are the highest-paid players in the game for each season since Nolan Ryan became baseball's first $1 million man. The salaries listed represent the average annual value of the guaranteed portions of each contract, including signing bonuses.
Ken Griffey Jr.
*Canseco signed an extension in June 1990 that averaged $4.7 million over five years. But because of the deal's $3.5 million bonus, which was added to his $2 million salary for 1990, he earned $5.5 million that year.
Sources: Wezen-ball.com, December 2009; Baseball-Reference.com; The New York Times
Of course, investing so heavily in the 31-year-old Pujols would be a major financial leap of faith for a Cubs franchise recently burned by the Alfonso Soriano contract, which has them on the hook for $18 million annually through 2014. That might be enough to make the Cubs gun-shy.
This is one team that is rarely, if ever, gun-shy. They are annually in on just about every big name to hit the free-agent market, so it's difficult to imagine they wouldn't look into Pujols, too.
Mark Teixeira's contract is the most obvious obstacle here. The Yanks are tied to Tex through 2016, at $22.5 million per season.
But the Yanks also have a little thing known as the designated hitter spot, and with Jorge Posada pushing 40 and entering the final year of his contract, it will be open next year.
Granted, the DH is a role Pujols has obvious disdain for, especially at this point of his career. But who's to say the game's largest contract wouldn't change his tune a tad? Perhaps the Yankees could get both Pujols and Tex to agree to a system in which Pujols handles the first-base duties two or three days a week.
One other hangup to keep in mind, however, is that the Yanks are going to have to remain as flexible as possible at DH in the years to come, as the likes of A-Rod and Derek Jeter age.
If the Yankees are in on a player, then surely the Red Sox must be, too. And vice versa. That's the rule of the game's most heated rivalry.
Of course, the Sox have generally showed more fiscal restraint than the Yanks, and they're expected to announce an Adrian Gonzalez extension, reportedly worth $164 million over seven years, after Opening Day. This, coupled with the seven-year, $142 million contract given to Carl Crawford, makes it appear doubtful Boston would make a serious play for Pujols, even with David Ortiz due to depart the DH slot at season's end.
Still, we'd be remiss not to include the Red Sox on the list, if for no other reason than that aforementioned rivalry rule.
Rangers With an aggressive new ownership team and a lucrative new television deal, the Rangers' payroll is on the rise. This is a team expected to be a major player in free agency in the coming years, so the possibility of them pursuing Pujols is real.
That said, the Rangers are already on the hook for more than $50 million combined next year for Adrian Beltre, Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Michael Young (yes, he's still around, for now). They also have Mitch Moreland on hand and believe he can develop into a fine first baseman.
With all that in mind, it seems more likely the Rangers would target starting pitching above position players, especially with C.J. Wilson due to hit the free-agent market next fall.
In short, the Rangers have the resources, which is why they're on this list. But they seem more likely to apply those resources elsewhere.
Angels We'll call them the darkest of dark horses, especially after an offseason in which they came up short on bids for Crawford and Beltre and then locked themselves into four years and $81 million worth of Vernon Wells). They have the financial might to pay Pujols, and DH Bobby Abreu could hit free agency next winter. But the Angels also have an emerging star at first base in Kendry Morales.
If Morales doesn't fully recover from the fractured left leg he suffered last season, then perhaps the Angels would be interested enough to make a major play for Pujols. But if Morales makes it all the way back, you can probably forget it.
Another major dark horse. So dark you can hardly see it. But Derrek Lee and Vlad Guerrero are only in town on one-year deals and there has long been a belief that the success of the Orioles' television network would one day lead to significant payroll increases. The club made a serious and ultimately unsuccessful push to try to land Teixeira after the 2008 season, so perhaps they'd make another push for Pujols.
Then again, when general manager Andy MacPhail is shooting down a Pujols scenario nine months before it becomes a possibility, that doesn't bode well for this dark horse coming through.
"The likelihood of us stepping out to the degree that [Pujols] is looking at, for any one player, is remote at best," MacPhail told a group of Baltimore School of Law students last week. "I read that he's looking for $30 million a year, and I just can't see how that's going to happen."
Mets If their ownership issues get sorted out, this big-market club could put together the resources to make an attractive pitch. They'd have to move Ike Davis either to another position or another team to accommodate him.
See Mets, New York. And replace Ike Davis' name with that of James Loney.
As you can see above, when you're talking about a commitment worth upward of $300 million, the list of potential participants looks slim and the question marks are many. We simply can't account for every scenario, especially 8 1/2 months out. Maybe the Cards get Pujols to waive his 10-and-5 rights and agree to a trade that sends him to a team that can extend him. Maybe a "mystery team" emerges and sweeps Pujols off his free-agent feet, a la the Nats and Jayson Werth.
Or maybe, just maybe, Pujols' enormous expectations for his free-agent worth ultimately go unmet, and he winds up staying right where he is and where so many Cards fans feel he belongs.
In the meantime, next winter's most scintillating story line is already scheduled, for it's not every day the greatest player on the planet is made available.