Pujols officially playing the field for first time

Pujols officially playing the field for first time

Officially, and for the first time in his professional career, Albert Pujols is not a member of the Cardinals organization, free to sign with any other Major League team. It's a right he hasn't possessed since St. Louis drafted and signed him in 1999.

Same goes for Prince Fielder and the Brewers, who drafted him in 2002, and Jose Reyes and the Mets, who signed him out of the Dominican Republic in 1999.

They're all truly free now, although they won't come cheaply, wherever they land.

Of course, each could sign back with his career club, but for now the three rank at the top of the heap among the 166 free agents who are eligible to sign with any team as of 12:01 a.m. ET on Thursday.

A year after three free agents signed deals for more than $100 million, a new group of candidates for big money steps up to the plate this year. How many will break that barrier or which teams will turn heads with what they acquire, all that remains to be seen.

But this much is evident: Even with a decent supporting cast of position players led by Fielder and Reyes, this foray into free agency will be remembered largely for what happens with Pujols.

That it also affects the defending World Series champion Cardinals following their stunning run into and through October makes the situation doubly dicey.

"There's certainly some things that when you look at putting this club together [for 2012], the big question marks are going to be: Will we get Albert Pujols re-signed or not?" Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said during the World Series.

Said Pujols, awash in the World Series victory: "Whatever decision I make, hopefully, is the best decision I make for my family and the fans and everybody."

In St. Louis it's all about Albert, but there are literally dozens of other individual story lines waiting to be played out this winter.

There certainly stands to be plenty of other business on the market, with 166 out there this year after 169 hit the streets last year. It is possible, reports have suggested, that this will be a slower market to develop than in years past, because the Collective Bargaining Agreement, due to expire on Dec. 11, remains unresolved, both sides working behind the scenes to set the business rules the sport will live by going forward.

When it comes to the normal business of players taking bids on their services up to and through the Winter Meetings, to be held from Dec. 5-8 in Dallas, there are some big names to watch.

Fielder and Reyes definitely figure to make mega-millions this winter, as both enter long-awaited turns at the free-agency wheel of fortune. There's also a group of veteran position players and batsmen that includes Aramis Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins, David Ortiz, Carlos Beltran, Derrek Lee, Carlos Pena, Michael Cuddyer and, seemingly quite suddenly, Grady Sizemore.

There's a relatively shallow pool of starting pitching this year. It is led by C.J. Wilson, coming off a 16-win regular season and three-loss postseason, following just his second year as a full-time starter. And there's Mark Buehrle, whose consistency and two no-hitters hold up as viable assets, but perhaps nowhere more than with the White Sox. After that it's Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt, and not a whole lot else. Maybe Japanese sensation Yu Darvish will get into the game?

Some relief help is available, from Jonathan Papelbon and Ryan Madson to Heath Bell, who had his bags packed on July 31 but only now is officially untethered from the Padres, or anyone else. Francisco Rodriguez and Joe Nathan could also provide some relief for a team in need of a ninth-inning boost, or even eighth.

Where everyone lands could have a lot to do with the team celebrating a World Series title, the way the Cardinals and Pujols did just a few days ago.

Neither World Series participant was built on free agency, however. The Rangers picked up Adrian Beltre a year ago, and the Cards plucked a key player from free agency in Lance Berkman. But neither team was built on such players, both having homegrown talent infused with solid trades.

Now, suddenly and yet so slowly over the past year, free agency is a bigger issue in St. Louis than perhaps ever before.

Pujols, whose two World Series rings and three Most Valuable Player Awards have come in a Cardinals uniform, is new to putting his value on the open market. It's one that will be exponentially more lucrative than the signing bonus of about $60,000 he received as a 13th-round pick in 1999, the last time his talents were up for grabs.

Along the way, the 31-year-old superstar has collected more than $100 million in paychecks from the Cardinals. When contract talks with the Cardinals ceased at a February deadline, the club's last offer reportedly was between $25-30 million per year over as many as eight years. Several reports have suggested Pujols seeks to eclipse Alex Rodriguez (10 years, $275 million) as the highest-paid player in history. All that's really certain is that agent Dan Lozano's sure-to-be-epic bidding session is only now officially open for business.

If Albert goes, it's the end of an era in St. Louis. If he stays, another piece of history might be added to his stay. He'd be the modern-day rarity: the one-team player.

"It's an anomaly at this point. Hopefully, we can accomplish another one," Mozeliak says.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.