Albert Pujols is gone.   Starting next season, he will no longer be a Cardinal.

Outside of a few hours yesterday, when the Marlins bowed out and the rumors were swirling that the Cardinals actually had the highest offer on the table, I was expecting this.  We all should have expected this.  Baseball players follow the money.  Hell, people in general follow the money.  Beyond family and (sometimes) country, loyalty is a fleeting and transient sentiment.  Albert Pujols does not owe St. Louis anything.  He does not owe Cardinals fans anything.  He certainly does not owe Bill Dewitt Jr. anything.  The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim offered 254 million dollars.  If reported figures are to be believed, that is at least 30 million more than what the Cardinals were willing to give him.  It’s no surprise that he took it.  It’s no surprise that anyone would take it.

I feel like anyone who is genuinely surprised by Pujols’s decision hasn’t been paying attention.  When he demanded an extension rivaling Alex Rodriguez’s record-setting free agent contracts, he wasn’t doing it so he could reinvest the money in the city of St. Louis.  When he refused to negotiate after spring training started, it wasn’t so that John Mozeliak had more time to worry about the amateur draft.  And when he continued to retain Dan Lozano despite the controversy that emerged over the last two months, it wasn’t so that he could work out a deal favorable to the St. Louis Cardinals organization.  This has been a long time coming.  Pujols wanted to get paid.

That said, I don’t blame the Cardinals either.  Matching the Angels’ offer would have been insane.  The offer that the Cardinals made was probably insane.  Emotionally, I wanted to see Pujols stay with the Cardinals and I would have been happy with any deal that made it possible.  But logically, a ten year deal at 20MM+ is a huge risk for any player.  Albert Pujols is going to be 32 when the deal begins.  He will be 41 when it ends.  Not many players–even elite players–age well into their late 30s and early 40s.  There are freaks of nature and/or science like Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Mariano Rivera, and Roger Clemens that play well into their twilight years.  But there are many players like Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, Larry Walker, Mark McGwire, Pedro Martinez, and others who see their incredible talent ravaged by injury and time.  There is no way to know what will happen to Pujols, but we all saw proof of his mortality in 2011.  I don’t begrudge the Cardinals for not going higher.

I do, however, wish that the Cardinals had negotiated better.  There’s no way to know the full story behind their plans and machinations.  I can only see what the media shows me.  But I saw a front office that, for whatever reason, was deceived by the same expectations as the fans who now lash out at Pujols.  It looked like they expected him to sign, they expected him to be polite, and they expected him to want to return above all else.  Pujols came into free agency looking for a battle.  Mozeliak arrived looking for a handshake.

From the beginning of the offseason, the Cardinals gladly handed over every bit of leverage to Pujols and Lozano.  They didn’t change their offer until late in the game.  They never gave any deadlines.  They outright denied any interest in free agents who could have competed with Pujols for the Cardinals money.  Pujols knew that the Cardinals weren’t going anywhere.  They weren’t going to snap up Jose Reyes or Prince Fielder and leave him with one less suitor.  He could take his time and wait for some team to finally snap and offer him the mind-boggling sum he thought he could get.  And if he didn’t get it?  Unlike the Marlins offer, the Cards ~9/200MM wasn’t going anywhere.

Do I think anything would have happened differently if the Cardinals were aggressive?  If they made a competitive offer to Fielder, or at least pretended that they were considering it?  If they told Pujols that they needed a decision Tuesday night then pulled their offer?  Probably not.  Almost certainly not.  But it would have been nice to see the Cardinals front office approach the negotiations with an attitude and tenacity that matched Pujols and Lozano.  Like I said before, Pujols didn’t owe the Cardinals a hometown discount.  But the Cardinals didn’t owe Pujols anything either.  They didn’t have to announce to the world that they were not pursuing Fielder or Reyes before negotiations even began.

Now it’s over.  The Cardinals will move on.  Pujols will move on.  I’ll probably cheer for the Angels in the AL now because Albert is still one of my favorite players.  I hope he has a great career in Anaheim that proves all the doubters wrong.  I hope he retires the home run champion and sails into the Hall of Fame with a Cardinal on his cap.

I also hope the Cardinals sign Prince Fielder or Carlos Beltran and crush the Angels in the World Series in 2012.

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