Albert Pujols, Washington National? Some thoughts

Adam Kilgore
Copyright 2011
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 7:41 PM

Tyler Kepner, the esteemed national baseball writer for the New York Times, wrote an interesting post on the newspaper's Bats blog. He engages in some educated speculation that the Nationals would be a sensible fit for Albert Pujols should he become a free agent, a prospect made more likely Wednesday when his self-imposed deadline to sign a contract extension with the St. Louis Cardinals passed. The idea of the Nationals as a suitor for Pujols, as exceedingly hypothetical as it is, seems to be gaining steam, a ripple effect from the busy, splashy offseason. By handing Jayson Werth his seven-year, $126 million contract, the Nationals announced themselves as a major player for elite, expensive talent. The baseball world took notice. The Werth contract showed the Nationals had money to spend, and certainly, the Lerners have more. First of all, they're billionaires; it's not a question of if they can spend the money, only if they want to and if they can convince a desirable player to take it. Secondly, the Nationals have ample short-term payroll flexibility. Even after signing Werth, the Nationals' opening day 2011 payroll will settle somewhere around $63 million, which is actually less than their $66 million opening day payroll in 2010. The Nationals' money and their malleable first base situation makes them an intriguing potential suitor. Yes, they signed Adam LaRoche to a two-year contract this offseason. But in the pie-in-the-sky event they can land Pujols, they could easily trade him or just eat LaRoche's contract and consider it part of the astronomical price to acquire one of the best hitters in baseball history. There are obstacles, though, foremost the one all suitors face: the likelihood that Pujols returns to the Cardinals. He is an icon in St. Louis, and he is worth more to the Cardinals than any other club. The Cardinals missed one chance to sign him, but there will be many, many more chances for them to sign him before he hits free agency, deadline or no deadline. Today, Pujols said he wants to be a Cardinal "forever," which would seem to diminish anyone's chance of signing him. That's an awful long time. And while the Nationals seemingly have money to burn, the future holds several potentially lucrative deals that must be considered. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's contract extension will run out at the end of the 2013 season, at which point, given their ages, he may very well be a more valuable player than Pujols. (Pujols will be 33, Zimmerman 28.) Stephen Strasburg's future is somewhat in question as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, but odds favor a full recovery and if he reaches his enormous potential, the Nationals will owe him big money in arbitration starting in 2014, and he is eligible for free agency after the 2017 season. Bryce Harper's free agency will be looming at that point. And Werth's massive deal will be on the books until 2018. We're starting to wade into extreme hypotheticals here, even compared to the usual Albertageddon scenarios; Harper has not even appeared in his first spring training. If the Nationals really do get serious about Pujols if and when the time comes, his immense ability probably becomes the priority - sign him and figure out the rest later. But the current Werth deal and potential new contracts for Zimmerman, Strasburg and Harper are something that will have to be weighed as the Nationals move forward, even when it comes to the possibility of bidding for the best baseball player alive.

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