Perhaps it's the native Clevelander in me. Perhaps it's a byproduct of watching a team bend over backward to accommodate a player and make him a local legend, only to see him walk away for what he perceived to be a better opportunity elsewhere. But I find little surprise in Albert Pujols' reported rejection of a contract proposal from the Cardinals and the apparent stalemate between the two sides as his self-imposed deadline for contract negotiations with the Cardinals nears. I'm having a difficult time believing in the fairy tale that this will ultimately all work out simply because Pujols is the "face of the franchise" and recognizes what he means to the Cards and their fans. Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers where that mentality got them last summer.
Granted, it's a completely different sport and a completely different player. I'm not at all suggesting Pujols has the ego of LeBron James. His decision, whatever it may be, likely won't be announced as part of some back-patting spectacle on national TV. But what I am suggesting is that, ultimately, Pujols is probably going to do one of two things (or perhaps both): Go for the most money, or go for what he deems to be the greatest chance to contend for a title. And if you consider all the factors at hand, I'm not sure either of those opportunities rests with the Redbirds. Let's start with the money issue. Say the Cardinals find a way to give Pujols his market value. That value, if comparable contracts are brought into the conversation (and they always are) insists on Alex Rodriguez's 10-year, $275 million contract as a starting point. Is there any question that, at this moment, Pujols is the greatest player in the game? Hard to argue otherwise. His 162-game average is a .331 average, 42 homers, 44 doubles, 128 RBIs, 123 runs and a 1.050 OPS. For most players, that would be a career year, not a career average. Now, we can point out that Pujols is 31 and, like A-Rod, will see his performance diminish the deeper he gets into his next contract. Point that out all you want, but it's not how the market operates. You folks who bought the iPhone4 last week didn't pay the price the phone will be worth a year from now, did you? You paid its current cost. And that's how baseball contracts work, too. So, how about this note on market worth? Fangraphs.com calculates that Pujols' production has provided the Cards with $270 million in value over the course of his career. And in that time, he's been paid "just" $89.5 million. It's pretty well established that professional athletes don't care what we think about their perception of what is a reasonable contract for their services, relative to our own meager incomes. So let's not even get into that. The point here is that Pujols has already given the Cardinals one sizable hometown discount, and how willing he is to give another is squarely dependent on how much he values his legacy with the Cardinals. If you believe in the barrage of "unnamed sources" who have contributed to the pool of Pujols speculation, then Albert is looking for somewhere in the vicinity of $30 million a year over 10 years. Maybe that's completely off-base. Hey, maybe he settles for $30 million a year for seven years. Who knows? All we know is that if Pujols were going to pull a Joe Mauer and settle in with the team that made him a star (Mauer signed for eight years at an average annual value of $23 million), one would think he would have done so by now. That he hasn't might be telling. This is not meant to be pessimistic. Just realistic. And believe me, for the sake of Cards fans, who are among the most loyal in the game, I hope I'm wrong. But if Pujols tests the market to see if he can get A-Rod money, he'll probably get it. Or something nearing it. The Cubs will have big money coming off the books, so they could be a player. So, too, could the Angels. The Yankees and Red Sox are both set at first base, but they have the DH, so there's no reason to believe they won't get involved on some level. All it takes is one eager team -- like the Nats with Jayson Werth this winter -- to pull the trigger, and Pujols will get his money and security, if that's what he seeks. Yes, there is a financial value attached to legacy-building with one team. Pujols could sign with the Cards for less and benefit from his status as a St. Louis icon for the rest of his life. But if current contractual status as the game's top-paid player -- for the next decade, no less -- is what he seeks, there are reasons to doubt the Cardinals can commit. By the same token, if landing on a championship-caliber club is what Pujols seeks, the Cards might fall short in that area, too, simply because of the enormous burden he would place on their future payrolls. The Cards get rampant fan support, but that doesn't completely disguise the fact that they're in the seventh-smallest television market in the Majors. A $200 million payroll is not a possibility. Already this offseason, we've seen how the Pujols factor weighs in. The Cards had a glaring hole at third base but they couldn't vigorously pursue guys like Adrian Beltre or Michael Young, because they don't know to what extent their hands will be tied by the money they might need to pay their first baseman. The Cardinals already have nearly $70 million committed to six players on their 2012 payroll. Sign Pujols for anywhere from $25 million to $30 million a year, and you're looking at a payroll for seven players that exceeds what the Cards paid for 25 on Opening Day last year. Ask the Rangers what happens when you commit 25 percent of your payroll to a single player. When they signed A-Rod to a 10-year, $252 million contract in 2001, it crippled them. They had no resources to build a team around A-Rod, attendance didn't pick up enough to allow further augmentation to the payroll and the club finished last in the American League West every year A-Rod was aboard. While the Cards' situation might not be quite as bleak, the point about building around Pujols remains. When he's making half of his perceived market worth, the Cards are able to give him a decent starting cast (though one that, ultimately, hasn't proven to be championship-caliber over the past four years). Meet his contractual demands, and the threat of a completely impractical payroll situation looms. Pujols has probably noticed that potential. And he's certainly paid attention to the market worth for players of his status. Maybe, in the spirit of Valentine's Day, Pujols and the Cards recognize what a perfect pair they've become and find a workable scenario that appeases both sides. But the simple fact of the matter is that, at this juncture, the Cardinals need Pujols more than Pujols needs the Cardinals. Given that base (and, again, hoping I'm wrong), it's difficult for me to imagine a fairy tale ending here.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.