Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
With every day that passes, the Albert Pujols era comes closer to ending in St. Louis. This has been some run -- arguably only Derek Jeter has had a better one with his original team over the last two decades -- and it's as hard to imagine the Cardinals without Pujols as it is the Yankees without Jeter.
But the clock is ticking loudly and thus far Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and general manager John Mozeliak have done nothing to stifle the noise. If anything, the negotiation that came to an end at spring training only turned up the volume, as it showed the gap between what Pujols believes he's worth (roughly $30 million a year for 10 years) and what the Cardinals are willing and able to pay him (maybe two-thirds what he's asking for).
Which side will Cardinals' fans take -- the player's or the team's?
"If they want to boo, I don't care," Pujols told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "But I hope they got the right reason if they boo. ... If they decide they want to boo because we didn't get a contract done, I can't control that."
Twenty-nine other teams are focused on their business but questions about Pujols and his top-heavy team are never far from anyone's mind. It's the storyline of the year in 2011, dominating baseball as nothing involving any one player has since a juiced-up Barry Bonds passed Henry Aaron on the home run list.
The Cardinals are intent on getting to the World Series one more time with Pujols and manager Tony La Russa together, but starter Adam Wainwright's season-ending elbow injury raised questions about whether they can compete with the National League Central Division-defending champion Reds, who won despite strong strong showings from Pujols, Matt Holliday, Chris Carpenter and Wainwright in 2010.
Pujols, who gained 10-and-five trade veto power last season -- a threshold that passed without Mozeliak calling the question on whether Pujols could be signed to the equivalent of a lifetime contract -- has said he won't agree to a trade. But if the Cardinals get off to a bad start, you better believe a lot of teams will pursue him, eager to tempt the Cardinals with real prospects over the reality of receiving only two draft picks if he leaves as a free agent.
Fans of teams like the Cubs, Nationals and Angels will debate what No. 5 would look like in one of their uniforms. There will be talk about the Pujols market being down because the Yankees and Red Sox seemingly are set with Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez, respectively, but it's foolish to rule out any team with significant resources from the Pujols derby.
Pujols is playing it cool, which isn't hard for him. He has made all the right moves since migrating from the Dominican Republic to New York City (and then on to Independence, Mo.) when he was 16. He will put up his numbers and see what happens.
"It's another season," Pujols said. "What else can it be? How else can I approach it? It's another year like it was in '01, '02, '03 . . . like every year since then. Tell me: How do you want me to approach it?"
Eleven teams have changed managers since the start of last season, but only seven have new managers. The Cubs' Mike Quade, Diamondbacks' Kirk Gibson, Marlins' Edwin Rodriguez and Orioles' Buck Showalter took over during last season.
This should be an advantage for those teams, as the managers had time to evaluate their personnel and to begin to institute their philosophies. While Quade replaced a high-profile guy in Lou Piniella, the biggest change might have been the Diamondbacks' switch from A.J. Hinch to Gibson, the hard-nosed football/baseball star from Michigan State who was an October hero for the Tigers and Dodgers.
Gibson and first-year GM Kevin Towers inherit a team that lost 97 games a year ago with a philosophy of home run or strikeout (setting a major-league record for strikeouts last season). The trade of the record-setting Mark Reynolds to the Orioles demonstrated Towers' desire for a change and Gibson has been relentless about situation hitting and fundamentals during camp.
One veteran told a national columnist that Gibson needed to "dial it down" but ultra-talented, under-productive Justin Upton said the Diamondbacks had it easy in the past.
"We did. I buy that," right fielder Upton told Fox's Ken Rosenthal. "Not that it was too easy. We just never had it that hard. It wasn't overly demanding before. It may be a little over-demanding (now), but that's what you need to change the culture of a clubhouse."
The other seven teams with new managers: Braves (Fredi Gonzalez), Brewers (Ron Roenicke), Dodgers (Don Mattingly), Mets (Terry Collins), Pirates (Clint Hurdle), Mariners (Eric Wedge) and Blue Jays (John Farrell).
Stepping it up
The White Sox are opting for a marketing campaign of "All In" after adding Adam Dunn and retaining the core of last year's 88-victory team. Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf raised the stakes in the hopes of another playoff run while he still has Mark Buehrle and the durable rotation around him. He's not alone in making this essentially a must-win season.
The Tigers spent heavily on Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit. The A's found money for three veteran run-producers: Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus and Josh Willingham. But no team was more aggressive in trying to improve than the Brewers.
With Price Fielder on the threshold of free agency, GM Doug Melvin traded for the Royals' Zack Greinke and the Blue Jays' Shaun Marcum, sacrificing youngsters for veteran pitchers who may be passing through. The Greinke move is especially intriguing, as he was desperate to go to a team that could win. He secretly pitched Yankees GM Brian Cashman to acquire him when he was still with the Royals but Cashman was scared off by a variety of factors, including his history with anxiety disorder. So he will take his chances in Milwaukee
"Hopefully, we'll be winning," said Greinke, who opens the season on the DL after breaking a rib playing baseball. "It's fun to win."
Especially when you're all in.
Anyone can pick teams like the Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies to win. But which teams are the most likely to surprise in 2011? Here, in order, are a few:
1. Angels: No longer preseason darlings after falling into the ranks of the also-rans a year ago, the Angels still must be taken seriously. They have one of the best rotations in the majors after the 2010 trade for Dan Haren, who joins the underrated Jered Weaver and Ervin Santana. Joel Pineiro is a solid No. 4 starter, and Scott Kazmir might be just a place-holder in the No. 5 spot. Kendrys Morales' lingering leg problems clouded spring training but there's nothing wrong with Vernon Wells, who along with Torii Hunter and rookie Mark Trumbo could provide just enough production to make Mike Scioscia's team dangerous again.
2. Dodgers: Most analysts either are picking the defending World Series champion Giants or the Rockies to win the NL West. But the Dodgers could wind up with a better ERA from their starters than the rotations Tim Lincecum and Ubaldo Jimenez head. Clayton Kershaw has gotten stronger and started to mature, but any of the three other starters (Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda and Ted Lilly) could work more innings with an even lower ERA. Jon Garland got dinged up in spring training but should be a strong No. 5. Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and James Loney aren't kids anymore.
3. Marlins: Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson are impressive headliners, and the arrivals of Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison nicely offset the departure of Dan Uggla. GM Larry Beinfest is a terrific resource for owner Jeffrey Loria, and he filled holes nicely in importing Javier Vazquez and John Buck while getting the versatile Omar Infante in the Uggla trade.
4. Blue Jays: It's hard to see these guys challenging the Red Sox, but a serious run into wild-card contention isn't out of the question. The Jays operates under financial constraints not known in Boston and New York -- witness the trade of Vernon Wells, and to a lesser degree Shaun Marcum -- but stumbled into a difference-making slugger in Jose Bautista and has young talent in abundance (left-handers Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil, right-hander Kyle Drabek, left fielder Travis Snider and catcher J.P. Arencibia). The secret weapon is arguably the AL's deepest bullpen.
Former Cub Jake Fox was the best hitter in the majors when it didn't count, hitting 10 home runs and slugging .808 before the Orioles' broke camp. He doesn't have a place to play, however, as the Orioles' imported Vladimir Guerrero to be their DH and Derrek Lee to play first base. "
Ultimately, hopefully, I will have a chance to be an everyday player someday," Fox said, "But at this point, to get my foot in the door, I have to move around."
Other players having huge springs: the Diamondbacks' Russell Branyan and Ryan Roberts; the Astros' Brett Wallace; the Cubs' Starlin Castro'; the Braves' Chipper Jones and the Giants' Brandon Belt.