Fans at Busch Stadium for the St. Louis Cardinals' final home tilt of the regular season on Sept. 25 had only one concern on their minds as the game got underway. And, no, it wasn't whether Allen Craig or David Freese would be more deserving of the World Series MVP in a few weeks time.
With one on and one away in the home half of the first inning, the mood at Clark and S. Broadway was downright bittersweet. Despite the fact that the Cards had already closed within two games of the Braves for the National League Wild Card and that the team's top bat was coming to the plate with speedy Rafael Furcal on base, fans were worrying over a future loss rather than anticipating the many wins that would follow.
This Cards-Cubs game was potentially the final time these fans would ever see Albert Pujols in a home uniform. For 11 seasons, the three-time NL MVP winner had been historically prodigious in St. Louis. In exchange for his Hall of Fame-caliber production, he'd been revered and beloved by these red-clad fans. The Dominican-born Pujols had become "El Hombre," reflecting his status alongside franchise icon Stan "The Man" Musial. When the free-agent-to-be came to bat in the first, the fans unleashed a 40-second ovation just in case this was their last turn on the dance floor. Pujols doffed his batting helmet in acknowledgement. Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster even stepped off the mound to let No. 5 soak in the moment.
Stepping into the batter's box for that at-bat, Pujols had already won one World Series crown -- soon to be two -- and made six -- soon to be seven -- trips to the postseason. By all narrative accounts and statistical measures, the relationship between Pujols, the Cardinals and St. Louis has been as happy as any this side of Derek Jeter (and Mariano Rivera), the Yankees and New York.
Unlike the Yankees did with Jeter, though, the Cardinals don't seem inclined to re-sign Pujols at any cost. Following the 2010 season, the New York shortstop reached free agency for the first time in his career at age 36. After some tense, and surprisingly public negotiations, the Bombers made certain that "The Captain" would be outfitted with pinstripes for the remainder of his playing days by inking a deal that was widely considered to be paying Jeter at least as much for services previously rendered as for anything that he was likely to accomplish in the twilight of his career. At age 31, Pujols' options and appeal are much wider. While Yankees GM Brian Cashman -- briefly a free agent, himself, this month -- dared Jeter to find a better deal than the one he had on the table in the Bronx, the Cardinals will not be in a similar position of leverage this offseason.
By the time that the Redbirds had landed in Milwaukee for Game 6 of the NLCS against the Brewers, Pujols had already received just-in-case farewells from the fans on three occasions: There was that last game home game of the regular season, Game 4 of the NLDS and Game 5 of the NLCS. With the Cards on track to clinch NL pennant in that sixth game on the road, Pujols had the chance to participate in such a moment with someone else as the focal point. In the bottom of the eighth inning, with St. Louis safely ahead, Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder came to bat. Like Pujols, Fielder was on the cusp of free agency. And, like the fans in St. Louis, the crowd at Miller Park wanted to express its adoration for a possibly-departing favorite. As the crowd roared for the rotund slugger, Pujols stepped off first base to allow his rival a few extra moments to bask cheers.
More than most, Pujols understood what it meant and how uncertain -- yet lucrative -- the future could be. The spectre of free agency would loom over everything that Pujols would accomplish for the remainder of the postseason and would accompany him through the team's victory parade. While the games were being played, everyone speculated about the various "lasts" that he would be undertaking in a Cardinals uniform if he left. There were, potentially, last at-bats, last putouts, last home runs, last high fives, last errors and last missteps with the press. Once St. Louis closer Jason Motte recorded the final out of Game 7, the conversation shifted from those lasts to the all-important NEXT. What was Albert going to do? Would he return to the Cardinals?
Although the next several years of his career will almost certainly be less impressive than the previous several, Pujols was viewed as a franchise-altering talent even before he clouted three home runs in Game 3 of the World Series. Needless to say, accomplishing a feat heretofore only managed by Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson doesn't hurt future salary projections.
Aside from Pujols and Fielder, All-Stars like Jose Reyes, C.J. Wilson and David Ortiz are also on the free-agent market. From Reyes' early departure from the Mets' final game of the season to Wilson's lackluster postseason and Ortiz' part in the Red Sox historic collapse, there are stories every bit as complex as those of Pujols and Fielder throughout the Majors. All told, more than 140 players have been listed as free agents as we enter the "Hot Stove" season. Here are all of those free agents, from the superstars to the scrubs.
Who are the top prizes? Which signing will be the likeliest to disappoint? Who is already on the team that provides the best fit? And, who needs a change of scenery?