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Albert Pujols, Angels Agree On Deal But Could Cardinals Have Kept Him In St. Louis?

JIM LITKE   12/ 8/11 11:36 PM ET   AP

Kudos to whoever posted a security guard to watch over the statue of Albert Pujols outside his suburban St. Louis restaurant Thursday, even if that Albert Pujols stands 10 feet tall, weighs 1,100 pounds and hardly needed any protection. Let it be a lesson to the people in charge of the Cardinals' baseball palace some 20 miles to the west. If only they'd paid more attention to the real-life version during the decade that Pujols toiled hard and honorably for the team, he might still be anchored there, too.

Instead, the moment Pujols took flight for Anaheim, the landscape of baseball was drastically altered.

St. Louis, still catching its breath after manager Tony La Russa's retirement, has almost no chance of defending the World Series title it just won. Miami came up just short on its biggest gambit and became just another multimillion-dollar also-ran. The American League West is the new center of power. The Los Angeles market became big enough to support two teams. And the smartest guy in the game – at the moment, anyway – is Angels owner Arte Moreno.

The comparisons between Moreno signing Pujols to a $254-million, 10-year contract and former Ranger owner Tom Hicks signing Alex Rodriguez to a similarly stratospheric – but ultimately disastrous – deal are already beginning. Pujols will be 41 and hardly the most fearsome slugger in in baseball by the end of it. The big difference is that Moreno will get his value back long before 2018.

Unlike A-Rod, Pujols joins a team with what was arguably the best pitching staff in the AL, and it got considerably better when Moreno slapped down another $77.5 million over five years to steal free-agent pitcher C.J. Wilson from the rival Texas Rangers. Pujols likely will have Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells batting on either side of him in the order for protection, meaning a lineup that ranked 10th in producing runs a season ago is headed nowhere but up. Just as important as the on-field upgrade is how competitive this makes the Angels in their battle against the Dodgers for headlines.

Signing Pujols would have been a boon for the Marlins, too. Unveiling Pujols along with a new ballpark, a new manager (Ozzie Guillen) and new superstar sidekicks (former Mets shortstop Jose Reyes and Padres closer Heath Bell) might have enabled the Marlins to give the Miami Heat a run for the headlines. It also would have gone a long way toward the ballclub's target of doubling attendance, which is what ownership's counting on to recoup most of the money laid out during an uncharacteristic spending spree.

Although the economics of the deal won't be settled for years, it seems clear the Cardinals had the most to lose.

"We are disappointed that we were unable to reach an agreement to keep Albert Pujols in St. Louis," team owner Bill DeWitt Jr. said in a statement. "Albert is a great champion, and we will always be thankful for his many achievements in a Cardinals uniform, as well as his contributions to the St. Louis community. I have the highest regard for Albert both personally and professionally, and appreciate his direct involvement in this process. I would like our fans to know that we tried our best to make Albert a lifetime Cardinal, but unfortunately we were unable to make it happen."

Last January, the Cardinals offered Pujols nine years and $198 million. That wouldn't even have made him the highest-paid first baseman. Their last offer reportedly was for 10 years and pushed the guaranteed dollars somewhere past $200 million. So while DeWitt's statement thanking Pujols for all his contributions – big roles in both of St. Louis' last two World Series championships – sounds right, the part about management trying "our best to make Albert a lifetime Cardinal" doesn't go far enough.

They had the guy in town his whole career and the chance to lock him up long before it came to this. Pujols knows the town, especially the ballpark, and would have kept the Cardinals competitive for another handful of seasons or so. Instead, another team will reap the benefits of a few extra dollars from his pursuit of the home-run mark somewhere down the road. And nowhere would that feat be as welcomed as it would have been in St. Louis.

"He left a pretty good impact over there. I don't think fans will soon forget what his contributions were," said former Cardinals manager and star Joe Torre, now an executive with Major League Baseball. "I still think the St. Louis fans are going to be more appreciative than angry."

And even the angry ones know where to find Pujols. Just don't try touching the statue.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at . http://Twitter.com/JimLitke

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Filed by Chris Greenberg  |