Looking at a season that appears to be lost, the Chicago Cubs and their fans are already looking forward to 2012. The top two free agents in the marketplace are the St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols and the Milwaukee Brewers' Prince Fielder. The intriguing question for Cubs fans, and more importantly, owner Tom Ricketts and his family, is which one of these megastars would be best for the Cubs to bid on in the offseason.
Fielder is the right player for the Cubs because of his age and ability. If you put him in the mix with Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney and emerging outfielder Brett Jackson, it would be easy to project better results on the field next season. With the possibility of $39.1 million coming off the books due to the expiring contracts of Kosuke Fukudome and Carlos Pena and a team option on Aramis Ramirez, it would be easy to pay Fielder $25 million a year to be the face of the Cubs for the next five to seven seasons.
Fielder, 27, is five years younger than Pujols. In recent times if the Cubs have been guilty of anything, it's paying a player for what he has done in the past rather than basing the salary on what they project him to do in the future after age 30 (see Alfonso Soriano). At 32, trying to project Pujols beyond five years may be dangerous even if he is the most dominant player in the game and maybe the greatest right-handed hitter in the last 50 years.
Pujols' asking price will be in the range of $30 million a season for seven to 10 years. Fielder's price will be a tad less than that. He will more than likely wait until Pujols has established the market price on star first baseman before signing. Keep in mind Fielder, who has averaged 38 home runs in his five full seasons, is represented by super agent Scott Boras, who invented the technique of having owners bid against themselves in free agency. Boras had the Rangers bid Alex Rodriguez's contract from $200 to $250 million without any other teams involved in 2000.
As an overall player, Pujols is superior to Fielder. Pujols is stronger defensively, a better base runner, and he has an image that is easier to market. Fielder, who is a good guy, is much more of a private person. However, he may just be emerging as a professional player. Having spent his entire career in Milwaukee has had its pluses and minuses. He has not been hounded by the media there like he would in Chicago, New York or Los Angeles. Secondly, living up to a $100-$200 million contract brings its own pressure.
When you move to a new city, you must prove yourself to that fanbase. When these two stars are looking at megamillion dollar offers they are are going to have to ask themselves if it's worth it to move to a new city and risk getting off to a slow start in front of a fanbase that expects you to be great everyday. That kind of pressure can devastate even the strongest wills.
The Cubs have an idea that they must go younger. They believe they can build around the farm system players. But that theory is a little too simplistic to implement as a plan to win every year. The Cubs, like every big market team, will have to continue to go into free agency and try to bring the best players to Chicago. Astute trading and developing your young players are other parts of that formula.
Every team needs a hero. More importantly, every marketing department can sell a superstar to the fans and advertisers. A $25 million a year contract for Fielder is a no-brainer, and more importantly, it's the first step in regaining a foothold with their advertisers and their shaky season ticketholders.