Post-Papi, why not Pujols?

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Now batting for the Boston Red Sox, the designated hitter, No. 5, Albert Pujols.

Preposterous? Not so much. Allow us to explain.

David Ortiz arrived here Thursday, the day position players are scheduled to report, and inevitably Big Papi will be asked if he expects this to be his last season in a Red Sox uniform.

The same question was asked last year at this time, but was framed in a different context: The Red Sox held a $12.5 million option on his contract, and the discussion centered on whether he thought the team would exercise that option or offer him an extension. When he got off to a dreadful start last April, another option was introduced: Maybe the Sox would cut ties with him all together.

Ortiz rebounded and put up good numbers, but not good enough for the Sox to offer him an extension or tack on an additional option year. When the 2011 season ends, Ortiz's contract is due to expire. Given that he will be turning 36 in November, there is a strong likelihood that the Big Papi era in Boston will be coming to a close.

So, who will replace Ortiz's bat in the Red Sox's order?

Well, the Sox gave us part of the answer in December when they traded for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, a power-hitting, left-handed hitter who, like Ortiz, should wear out the Green Monster. Still, the Sox could use another big bat, preferably one
from the right side with Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis to complement the Gonzalez/Carl Crawford/Jacoby Ellsbury left-handed hitting troika.

You say the Red Sox, with two players already assured of being paid $20 million or more next season, wouldn't add a third? Don't be so sure. Ortiz's contract comes off the books after the season. So does the $14 million being paid J.D. Drew, the $12 million being paid Jonathan Papelbon, the $7.5 million being paid Mike Cameron, the $5 million being paid Marco Scutaro and the $2 million being paid Jason Varitek. That's more than $52 million right there.

Yes, the Sox already have $95.6 million committed in payroll for 2012, but they already have potential replacements for Papelbon in the already signed Bobby Jenks and Daniel Bard, a rookie shortstop to replace Scutaro in Jose Iglesias (if Jed Lowrie doesn't win the job) and a rookie outfielder in Ryan Kalish (or Josh Reddick) to succeed Drew. The starting rotation is set for the next four years, which leaves a ton of money left over to invest in another big bat.

That's where Pujols comes in. Ask yourself this: When haven't the Red Sox gotten involved in the bidding for the biggest name out there? They had Nomar Garciaparra and tried to upgrade to Alex Rodriguez. They thought they had bagged Mark Teixeira, and were stunned when he went to the Yankees. They heard all the assumptions that Crawford was going to Anaheim and left the Angels gasping.

Sure, we don't know if Pujols would be willing to be a DH or accept a time-sharing arrangement at first base with Gonzalez, which would give you the choice of two Gold Glovers at the bag. But we also imagine that if the Sox make him the highest-paid player in the game, he'd consider subbing at midfielder for John W. Henry's soccer team in Liverpool.

Which brings us to the wild card in this whole equation: the owner. Henry runs his business on mathematical formulas, and numbers play a significant role in the operation of his baseball team, as well. But if there is one instance in which Henry might be swayed by sentiment, this might be it.

Henry, raised on a farm in Arkansas, grew up a Cardinals fan.

"I used to have an old Zenith -- a shortwave, about that size," Henry once told me, gesturing to a radio in his office in Fenway Park. "Growing up on a farm in Arkansas, my nearest neighbor was about a mile away. I really didn't have much in the way of playmates. The Cardinals were really my world. I had a rich inner life.

"I was a complete introvert," he said. "I had a great front yard. People would come to my front yard, friends would come over and play baseball, but I was too shy to ask if I could play."

His hero, he said, was Stan Musial. "I loved the character of Stan Musial," he told me. "When I bought the Marlins I asked if he could come and throw out the first pitch on Opening Day. He and I ended up throwing it out together. He came to my house, he played the harmonica during the game. He was just a sweetheart of a man."

When the Cardinals won the World Series in 1982, Henry said he was in Houston, on his first business trip for his company.

"When the final out was recorded, that was the first time I ever cried with joy, pure joy," he recalled. "I fell on the hotel room bed, just crying. Just sheer exaltation."

One of his biggest thrills after becoming an owner, he said, was to be interviewed by Jack Buck, the late, great Cardinals broadcaster. Another was to walk through the Cardinals' offices and have Musial wave and say, "Hello, John."

Henry thought about buying the Cardinals when Anheuser-Busch put them up for sale in the '90s, but passed. Now, however, the closest thing the Cardinals have had to Stan the Man may be had for the right price, assuming he becomes a free agent in November.

Will Henry pass again? Don't be so sure.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.