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Pujols to the Cubs?

Even before the self-imposed deadline passed, the Chicago media planted the seed. Now that Albert Pujols will put off negotiations until the completion of the season, the media has run wild with the notion that Pujols could (should?) sign with the Chicago Cubs next season. Cubs Chairman, Tom Ricketts, hasn’t exactly dispelled the notion, saying the Cubs should have more “financial flexibility” once the season ends. Is Pujols signing with the Cubs a legitimate possibility, or nothing more than a pipe dream created by the media?

Ricketts is correct when he says the Cubs will have some financial flexibility next season. Kosuke Fukudome and Carlos Pena will reach free-agency, allowing the Cubs to save $24 million. It’s more than likely the Cubs will not pick up an option on Carlos Silva, which would clear an additional $10 million for the next season. The Cubs also hold an option on Aramis Ramirez, but could keep the veteran if he can bounce back this season. Assuming the Cubs let Fokudome and Pena walk, and pay Silva to pitch elsewhere, the Cubs could clear around $34 million next off-season. If money isn’t as much of an issue, and the team will already have a vacancy at first base, what would hold them back from pursuing Pujols?

The state of this current Cubs team is tough to gauge. While they have one of the largest payrolls in all of baseball, the Cubs are not considered serious contenders for the division. If the Cubs struggle in 2011, they are going to have to decide whether it’s worth it to pursue Pujols when they could have multiple holes to fill. If Andrew Cashner, Casey Coleman and Tyler Colvin prove they are capable of starting at the major league level, Pujols could be exactly what the Cubs need to make them a contender in 2012. Should those players falter, the Cubs will have multiple holes to fill during the next off-season.

The Cubs, however, appear to be one of the few teams that can actually court Pujols in the next off-season. The Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies have already committed to their first basemen of the future, and the Los Angeles Dodgers are a mess financially. The Los Angeles Angels were considered major players in the free-agent market heading into this off-season, but may have committed too much money to Vernon Wells after missing out on some of the premier free-agents (Adrian Beltre and Carl Crawford). The Toronto Blue Jays might be the only other team that could challenge the Cubs and Cardinals for Pujols’ services. The Blue Jays cleared a lot of payroll recently (Vernon Wells and Alex Rios), and they can easily move Adam Lind to DH if they sign Pujols. Toronto isn’t perceived as a big-market team, however, and it’s unclear whether they could handle such a large increase in their payroll. A lot can change between now and next season, but the Cubs look to be one of the few teams competing for Pujols.

Despite the fact that their initial deadline to negotiate has passed, the Cardinals are still going to be a major player in the Pujols sweepstakes. While the Cubs would love to extract the best player from their arch-rival, the Cardinals may still hold the upper hand in negotiations. If St. Louis actually allows Pujols to reach the free-agent market, the Cubs will be legitimate contenders for his services. It’s a scary thought for Cardinals’ fans, but the potential exists for Pujols to bleed Cubbie blue next season.