The Cardinals will open the series at home Wednesday against the Texas Rangers. That’s a certainty. Whether this Series is superstar slugger Albert Pujols’ swan song in a St. Louis uniform is less clear.
The three-time National League Most Valuable Player will hit the market as a free agent after the 2011 season ends.
Pujols has played a huge role in his 11 seasons with the Cardinals, establishing himself as one of the game’s greats. He’s the only player to hit .300 with 30 home runs and 100 runs batted in the first 10 years of his career. He fell just painfully shy of that benchmark this season – after breaking his arm in June – with 37 home runs, 99 RBIs and a .299 batting average.
Over his MLB career, in addition to his three MVP awards, Pujols has amassed just about every other recognition possible for his contributions on the field (nine-time All-Star, six Silver Slugger awards, two Gold Gloves, to name a few) and off (the 2008 Roberto Clemente Award, for which he’s among the finalists again this season).
The star has shined in the postseason as well, and expect the same in the coming week. The 2011 World Series will mark his third appearance on baseball’s greatest stage, which includes a ring from 2006. After St. Louis overcame a seemingly insurmountable 10 ½-game deficit in the last week of August to secure a place in the playoffs, the first baseman has hit .416 with a pair of home runs and 10 RBIs.
Pujols is not the only reason the Cardinals have advanced deep into October. NLCS MVP David Freese certainly deserves his moment in the spotlight (Pujols, too, can list an NLCS MVP among his many accolades with the club, having earned the distinction in 2004.) But it’s indisputable that Pujols has been a driving force for the franchise for over a decade.
Now with the season winding down – even though the Cardinals and Rangers still have their biggest games of the year ahead – the speculation about Pujols’ future, with St. Louis or any other club, is returning. The storyline that’s hung over the Dominican star for the better part of the season isn’t going to go away, but he has managed to largely delay addressing the issue since calling off negotiations after the Cardinals failed to meet his imposed deadline prior to spring training.
With the end – whether it’s simply the end of the 2011 season or the end of his time in St. Louis – near, the question that many have put off asking is back.
"I don't think about (being a) free agent right now,” Pujols told assembled reporters Tuesday. “Let's talk about the World Series and how I can help the Cardinals to win it. That's my main goal."
St. Louis will need all the help it can get with Texas as the favorite to take the title.
And with Pujols’ free agency certain to dominate offseason discussion the way he’s dominated baseball, there will be plenty of time to ponder his future beyond this season once this season is officially in the books.
Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist, chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force, and a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. Follow her on Twitter: @BurnsOrtiz