Fear not, everyone: The Cubs are out of the Albert Pujols sweepstakes in favor of signing David DeJesus, who gives us an example of just how expensive middle-of-the-road difference-maker free agents might be in this offseason—he's costing them two years, $10 million, with an option of some kind. For David DeJesus that might not be worthy of remarks; for DeJesus at 32, coming off his worst season in Oakland's offensive graveyard, it's a minor gamble.
The Cardinals look ready to make their own minor gamble at shortstop, where Rafael Furcal—older and less consistent than DeJesus—could be looking for a two-year deal of his own. Unfortunately, I'm not sure John Mozeliak's laudable effort to keep saying Tyler Greene's name until Furcal's agents remember who he is is going to successfully drive Furcal's price down, but given the Cardinals' security elsewhere and their willingness to play Daniel Descalso at second base they can probably afford to turn, say, Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot's $6 million into Furcal in 2012 and worry about getting burned on it in 2013, when Ryan Jackson is ready to become a .220-hitting cult hero.
While we struggle to know anything about what's going on with Pujols and Prince Fielder, these free-agency triage moves are the most interesting part of the Hot Stove League. The Cubs have successfully replaced Kosuke Fukudome with his non-union American equivalent, and steeled themselves to deal with a potentially awkward situation in which Alfonso Soriano is a perfectly useful short-side platoon guy for the last three years and $54 million of his Major League career.
The Cardinals, for their part, already have Adam Wainwright coming back and a full season of having not signed Ryan Franklin and Miguel Batista to look forward to. But it's at shortstop that they have the clearest chance to upgrade, Pujols or no Pujols, which is why they've been linked to Jimmy Rollins, of all people.
Objection one: Of all the players currently in free agency and not named Albert Pujols, I think Jimmy Rollins benefits the most from not moving to another team in mid-career. Rollins is not an actual Hall of Fame shortstop, but he has an MVP Award, he's accumulated 1866 hits already, and he's played 11 seasons for the same team, which has gone from irrelevant to perennial World Series contenders over the course of his career.
If he's looking at his legacy, his only way to add to his Hall of Fame cred if he moves to the Cardinals is if he has one of those years that's good enough that he gets all the credit for the Cardinals repeating—he'd probably have to do about what he did last year, which was his best season since 2008.
But if he sticks around for the Phillies until he's 37, getting 150 hits a year, he's got 2600 hits for the same team, which would be the most in team history and do great things for the BBWAA voters who still hate free agency. The Phillies, admittedly, don't have nearly the same pressure to resign Rollins as the Cardinals do Pujols, so he could look elsewhere if he's being lowballed, but it makes sense for him to make his quixotic chase of 3000 hits with the Phillies if he wants to be yet another guy elected to the Hall of Fame ahead of Alan Trammell.
Objection two: Jimmy Rollins wants to stick around until he's 37. The list of shortstops who were still effective at 37 isn't exclusively superstars—Honus Wagner and Ozzie Smith were both All-Star caliber, while Omar Vizquel, Larry Bowa, Pee Wee Reese, and Rabbit Maranville were all useful—but at the same time, a lot of players who were much better than Jimmy Rollins at 32 were much worse at 37.
Derek Jeter this year is a good example—his defense was as terrible as ever, and his offense wasn't quite good enough to make him an average everyday player. Trammell and Barry Larkin couldn't play full seasons.
Objection three: I actually like Jimmy Rollins a lot as a baseball player—the surprise power, the triples, the stolen bases, even the counting stat accumulation—but Rafael Furcal just makes too much sense for the Cardinals at shortstop, whether they sign Albert Pujols or not. 34 isn't exactly a great vintage for shortstops, either, but 27 players managed at least two WAR at that age. The age curve for a Rollins contract would be less than forgiving, and I'm sure John Mozeliak knows it: 36, 27, 17, 13, 6.
I can believe that the Cardinals will feel a need to make a splashy free agent move if Albert Pujols goes elsewhere, but I can't believe that it would be signing Jimmy Rollins for three years more than they'd need to offer Furcal for an extra win or win-and-a-half in 2012.
Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook will be gone after the season; why wouldn't they chase down a starter? Mark Buehrle or Roy Oswalt would each be much cheaper, available on a short-term deal, and just as popular in St. Louis; C.J. Wilson would be a Rollins-sized gamble and offer the same look-we're-doing-something glow. And Yu Darvish would successfully corner the market on Japanophile VEB authors, if they're interested.