Era Could End For Losing Team In Game 5

For both the Cardinals and Phillies, Friday night's game could signal the last for a key player. Both Albert Pujols and Jimmy Rollins are heading for free agency and could be in their last game with their current club.

Rest assured that when Game 5 ends, there will be a bunch of people in one of the dugouts that won't be very happy. Meanwhile, on the other side of the field, a short-lived celebration will begin, ending in plenty of time to prepare for Sunday's Game 1 of the NLCS. The losing side of the field will also stop to wonder if perhaps an era in their team's history will have come to an end.

St. Louis fans would be left to wonder if Albert Pujols, one of the best hitters to ever play the game, has played his last game in a Cardinals uniform, while Phillies fans would be pondering the fate of Jimmy Rollins. Both players are free agents at the end of the season and neither is a lock to re-sign with their current team, although both have said they would like to stay right where they're at. Of course, in these days of immediate and public fan reactions through social media sites and the internet in general, both have to say something like that.

The 31 year-old Pujols is in his 11th season with the Cardinals and has played in all but 77 of the Cardinals scheduled games over that time, missing an average of just seven games per season. Many of those games - 15 - came this season when he missed time with a small fracture in his left wrist. During his time with St. Louis, Pujols has won the Rookie of the Year Award, three MVP Awards and has been an all-star nine times. Four other times, he finished second in the MVP voting and he has also collected six Silver Slugger Awards and one Gold Glove Award. If he were to stop playing right now, Pujols' numbers would be good enough to get him a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Wherever he signs, Pujols is going to get a boatload of money. That's where the problem lays for the Cardinals, who might just not be able to afford him. Ironically, Matt Holliday, who the Cardinals brought in to bat behind Pujols to help prevent teams from pitching around him, might be part of the reason why there may not be enough money. The Cards owe Holliday $17 million per season for another five seasons. They also owe Chris Carpenter $15 million and recently re-signed Lance Berkman to a one-year deal for $12 million. Add another $8.5 million for Jake Westbrook and in four players, the Cardinals already have $52.5 million guaranteed for the 2012 season. Other guaranteed deals push the Cardinals payroll just shy of $75 million and that doesn't include players like Ryan Theriot, Skip Schumaker and Jason Motte, who are eligible for arbitration. Nor does it include the likes of Edwin Jackson, who is a free agent. In 2011, the Cardinals payroll was at $109 million and they don't figure to go much higher than that in 2012.

Even though perennial big spenders Boston and the New York Yankees don't have a lineup spot for Pujols, Central Division rival Chicago along with the Florida Marlins, who next year will officially be the Miami Marlins and be in a new stadium, could look to make a splash and Pujols would certainly do just that. Signing with the Cubs, who share no love with St. Louis would be a real shot through the heart for the Cardinals.

Meanwhile, the Phillies should be able to afford Rollins, because they'll drop some big contracts - Raul Ibanez, Brad Lidge and possibly, Roy Oswalt - from their books. The question is, do the Phillies want to give Rollins the anticipated five-year, $70 million deal that he figures to be asking for from other teams. Rollins has stated he would like to stay in Philly, but has never hinted that he would give the Phillies a hometown discount.

The Phillies decision is either complicated or made easier, depending on how you look at it, by the emergence of young Freddy Galvis. The 21 year-old shortstop is all but major league ready and the Phillies certainly aren't getting any younger. At 32, Rollins is one of the aging stars on a club that is looking like it may need a shot of some youth in the not-too-distant future. If the Phillies were to give him five years, he would be 37 when the contract ends and there are no guarantees that he'll be anywhere near the same player that he is now, considering that he's already showing some signs of losing a step here and there. There are veteran shortstops like Clint Barmes and Alex Gonzalez who would be available for much less money and possibly on a one-year deal that would give the Phillies some financial flexibility and not put a huge roadblock directly in front of Galvis.

Of course, there are no guarantees that Rollins will reach the level of contract that he's looking for at the end of the season. His five-year demand might scare away a number of clubs and $15 million per season is a hefty price. If any team is willing to come close to that, the San Francisco Giants might be the one. Rollins grew up in the Bay Area and would be a perfect fit for San Francisco. Like the Phillies, the Giants have some money coming off the books and are in need of offense and especially need a strong presence at shortstop to help their club battle back to the postseason in 2012. Rollins will likely have to battle New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes for the affection of clubs needing a shortstop and he could wind-up being a Plan B for clubs who lose out on Reyes, who is hoping to land a $100 million deal somewhere.

No matter which teams fails to win Game 5, that club will have a lot of questions to answer regarding one of their top players. Neither club figures to have an easy time re-signing their own guy and neither club figures to have easy answers as to whether or not they should re-sign their own guy. Both clubs could put the money they save toward acquiring other players and it just might figure that they'll choose to go in that direction. The Phillies could also benefit by offering Rollins arbitration, since if he accepts, he would get the one-year deal they would love and if he signs elsewhere, they'll get extra draft picks to help replenish their farm system, which has been hit hard by trades over the past couple of seasons.

Call it a Swan Song, the end of an era or whatever else you want to call it, but Game 5 will produce some potential heartbreak in more ways than one for the losing team.

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