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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Winter wondering: Pujols' destination tops offseason questions

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Selig says baseball labor talks have been 'constructive,' and a new deal is expected soon. (Getty Images)  
Selig says baseball labor talks have been 'constructive,' and a new deal is expected soon. (Getty Images)  

ST. LOUIS -- It wasn't quite Miracle on 34th Street. But as an autumn allegory, St. Louis' Miracle on Clark Street -- location of Busch Stadium -- will do quite nicely.

And as the deafening roars continue to echo down the streets by Mike Shannon's Steakhouse, as they roll past Charlie Gitto's Italian Restaurant and out into the winter while the first snowflakes begin to fly, baseball's winter wonderland begins right where the 2011 season ends.

"Albert has to go and do what he does," commissioner Bud Selig says regarding the hardball drama that soon will overshadow all others -- the future of one Albert Pujols. "I happen to believe as a traditionalist, and as someone who believes in all these things, I hope it can be worked out. I hope Albert stays in St. Louis. I really do.

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"That's his judgment to make. But I hope that Albert Pujols will stay in St. Louis. I do."

You thought the drama ended when David Murphy's fly ball dropped from the sky into Allen Craig's waiting glove?

Here's your own personal cold-weather scorecard for what comes next:

Cardinals in the nest: The world champions have already started moving one of two pivotal decisions. First, Tony La Russa retired Monday after winning it all again, so the next -- and most important -- question for the Cardinals is Pujols.

The exclusive negotiating window with the three-time MVP is very brief this year. Clubs can begin negotiating with free agents Thursday. At this point, Pujols will listen to other clubs, and you might be surprised by who is expected to take a run at him. There is buzz around the Marlins making a big move this winter before they move into their new stadium. The Blue Jays are expected to spend money. The Dodgers may find a way around bankruptcy. The Angels ... the list goes on.

After clinching the World Series the other night, La Russa broke his season-long moratorium on discussing Pujols' future because, well, the season was over.

"No," he said when asked whether he could imagine a Cardinals world without Pujols. "No. I mean, I know it's a great organization, he's a great player, and part of [the Cardinals'] greatness is in their conscience, their intelligence, and they're going to try to try like heck to make it work.

"We never talked about it. The season is over. Now it's time to start talking about it. They're going to try and make it work, and we'll see if it can work out or not."

Prediction: Pujols stays, and they'll erect a statue of him right alongside that of Stan Musial one day outside Busch Stadium.

A labor deal: Anybody over the age of, say, 20: Could you imagine a world in your lifetime in which baseball hums along with harmony between players and owners while both the NFL and NBA lock out the players in the same year?

Baseball's Basic Agreement expired at the end of the World Series, but negotiations have been quiet and productive all summer and a new deal is expected to be announced soon, likely this week. Selig calls the talks "constructive and very thoughtful. Very thoughtful."

"Nobody could have conceived, starting with me, that 16 years ago we'd have labor peace," Selig said. "You just couldn't. You had labor [issues] in '72, '75, '76, '80, '81, '85, '90." And he didn't even get to the ugliness of 1994-1995.

"I will give Michael Weiner [players' union chief] and Rob Manfred [point man for the owners] a lot of credit."

CC Sabathia's new deal: The Yankees left-hander can opt out of the final four years of his current seven-year, $161 million deal, and his window to do so is by midnight Monday. Club officials are working toward re-signing him to a new deal before he opts out and lands back on the free-agent market.

Whether they get him signed before or after, look for the Yankees to retain Sabathia at a higher rate than his current $23 million a year. Their rotation already was too thin to win in 2011. And if they somehow were to muff things with Sabathia, the best pitchers on the free-agent market this winter at C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle, Roy Oswalt and Edwin Jackson. No thanks.

New Red Sox manager: First move for new Boston GM Ben Cherington: Hire a manager to replace Terry Francona. Several names are out there, from quantitative analysis favorites like A.J. Hinch, former manager in Arizona, to current bench coaches like Pete Mackanin (Phillies) and Dave Martinez (Rays). The Sox could go for a big name like Bobby Valentine, though it's difficult to see that with hands-on owners and a rookie GM who could get swallowed up whole by a personality like Bobby V. Martinez is highly respected, but the idea of installing a man who never managed before in the Boston market is risky at best, ludicrous at worst. One name to watch: Houston's Brad Mills. He has experience, and when he was Francona's bench coach, he developed a solid relationship with many of the current Red Sox and helped keep things running smoothly.

New Cubs manager: Maybe this is getting out in front of ourselves too quickly. Maybe new president Theo Epstein will sit down with Mike Quade and decide to keep him. Maybe they'll serve Billy Goat burgers in Wrigley Field this summer too. Theo and Francona have run their course, say baseball insiders who know both. Here's an idea: Ryne Sandberg. Before you dismiss that as last year's idea, remember this: Before Sandberg accepted the job managing Philadelphia's Triple A Lehigh Valley club this year, he interviewed for and was offered the job of managing Boston's Triple A Pawtucket club. By Epstein.

Prince Fielder: His free agency will be linked to Pujols'. Two slugging first basemen. Two men who could serve as potent designated hitters in the American League for years to come. Owner Mark Attanasio promised he would make a strong run at retaining Fielder after the Brewers were eliminated by St. Louis in the NLCS, and Milwaukee will remain sentimental favorites up until the end. But with Scott Boras as Fielder's agent, no way does he return to Milwaukee. Industry buzz has him landing with the Orioles, Nationals, Dodgers or even Marlins. Check back, though, when the industry convenes in Dallas for the winter meetings in early December. Fielder's list of suitors could be even longer -- especially if the Cardinals retain Pujols. Buzz has a way of changing during the winter.

C.J. Wilson: He'll get his $80 million to $90 million on the free-agent market despite a highly disappointing postseason, but two things here: Do not expect the Rangers to retain him. Been there, done that, they're not interested. And expect whoever does sign him to get their hearts broken. Wilson proved this fall he is not a big-game pitcher.

Yu Darvish: The unknown is often more intriguing than the known. Especially in a winter when there is no Cliff Lee or Sabathia on the free-agent pitching market. The right-hander was heavily scouted in Japan during the season by major league clubs expecting him to be posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters this winter. In six years in Japan, Darvish compiled a 2.12 ERA, fanned 974 and walked only 297 over 1,036 1/3 innings. Add his hits allowed (760) to his walks, and he whiffed nearly as many batters as reached base. The Rangers are very intrigued (goodbye, C.J. Wilson), the Nationals are interested, and so are many others. One concern: Historically speaking, Japanese pitchers more often than not have not translated well into the majors. Daisuke Matsuzaka won 33 games combined over his first two seasons in Boston and was a crashing disappointment the next three. For every Hideo Nomo, there is a Hideki Irabu.

Money to burn: Most surprising teams looking to spend money on the free-agent market this winter: Marlins, Royals, Blue Jays and the bankrupt Dodgers. The Nationals too -- but after popping for Jayson Werth at $126 million last winter, they're no longer a surprise. And the beautiful thing is, by winter's end, you can bet we'll add more teams to this list.

It never ends.

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