Deadline nears for Pujols deal

Thursday, January 27, 2011
Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols' contract expires after the upcoming season. (AP file photo)

ST. LOUIS -- Romantics long ago began sculpting Albert Pujols as the next Stan Musial, a modern-day perfect knight who would forgo the marketplace to commit his entire career to his original franchise.

When Pujols made passing reference 12 months ago to an unspecified "discount" he might grant the franchise in upcoming talks about a contract extension, the comment gained much more attention than his insistence in the same conversation that he was unafraid of pursuing free agency after the 2011 season.

The impression came into greater focus earlier this month when the sides engaged each other in talks. A source familiar with the process noted a "positive" tone. Rumor quickly overtook fact.

Anticipation mounted that Pujols would sign a deal to be announced during his Jan. 16 appearance at the downtown Winter Warm-Up. Even better, it fell on the three-time National League MVP's 31st birthday, a fact noted by hundreds of fans who serenaded Pujols during his autograph session at the downtown Hyatt.

Of course, Pujols remains unsigned beyond the approaching season and is barely three weeks shy of a negotiating deadline imposed by agent Dan Lozano.

Albert Pujols smacked 42 home runs this season. (AP file photo)

Unsubstantiated hope for a birthday signing has given way to the harsher reality of talks yet to reach a higher gear, largely because the club and player remain committed to positions hinted at during the past year.

Both parties agreed in early December to a virtual media blackout regarding talks. At a publicist's urging, Pujols held to the agreement 10 days ago during an occasionally testy 18-minute news conference.

Club chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. used the same podium that afternoon to reinforce the player's significance to the franchise and to the city but offered no peek into his vision for a potential deal. Predictably, DeWitt retreated from a reporter's question about whether he was prepared to make Pujols the game's highest-paid player. However, DeWitt underscored during December's winter meetings in Orlando, Fla., that all organizations "have limits." DeWitt also maintained during this month's appearance that the club was willing to wait until after the season, if necessary, to retain its signature player.

A club source indicated last summer that Lozano had proposed a 10-year, $300 million framework. Such a deal would eclipse New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez's 10-year, $275 million contract signed three years ago as the game's richest.

The Cardinals previously have characterized Pujols' situation as "independent" of recent contracts that have redefined the game's financial landscape. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak noted in May that the club was committed to paying for future rather than past production.

This much is certain: Neither party will know fully Pujols' true market value unless he reaches free agency. Would the fact that the Yankees and Boston Red Sox presumably will have reached long-term deals with first basemen Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez inhibit Pujols' market? Does the Los Angeles Angels' recent trade for Toronto Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells and his outsized salary remove Angels owner Arte Moreno as a serious player?

Conversely, would the Cardinals' refusal to guarantee Pujols a nine- or 10-year contract be tested next winter by the Chicago Cubs' entry into the sweepstakes?

The Cubs' ability to sign free agent first baseman Carlos Pena to a one-year deal this offseason allowed them the dexterity to try to overwhelm Pujols or, failing that, to at least force their division rival to go well beyond its allocated means to retain him.

For now, silence works for both sides. Pujols remains acutely sensitive to perception. Unwillingness to accept a contract averaging around $25 million a year may not play well in this market and especially in this economy.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, gain little if accused of low-balling or slow-playing the game's most prolific player, who signed a seven-year, $100 million extension in 2004 that included significant money deferred without interest. The extension allowed Pujols and the club to avoid three years of arbitration wrangling while also delaying the player's entry to free agency by five years. Only twice during his current deal -- 2008 and 2009 -- did Pujols' contract represent the highest average annual value on the club.

Pujols reached Jupiter, Fla., last spring anticipating a fresh extension before the 2010 season. Those talks, however, were tabled after a single dinner meeting between Mozeliak and Lozano.

Pujols responded by leading the National League in home runs and RBIs while finishing second to Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto as league MVP.

A number of people close to Pujols believe last winter's short-lived talks also may have hardened his position, especially after the club negotiated a franchise record seven-year, $120 million deal with its own free agent left fielder, Matt Holliday.

Subsequent months only have enhanced Pujols' leverage. Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard received a five-year, $125 million extension last April, and free agent outfielders Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford both commanded seven-year contracts worth more than $20 million annually.

For now, there is no imminent deadline or outside competition to force the Cardinals beyond a seven-year guarantee or even dramatically beyond Howard's average annual value. Assumptions persist that Pujols' greatest value is to the Cardinals and that the club still exerts a pull on its iconic player.

The next three weeks either will confirm those assumptions or leave Pujols destined for a free agent process like few others.

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