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Why Cards must keep Pujols, and why it looks like they will


JUPITER, Fla. -- Baseball executives agree on a couple things regarding superstar Albert Pujols, the Cardinals and their future together.

1. Pujols and the Cardinals have a very good chance to stay together beyond 2011, when his first nine-figure contract expires, and...

2. Pujols will get his $30 million a year, give or take a few pennies.

"He has to get the A-Rod contract,'' one NL executive said. "If you ask 30 GMs which player they'd want with two out and the bases loaded in the ninth inning, 30 would say Pujols.''

It's no certainty that is the case (I didn't talk to all 30), but 30 does appear to be the magic number -- as in $30 million per year. While management people generally prefer lower salaries, they say this is an easy one to predict. Alex Rodriguez's deal was for $275 million guaranteed over 10 years (going up to $305 million with the all-time home run plateaus), so execs figure that's where Pujols should be. Pujols' numbers are as good, or even slightly better, is the consensus. And just like A-Rod when he signed his deal, Pujols will be 32 two years from now.

The Cardinals, a very well-run organization that has succeeded by paying its stars while still keeping its payroll at around $100 million, aren't a team that skimps on its stars. Competitors see them as quite profitable and believe they have enough room to keep Pujols. And so does owner Bill DeWitt. "We feel there's an area that could work where it would be affordable to us,'' DeWitt said in an interview with

Execs interviewed also believe that the Cardinals have no choice, not after finding $17 million a year for cleanup hitter but clear second fiddle Matt Holliday ($15 million straight plus $2 million deferred). They almost have to pay the price to Pujols, they agree.

"They caved on Holliday, and he's like crumbs compared to Pujols,'' one NL exec said. "He's a latter day [Stan] Musial.''

"They can't afford not to have him,'' another exec said.

Several said Pujols is too much a part of the Cardinals brand to let him leave.

"Can McDonald's not have the Big Mac? Can Burger King not have the Whopper?'' one said.

"He's probably worth more to them than anyone else,'' another said. "I'm not sure he'd get [A-Rod's deal] from someone else. But to St. Louis, he's worth it.''

Any way you look at it, this would be one whopper of a loss for the Cardinals if Pujols were to leave after 2011 (he'll make $16 million this year, and the Cardinals are sure to pick up his option for another $16 million next year).

"There's no question we'd like to have Albert be a lifetime Cardinal,'' DeWitt said. "That's a major objective of ours. And we're hoping to make it happen.''

DeWitt was asked whether the Cardinals could pay close to $50 million to two players when their payroll has been in the $100 million range, and while he didn't address specific amounts, he suggested that they would stop sometime before handing Pujols a blank check.

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"There's obviously a limitation as to what you can pay any individual player, any two players and for any group of players,'' DeWitt said. "We all have our financial limitations. It depends on how the contract is structured. We feel there's an area that could work where it would be affordable to us.''

Pujols has been especially engaging and accommodating so far this spring. Cardinals people suggest that has to do with his elbow finally feeling right, a scary proposition for opponents who were battered by a less-than-100-percent Pujols the past couple seasons. While Pujols said he would love to stay, he doesn't rule out the other possibility, the one that's almost unspeakable in that baseball-crazed town.

"This is the best city to play baseball. The way the fans embrace me, I don't want to go anywhere else,'' Pujols said. "As we know, this is a business. There are things you can't control. I hope to finish my career as a Cardinal. Hopefully, we'll get something done. But you saw Alex Rodriguez go from Seattle to Texas to New York. And Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey and Mark McGwire changed teams. That happens with players. Players get traded, and they bounce around. Only a handful are lucky enough to stay in one place.""

The Cardinals made a new deal for Pujols a goal of last winter, but talks never got going. Even so, DeWitt said he feels no worse about their chances. "Not at all,'' he said. "There's no sense of urgency because it's two years away.''

At the time the Cardinals were pretty busy making sure they retained Holliday, paying him $120 million over seven years (slightly more than the $100 million guaranteed over seven that Pujols got as a non-free-agent back in 2004). But while some have suggested that the Cardinals bid against themselves for Holliday, DeWitt said he is comfortable with seven years for him because he will be 36 years old in the seventh year. Regarding their six-year offer, it's believed that they offered about $96 million and then about $102 million, and Holliday sought eight. So they compromised. The Red Sox are known to have offered $82.5 million early in the game, but other bids aren't known. DeWitt isn't too worried about suggestions that they were bidding against themselves. "It's easy to say in hindsight that there's no underbidder bidding in that category. But underbidders can come in at the last second and make bids if you don't close out the contract.''

If the Cardinals took little chance with Holliday, competitors see them taking no chance with Pujols, either.

• Adrian Gonzalez's remark that he was not going to give San Diego another hometown discount was no surprise to competitors, who expect the Padres to have a difficult time re-signing the star who has two years left at $10.25 million total. Competitors see Gonzalez envisioning better production in a park not quite as favorable to pitchers. If the Padres aren't contending, the chances for a trade at midseason look excellent. The Red Sox remain the most obvious landing spot, while the Dodgers and Mariners have shown strong interest before. However, his favorable contract means surprise teams could play here, perhaps including the Rays and A's.

• The Dodgers and Joe Torre are continuing to work on a one-year extension that will end with him having his going-away tour in 2011. Don Mattingly is said to be "likely'' to take over for Torre in 2012 in a move that was pretty well set up in 2008, when Torre took over and suggested Mattingly as his hitting coach and successor.

• The Marlins are looking for a left-handed hitter and have Hank Blalock on their radar. The small-market Rays, who have lost out for Johnny Damon, Russell Branyan, Chan Ho Park and others, are also in the mix.

• The first-base competition with the Mets is supposed to be led by Daniel Murphy, with Mike Jacobs also having a chance. But top prospect Ike Davis comes into camp with an outside chance. Club officials love his defense and power potential, and say they expect him in the majors sometime this year. It's a long shot that he would win the job, but it hasn't been ruled out. Less likely is top pitching prospect Jenrry Mejia winning a spot on the staff. But scouts have compared the 20-year-old to Rick Porcello and don't rule it out entirely. In Mejia's case, though, GM Omar Minaya is very reluctant to OK such a quick ascension.

• Rangers people say they were well aware of Khalil Greene's psychological issues but were hopeful that he could overcome them when they signed him to a $750,000 contract that they have now voided with Greene unable to make it to spring training. Best of luck to Greene as he tries to overcome his problems.

• The Cardinals haven't ruled out adding a piece, depending on how things go in the spring. The infield would appear to be a spot for enhancement, with youngster Davd Freese penciled in at third base and shortstop Brendan Ryan coming off surgery. Felipe Lopez has been looking for a starting job, but no team has been willing to give him one. Lopez, who played for the Cardinals in 2008, seems like an alternative, especially if Freese disappoints this spring.

• Carlos Beltran made nice when he got to Mets' camp, saying that he got over the club's hardball tactics in the wake of Beltran's decision to have surgery after Mets doctor David Altcheck approved it but the Mets had yet to give written approval (Mets ownership has threatened to dock is pay over this, depending on his ability to play this year). However, a teammate said that Beltran is not quite as over it as he suggests and said he believes that Beltran is likely to go when his contract is up.

• Mets manager Jerry Manuel is dead serious about employing Jose Reyes in the No. 3 hole in Beltran's absence, and unless something unforeseen happens, he will. Reyes has loved batting leadoff in the past but he said, "whatever helps the team."

• The Nationals got themselves another innings-eater with Livan Hernandez signing a deal for $900,000 and a lot of incentives.

• Get well soon to Diamondbacks executive Bob Gebhard, who is recovering from a heart attack.