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01/10/11 10:00 AM EST

Urgent: Cards must move soon on Pujols

St. Louis needs to avoid free-agent circus with franchise player

For the St. Louis Cardinals, that ticking clock counting down the days until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training has an added dimension.

Certainly, the countdown possesses the usual ability to usher in optimism for what lies ahead in the coming season. But this time around, the rising anticipation is accompanied by a daunting deadline. Because when it comes to Albert Pujols, the Cards are on the clock.

Indisputably, Pujols is the Cardinals. But the team is running out of time to ensure that he remains the Cardinals. Finding a contract fit that allows the Cards to field a competitive team around him, while satisfying his whopping worth, is a major challenge. But it's one the Cardinals must meet before spring camp opens in five short weeks.

"I just know once Spring Training starts," manager Tony La Russa said at last month's Winter Meetings, "Albert doesn't get distracted by anything."

Reports, then, of positive dialogue between the two sides last week is welcome news for Cards fans. But if that dialogue doesn't lead to a signed name on a dotted line by mid-February, then the possibility of Pujols testing the free-agent waters next offseason increases exponentially.

That's where it could get uncomfortable for the Cardinals.

As difficult as it might be to imagine Pujols playing for any other club, this is the reality we live in with regard to professional athletes. Loyalty has its limits, as we've seen time and again, and players rarely spend their entire careers with the same club.

Pujols' situation, then, is an intriguing one -- not just for St. Louis, but for baseball as a whole. Perhaps aside from Derek Jeter, no active player is more closely identified with his team and his town than Albert Pujols.

But if Pujols' long-term status remains uncertain going into and through the season, then the drama surrounding the situation could easily eclipse the circus involving Jeter and the Yanks earlier this winter. Because with Pujols, we're talking about the game's premier player. In his prime. And while the Yankees and Red Sox, by virtue of already possessing Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez, respectively, probably wouldn't be bidders, every other team in the game with money to spend would be circling over Pujols, ready to pounce.

The Cards, therefore, must pounce now. And it's somewhat puzzling that this matter hasn't been resolved already. Because with each step to the plate, Pujols has added to his enormous worth, to the point where some believe he could command an A-Rod-ian commitment.

If Pujols wants A-Rod money (and who wouldn't?), then the Cards would have to get creative, to say the least. In 2012, they are already on the hook for $37.4 million committed to Matt Holliday, Jake Westbrook and, ahem, Kyle Lohse. Add in club options on Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, and you're talking about $68.4 million owed to six guys. So you can see where anything in the neighborhood of $30 million a season for Pujols, who is to be paid $16 million this year, would make things rather interesting for a Cardinals team that opened last season with a $93.9 million payroll.

For the Cards, therefore, to have any hope of both signing Pujols and giving him an adequate supporting cast in an increasingly competitive division, they're going to need a little cooperation from the man himself.

They're somewhat fortunate, in that regard, because Pujols has demonstrated an understanding of what he means to the Cardinals and what the Cardinals mean to Major League Baseball. At the Winter Meetings, La Russa recalled the story of Pujols announcing that he didn't want to be called "El Hombre" [Spanish for "The Man"] because that nickname, in any language, belongs to Stan Musial. Rare is the player who shows that kind of respect for his team's past.

"Albert has got his priorities right," La Russa said. "He's got the sense of perspective on history."

Again, though, how much weight does that perspective hold when pure dollars and years are points of discussion? And if Pujols knows he'd command a major percentage of the Cards' payroll, might he view the opportunity to be a part of a championship team to be greater in a bigger market -- especially in light of the way the past four seasons have ended for St. Louis?

Absent access to Albert's brain, we don't know the answers to those questions. We do, however, know this much: This predicament the Cards are in has probably dragged out this long for a reason. If Pujols were eager to give the club a major hometown discount, then it's likely this matter would have been resolved quite a while ago.

Instead, what is brewing, not-so-slowly and all-too-surely, is a contract conundrum the Cards can't afford. They have five weeks to ensure it doesn't reach a breaking point. And the clock is ticking.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.