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02/05/11 5:10 PM EST

Plenty at stake in Pujols-Cards negotiations

Whether or not slugger signs by deadline, ramifications run deep

The clock is ticking loudly -- and literally.

Around the country, Albert Pujols' contract negotiations are a major baseball story. In St. Louis, the talks are the baseball story. Pujols' agent, Dan Lozano, has notified the Cardinals that a Spring Training deadline is in place, and that if a deal doesn't get done before the game's greatest player begins camp, it won't get done until after the season -- if at all. As a result, at least one "Pujols countdown" web site has sprung up, ticking down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Spring Training.

All of baseball is watching. Because if Pujols' deal isn't signed by Feb. 18 or so, the chances of him hitting the open market as a free agent next offseason will increase dramatically. The Cardinals would have an exclusive negotiating window that lasts from the end of their season until five days after the World Series, but that's not a lot of time.

One sensible scenario in that case might seem to be a trade, but you can just about rule that out. Pujols has reportedly notified the club that he would invoke his "10-and-5" rights (10 years in the Majors, last five with the current club) to veto any trade. Besides, if the Cardinals are anywhere close to contention at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, there's no way they would be interested in moving Pujols. It's been more than a decade since the Cardinals were full-on sellers at the Deadline; it would be pretty shocking to see that change in 2011.

It's worth mentioning that despite the deadline, if the two sides are close to an agreement when infielders and outfielders report to Spring Training, there might be a little bit of leeway. But one would have to think they'd need to be very close. In the meantime, club and player are maintaining positions of silence through the talks, a stance that suits both quite well.

"My agent is talking with Bill [DeWitt, principal team owner] and Mo [general manager John Mozeliak], and let's leave it up to that," Pujols said last month, in his most recent public comments about the situation. "We'll tell you guys. Whenever we get a deal done, I think everybody's going to know. And that's it."

That, of course, hasn't shut down conversation and speculation. It's just all gone on without Pujols or the club weighing in publicly.

A report on FOXSports.com by Ken Rosenthal on Saturday cited unnamed Major League sources as saying that the discussions are not going well, and that the Cardinals are balking at Pujols' price.

Make no mistake, it's an enormous matter, especially for the club.

If an agreement is reached, the Cardinals will have plenty of issues to deal with. Pujols won't come cheap, and they'll have to adjust either their total player payroll, their salary structure or both beginning in 2012. Neither side has publicly stated its negotiating position, but it's all but impossible to envision Pujols agreeing to less than the $25 million per year that Ryan Howard will make in his new deal with the Phillies, or signing for fewer than Howard's five years.

Chicago, then, might be the team to watch. The Cubs signed Carlos Pena to a one-year deal, meaning they'll have an opening at first base. They have some large contracts coming off the books next year, too. And obviously they'd love nothing more than to poach their arch-rival's biggest star.

That would be a bump up of $9 million per year from what the Cards are paying now. Pujols' minimum raise would be the same amount as what Adam Wainwright is slated to make in 2012 if he stays healthy and triggers his contract option. That's a major bump. It's more than Jake Westbrook will make in 2012, more than Yadier Molina will make if his option is picked up.

It would force some serious decisions. The Cardinals would almost certainly need to raise their total player salary outlay, which is expected this year to be in the low $100 millions, already an increase from recent seasons. They might also need to divest themselves from another big deal or two -- perhaps coming up with an alternative to picking up Chris Carpenter's $15 million option.

And this is the less painful of the possibilities. Even if Pujols re-ups, the ramifications will be significant.

But if he doesn't? Hoo-boy. What then? What happens if Pujols, already a certain Hall of Famer, becomes available to any team with the means to sign him? It's fair to say that every team with even a chance would have to make a call. Even the Red Sox and Yankees, apparently set at first base for years to come, would have to check in.

Never mind the Rangers, Angels, Dodgers, Mets and the one team that gives every St. Louis fan chills: the Cubs. Perhaps even the Marlins would be interested in making Pujols the centerpiece player in their new stadium, which is to open next year. Washington and Baltimore have both shown a willingness to pursue top free agents aggressively, even if they've only occasionally landed them.

They'd all at least have to call. To fail to call Lozano would count as malpractice for any general manager who had any money to play with. Pujols is too good, too special, not to put out feelers and at least find out.

There's good news for the Cardinals, though. Just about every one of those teams comes with a hangup. The Yankees have a first baseman, Mark Teixeira, who will earn $22.5 million a year through 2016, and the money it would take to sign Pujols is awfully big to pay for a designated hitter. Likewise the Red Sox, who have yet to announce a long-term deal with recently acquired Adrian Gonzalez but are reported to have one in place.

The Angels, who have emerged as a big spender in the past decade, have eight-figure commitments already on the books to four different players for 2012, not to mention arbitration-year deals to work out with Jered Weaver and Kendry Morales. Oh, and Morales is a first baseman. The Dodgers and Mets have ownership issues to sort out. And while Florida is getting a new ballpark, it's hard to see the Fish making a Pujols-sized leap in year one.

And if Pujols wants to win, which he has repeatedly said is a top priority, history would not seem to favor the Nationals or the Orioles.

Texas could make an intriguing fit. The club's new ownership has shown no hesitation to break out the checkbook, and first base is not set in stone in Arlington. However, the Rangers spent big on free agent Adrian Beltre this winter, and they have arbitration-eligible Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli to take care of in 2012.

Chicago, then, might be the team to watch. The Cubs signed Carlos Pena to a one-year deal, meaning they'll have an opening at first base. They have some large contracts coming off the books next year, too. And obviously they'd love nothing more than to poach their arch-rival's biggest star.

Pujols would have to listen if the Cubs called. But even though rivalries often mean more to fans than to free agents, that's one jump that might be difficult to make.

You can't rule it out entirely, though. And it only takes one team. They don't all have to come through -- only one of them needs to, and Pujols could wear another uniform for the first time in his career.

That's what's at stake in the next two weeks. The clock is ticking.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.