Cards, Pujols can turn injury into blessing

It's time for the St. Louis Cardinals and Albert Pujols(notes) to return to the bargaining table and hammer out the contract extension they should've taken care of long ago.

It's time for the club to swallow its frugalities and pay Pujols like the franchise-defining player he is. It's time for Pujols to give up the dream of a $300 million contract and ensure he finishes his career in one uniform. It's time for both to take this unexpected setback – Pujols hit the disabled list Monday with a small fracture in his left forearm that will keep him out four to six weeks – and use it to their advantage.

Albert Pujols was injured Sunday when Wilson Betemit of the Royals ran into his glove hand.
(US Presswire)

Negotiations died in spring training with neither side willing to budge and both resolving to wait until Pujols hits free agency this offseason to start talks again. It was meant to lessen in-season distractions. With Pujols' season temporarily on hold, it gives the parties an excuse to rekindle talks and see if 2011 has fleshed out either side's stance.

The $300 million that Pujols wanted sailed alongside his poor start. While he recovered enough to raise his OPS to .855, it's still nearly 200 points below his career average – and almost 150 below Prince Fielder's(notes) this season. Fielder, like Pujols, is a first baseman. He's 27 to Pujols' 31. Even if teams will immediately disregard Fielder because of worries about his weight, he has been good enough that other teams regard him as a better candidate to sign than Pujols. Forget record-breaking free-agent money. Pujols might not get the most at his position, especially with an injury that's likely to limit his power in the short term and leave him with numbers that pale to Fielder's.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, know they need to re-sign Pujols for what he brings to the franchise. If the loss of their physical, spiritual and emotional leader for a month or so depresses the team and city, imagine what would happen if he left for good. Pujols is a Cardinal like Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst are Cardinals.

[Fantasy fallout: Who can replace Albert Pujols?]

Never mind that the production from Lance Berkman(notes) is just a short-term fix and that Matt Holliday(notes) needs a complementary masher to hold down a lineup with plenty of good pieces but no other great ones. Since May 30, when Pujols found his swing, his nine home runs lead the major leagues. He has struck out three times in 70 at-bats. The Machine is alive.

And while his resurgence should quell any fears the Cardinals have about fading abilities, the two-month chill to start the season, during which he slugged just .395, scared off enough of his value that the benefits to hitting free agency may amount to only a few million dollars.

Certainly a mystery team may emerge and better the Cardinals' best offer by tens of millions, which would put Pujols in a precarious position: assigning a dollar amount to loyalty. As much as he enjoys and appreciates his life in St. Louis, Pujols' connection with manager Tony La Russa is every bit as important, and La Russa's year-to-year dalliances with leaving the organization don't help foster the sense of stability Pujols would prefer.

The negotiations wouldn't be easy. The Cardinals would need to give up the idea of a sub-$100 million payroll and commit to around $120 million a year, a reasonable figure if Major League Baseball's next TV deal infuses the game with another shot of cash. With only Holliday locked up beyond 2012, they've got plenty of payroll flexibility, even with Colby Rasmus(notes) and Jaime Garcia(notes) likely to receive contract extensions within the next few years.

Pujols rejected St. Louis' offer toward the end of spring training, according to reports, and it was understandable: At $19 million to $21 million a year for a decade, it would have made him the fourth-highest-paid first baseman in annual salary. The $21 million number is a good place to start.

Dan Lozano, Pujols' agent, is one of the most successful in the business. He wanted a history-making deal. Free agency may still give him one, though the chances have slimmed drastically. Nobody is paying Pujols $300 million or even $275 million now, so aiming for a big number in average annual value is the likeliest way to set a record.

Cardinals GM John Mozeliak was peppered with questions about Albert Pujols during spring training.

John Mozeliak, the Cardinals' GM, is savvy as well. He doesn't want to tie himself into an Albert-tross, and the low average salary of St. Louis' first offer illustrated that. The Cardinals camp was willing to give him the years, not the money.

One agent not involved in the negotiations helped lay out the framework for a potential deal that would behoove both sides: eight years, $224 million – or $28 million a year, a record for a long-term contract. For the next three seasons, as Pujols remains in his prime and the Cardinals continue to churn out good, young, cheap players, he would receive $32 million a year. For the two seasons after that, his salary would dip to $29 million. The final three would represent the drop-off as he ages and, in concert with projected inflation, not look nearly as bad toward the end: $27 million, $24 million, $19 million.

The near-50 percent leap in value would be difficult for the Cardinals to stomach. It also would represent that Pujols' value to them is greater than to anyone else. However intangible that may sound, even the most skeptical higher-ups in the Cardinals organization understand that Pujols means more to St. Louis than any other player does to his franchise – even Derek Jeter(notes) to the New York Yankees – and that losing him would cast an unforgettable pall on a franchise as beloved as any.

Whether it's the above deal or a different incarnation, now is the time to strike. Pujols still may want to seek free agency. Lozano still may encourage him to do so. Mozeliak still may balk at committing enormous dollars to a player coming off a lower-arm injury, the sort that can sap power for a significant time. There are drawbacks, tripwires and stumbling blocks at every turn.

And yet it's senseless to sit on this opportunity without bothering to discuss it. The good outweighs the bad for both parties. They must make it a priority, turn bad into good.

Albert Pujols belongs in a Cardinals uniform. It's time for both sides to get it done.

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