- Associated Press - Sunday, January 16, 2011

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Albert Pujols repeatedly has said he wants to spend his entire career with the St. Louis Cardinals. Staring at a spring training deadline for contract negotiations, the team chairman remains hopeful the three-time NL MVP will get his wish.

Pujols declined Sunday to provide any kind of update on negotiations. His agent has said he will cut off talks at the start of spring training if an agreement is not in place, and general manager John Mozeliak confirmed the deadline on Saturday.

A representative of Pujols‘ agent stood to the slugger’s left and deflected questions on the topic at Sunday’s news conference before the first baseman held a two-hour, sold-out autograph session at the team’s Winter Warmup.

“Do you want to bring all that into the clubhouse all year, like you guys have been doing the last couple of years?” Pujols said. “No. I respect my teammates more than this contract.

“That’s why you have to set some deadline on this, and that’s it.”

Neither side would offer a sense of how the talks are going. At one point, Cardinals media relations director Brian Bartow stepped in and said Pujols‘ agent had set ground rules for the news conference.

Chairman Bill DeWitt said the Cardinals‘ payroll for next season projects to “well above $100 million,” which is the highest ever for the franchise and includes $16 million for Pujols‘ option year. DeWitt said Pujols was irreplaceable, both as a talent and as the face of the franchise.

“That’s all wrapped into one. He’s an iconic player because he’s such a great player,” DeWitt said. “He’s proven year in and year out that he’s one of the greatest players to play the game.

“He’s never had a bad year and has lifetime totals that are incredible. You can’t go out and find an Albert Pujols.”

DeWitt said the best word to characterize the Cardinals‘ stance was hopeful.

“We want him to be with us,” DeWitt said. “Until something happens one way or another, there’s not a lot to say beyond that.”

Manager Tony La Russa said he’d stay out of the talks.

“I’m not going to say a word,” La Russa said. “Let them work it out.”

Signing free agent Lance Berkman to a $8 million contract signaled a willingness to spend after the Cardinals missed the postseason three of the last four years.

“Sometimes you have to seize the moment, and we did,” DeWitt said. “You go for it.”

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