- Associated Press - Thursday, February 17, 2011

JUPITER, FLA. (AP) - Albert Pujols is set to make his first appearance at spring training. The St. Louis Cardinals can only hope it’s not his last first-day with the team.

Pujols was expected to arrive at the Cardinals‘ complex sometime Thursday, a day after he and the team failed to reach an agreement on a new contract by a deadline the three-time MVP imposed.

“Once the 2011 season is over, we hope to revisit those talks,” Pujols said in a statement late Wednesday. “I have the utmost respect for Mr. DeWitt, Mo (general manager John Mozeliak) and the rest of the Cardinals Organization, and the path that these negotiations have taken, will not impact our relationship moving forward in any way.”

With the talks off until after the season ends, Pujols is now fixated on winning.

“I also would like to take this opportunity to reassure the Cardinal Nation, that my effort both on and off the field will never change,” he said. “I am devoted to giving 100 percent on the field, every single day, just as I have done the last 10 years. We’re all working together toward a common goal and that is to win a World Championship for the City of St. Louis.

“The last thing anyone in this clubhouse needs to worry about, is what’s going to happen to me after the season,” he added.

His teammates aren’t willing to let it become a distraction, either. They simply want to see their first baseman again, and start the process of getting ready for another year.

“I don’t think it’s changed for anybody in here,” Cardinals‘ pitcher Kyle Lohse said. “Everybody’s excited to get going. Albert’s going to take care of himself. He’s going to be here and doing what he’s always done. I don’t see why anything would be different.”

The Cardinals would not reveal their offer, though it was believed to be somewhere around $200 million for eight years, possibly with an opportunity for Pujols to obtain an ownership stake in the franchise once his playing days are complete.

When _ and if _ talks resume, it’s unclear if St. Louis will increase its offer to Pujols’ liking.

“A difference of opinion in determining Albert’s value simply could not be resolved,” said Pujols’ agent, Dan Lozano. “That alone is why he will not permit his contractual situation to become a distraction or take away from his ability to reach that goal.”

Pujols will make $16 million this season in his contract’s final year, with $4 million of the money deferred with no interest. A nine-time All-Star, Pujols is the only player in major league history to hit 30 or more home runs each of his first 10 seasons _ all with the Cardinals, the franchise he’s previously said he wants to remain with for the rest of his career.

Now, that hardly seems like a lock.

“We explored a number of different things in the negotiation,” Cardinals chairman William DeWitt Jr. said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “Without getting specific in what those were, there was discussion about other things that could be part of the contract. … You can be sure that we explored a number of different avenues.”

Already, there’s buzz around baseball on where Pujols could go. A big-spending club like the Red Sox, Yankees or Angels? Perhaps the rival Cubs? The Texas Rangers?

Before the first pitch of the season, the first debate of the 2011 offseason is under way.

“Goes on the open market, who knows what he’ll get?” said Cubs right-hander Braden Looper, a former Pujols teammate.

Added Rockies right-hander Aaron Cook: “I’m surprised something didn’t get done. He has the right to become a free agent and get what he wants. I hope for their sake it doesn’t become a distraction.”

The only absolute in the process, it seems, is what the Cardinals will give.

In short, they aren’t prepared to set records. The team’s payroll this season will be between $100 million and $110 million, DeWitt said, noting that the Cardinals lack the revenue streams to keep up with baseball’s biggest checkbooks.

“We’re not the Yankees or the Red Sox or the clubs that have revenues multi-tens of millions of dollars greater than ours,” he said. “How they react remains to be seen. They’re great fans. They’re the best in baseball. To draw the way we draw in a market the size of ours is extraordinary. No one else can do it. Cardinal fans, they step up year in and year out.”

There is no framework for a deal in which St. Louis would get the right of first refusal on any future Pujols offer. Still, the Cardinals believe a deal can eventually get done _ and aren’t fearing that it will turn into a situation where Pujols simply winds up playing for the highest bidder.

“We know what we can do and what we can’t do,” Mozeliak said. “When you operate in that way, you tend not to make bigger mistakes.”

Pujols has a .331 career batting average and averaged 41 homers and 123 RBIs. He’s also won six Silver Slugger Awards and two Gold Gloves. Last year he batted .312 with 42 homers and 118 RBIs and finished second in MVP balloting.

“I’m not really concerned about having any issues with Albert in the short-term,” Mozeliak said. “Or in the long-term.”


AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley in Scottsdale, Ariz., and AP Sports Writers Rick Gano in Mesa, Ariz., and Ronald Blum in New York contributed to this report.

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