- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2011

JUPITER, FLA. (AP) - Physically, this has been one of Albert Pujols‘ best spring trainings in a long time. No rehabbing from elbow woes, unlike 2009 and 2010.

The three-time MVP isn’t worried about the mental end, either.

It was Pujols‘ decision to cut off negotiations on a new multiyear contract with the St. Louis Cardinals at the start of spring training. A month later, it’s been all about preparing for opening day.

“I feel pretty good,” Pujols said in an interview this week. “Really good.”

Free agency can wait. He’s not interested in the chatter about potential destinations, or whose payroll he might someday alter dramatically.

“I already blocked it out. Two or three weeks ago, as soon as I showed up here,” Pujols said. “I’m playing baseball and that’s it. Playing baseball. I’m excited to play baseball again.”

That’s no surprise to manager Tony La Russa, who also notes the perceived pressure coming off each of his MVP seasons didn’t seem to faze Pujols.

“There’s been something with Albert every year he’s played,” La Russa said. “There’s always been something. Amazing strength, character, mind. He knows what he’s got to do and he’s doing it.”

The Cardinals had been hopeful of keeping talks alive behind the scenes. So far, it’s been status quo.

Cleanup hitter Matt Holliday, who signed a seven-year, $120 million free agent deal before 2010 spring training, hasn’t noticed any change in Pujols. Nor should there be, Holliday adds, for a player considered one of the sport’s best.

“He’s going to get paid a ton of money either way,” Holliday said. “If he gets hurt or hits .200 this year, he’s still going to get a ton of money.”

The 31-year-old Pujols will make $16 million in the option year following a seven-year, $100 million deal. He had been seeking a new deal perhaps a decade in length that would have made him one of the highest-paid players in the major leagues and allow him to retire with the Cardinals.

In January, team chairman Bill DeWitt said Pujols was “irreplaceable.” He’s the only player in major league history to hit 30 or more home runs in his first 10 seasons and has 100 RBIs in all 10 seasons.

At the team’s winter fan festival in mid-January, Pujols said he’d have to start making concessions to age. But after an offseason free of rehab duties, he says he hasn’t altered his training regimen a bit.

“Why do you want to change your routine if you’ve been successful with it?” Pujols said. “I don’t have to change anything, I feel good.”

The Cardinals fortified the lineup in the offseason, signing Lance Berkman to a one-year free agent deal. Berkman has struggled at the plate and didn’t play right field for more than two weeks while nursing a sore arm in his aim to return to regular outfield duty for the first time since 2004.

Pujols believes the 35-year-old Berkman will come around and provide the depth the Cardinals lacked last year, although he’s not ready to say this might be one of the better lineups he’s anchored. The 2004-05 teams featuring Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen won at least 100 games.

“We need to be successful to compare our lineup with the past,” Pujols said. “We had some great lineups in ‘04 and ‘05 when we were in the World Series and NLCS.

“Obviously, you look at our depth and, yeah, we’ve got some right-handed hitters with some power and some left-handed hitters with power, but we still need to go out and perform.”

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