It's 10 weeks and counting for Cardinals

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- He wasn't The Story of these winter meetings. But Albert Pujols' time on the grand contract stage is coming.

One of these days, when Carl Crawford's deal is official and Cliff Lee's deal is done and even Willie Bloomquist finds a home, there will be only one defining contract tug-of-war that matters in this sport:

Albert Pujols and the Cardinals.

His agent, Dan Lozano, met with St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak on Wednesday to talk about Sir Albert. It was their first conversation about the Best Player Alive in over a year, believe it or not. But by all accounts, they didn't get down to any serious business -- and never even scheduled a time frame to begin negotiations on one of the most important contract extensions of recent times.

Face it. Albert Pujols is the Cardinals. They don't just employ him. They've built the franchise around him.

They might as well just slap his face on that little red cardinal they sew onto every uniform, because Sir Albert embodies this team more than any logo, more than any ad campaign, more than all 24 other players on their roster combined.

So try to imagine winter meetings life a year from now if the Cardinals don't get this extension hammered out before Pujols can hit the free-agent cashier's window next offseason. Just try.

It would be the Derek Jeter, Jayson Werth, Carl Crawford and Cliff Lee negotiating circus rolled into one -- times a thousand, we're guessing. But the honest truth is: That's a scene that's almost impossible to imagine, because the thought of Pujols getting that close to leaving St. Louis is practically incomprehensible.

Oh, it could happen. It actually gets closer and more feasible with every day that goes by without the Cardinals charging in to make sure Pujols is a Cardinal for the rest of his career. But that doesn't make it less unimaginable.

You feel Albert Pujols' presence pulsating through this franchise every minute of every day of every year. And that's true even for people who mostly watch the Cardinals from afar. For the people who live inside the Cardinals' inner circle, it's even more true.

"I mean this literally," his manager, Tony La Russa, said Wednesday. "Those of us that watch him on a daily basis, anybody that works with the big league club in our organization, never, ever have a day where you don't appreciate the blessing of Albert."

I asked the manager if he thought Pujols had reached the stage where he is, to this generation of Cardinals, what Stan Musial once was to his generation.

"Almost," La Russa replied.

But then he put that answer in astonishing perspective, by telling a story that revealed nearly everything you need to know about Pujols the human being -- and his awareness not just of his own place in the Cardinals cosmos, but of the far more immense place held by Musial, an icon whose career ended nearly half a century ago.

A few years ago, La Russa recalled, people in St. Louis began calling Pujols "El Hombre." For most players, it would have been the kind of cool, catchy, ultrareverent nickname they would have been honored to call their own.

Not Sir Albert.

"Albert's the one that said, 'Please don't call me that,'" La Russa reported. "And he was saying that out of respect for Stan."

Why? Because what's the translation of "El Hombre"? It's "The Man."

Just to make sure I'd heard this right, that Pujols really did decline his own nickname, I asked La Russa: "Really? He specifically said that?"

He's Albert Pujols. They have to sign him. And they have to pay him.

-- An anonymous team official

"Oh, absolutely," La Russa said. "He doesn't like you to call him 'El Hombre,' because Stan is 'The Man.' And [Albert's] not Stan the Man. He's Albert.

"That, to me, is classic," the manager went on. "Albert has got his priorities right. He's got the sense of perspective on history. He knows Stan. And Albert's had 10 years. Stan had 22 or something, you know. So he's not Stan yet.

"He's on his way, though," even La Russa had to admit. "And he's in the conversation with the great ones."

So obviously, that means the Cardinals have no choice. Now they have to pay him like one of the great ones.
But that, of course, is where this deal starts getting realllll complicated on them.

What's a player like Albert Pujols worth? We all know the answer. And if he were a member of the Yankees or the Red Sox, or even the Cubs or Mets, there wouldn't be much question where his negotiations were leading.

But the Cardinals like to believe their players are so honored and so humbled by the privilege of being a Cardinal that there should be some sort of discount that reflects that honor.

Except in this case, with this player, don't be so sure that discount is about to be applied at the register upon checkout.

"I think this has to go to the A-Rod level," said an official of one team who is watching this dance carefully. "I think what the Cardinals are hoping is that there are no other bidders in that area so they can keep the price down. But he's Albert Pujols. They have to sign him. And they have to pay him."

Sounds logical enough. But the Cardinals already seem to be sending signals that if Pujols expects to get paid A-Rod-esque money, they might not be able to afford that.

"Every team has financial limitations," Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt told the St. Louis Post Dispatch this week. "I don't care what team you name. They have them. It's a process where you have to evaluate the value of a player given the ability to still field an effective, competitive club.

"Those are always the tradeoffs," DeWitt went on. "It's not, 'I don't want to give you X dollars because you don't deserve it.' It's, 'I've got so much money I can afford and have a competitive team.' And you've got to put all those pieces together."

To fit those pieces together clearly does represent a tricky financial challenge for the Cardinals. No one denies that.

They already figure to be on the hook for about $68.4 million, just for six players, in 2012, assuming they pick up options on the nearly equally indispensable Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina. Now if you add another $30 million for Pujols, they'd be closing in on $100 million for just 28 percent of their roster -- this for a team that had a $113 million payroll last season.

So paying Pujols what he's worth means it won't be easy for them to afford to put great players around him, and keep Carpenter and Wainwright long-term, unless the payroll goes up considerably. And obviously, they'd rather not hike their payroll that considerably.

OK, we all understand that. And the people of St. Louis understand that. Except for one thing:

He's Albert Pujols.

So the more you reflect on this, the harder it is to believe that this team has let this situation hang there, unexplored, for so long. How could the Cardinals let Pujols get this close to free agency without making a serious effort to get this deal done already?

Maybe they're fine with letting Pujols play out the year like Derek Jeter did and doing their best to sign him after the season. But that's a dangerous, dangerous approach -- because they can't trade him in midseason (since he has 10-and-5 veto rights over any deal) and, especially, because Pujols has made it clear he won't listen to any contract proposals once he arrives in spring training. Period. And the Cardinals clearly have gotten that memo.

"I know Albert well enough that once he gets into spring training, he doesn't like distractions," La Russa said Wednesday. "I just know where the heart and heads of both the team and the player [are]. They want it to work out. They'll work at it, and we'll see what happens. Once we get ready officially for 2011, Albert's the strongest between the ears that you can find, and nothing's going to get in his way."

So it's that cut and dried. The Cardinals have less than 10 weeks to get this done -- or Albert Pujols is going to become a free agent.

And then we'll all have to do our best to open our brains to the unimaginable -- the sight of Pujols and Lozano roaring through next year's winter meetings soliciting one historic offer after another.

That wasn't The Story this week, of course, because it's way too soon to contemplate the madness of the 2011 winter meetings while we're still trying to get over the madness of the 2010 winter meetings. But remember, this is more than just a tale for next December. This is really a tale of the next 10 weeks.

Just 10 weeks. That's how long the Cardinals have to make all of this a moot point. If we're still asking, 10 weeks from now, what Albert Pujols is worth, it means the incomprehensible could turn to fact in the snap of a few fingers:

Sir Albert really could spend the rest of his Hall of Fame career with no giant arch within a thousand miles.

That never happened to Stan the Man. But it could actually happen with a man who wouldn't let them call him El Hombre. Who'd have thunk it?

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.