Exploring the Albert Pujols negotiations

The days tick off the calendar, one after another. The magic number is now 25 -- as in 25 days until Cardinals position players report for spring training.

And 25 days until Albert Pujols cuts off contract negotiations with the only team he's ever played for, the St. Louis Cardinals.

We've had no leaks, no details, no messy rhetoric leaking from those negotiations. That's by mutual agreement, of course. But don't mistake silence for peace and quiet.

And don't mistake the lack of Jeter-esque buzz about those negotiations for disinterest.

Ohhhhh, no. Watching The Albert Talks has become baseball's No. 1 can't-miss offseason spectacle …

Even though it's tough to find anyone who isn't sure how this is going to end.

"It's hard for me to believe he's going anywhere," said an official of one big-market team.

"C'mon, where's he going?" asked a veteran agent. "The only problem they're going to have is figuring out all the deferrals."

If there's somebody in baseball who thinks the Cardinals are going to let Pujols walk, we can't find that somebody. We've asked owners. We've asked executives. We've asked agents. They all see Pujols for exactly what he is:

"Albert is the brand of the Cardinals," said one agent. "Period. [Bill] DeWitt should have sold the team if he didn't think they could sign Albert Pujols."

Obviously, DeWitt, the Cardinals' general partner and chairman of the board, didn't sell the team. Didn't even think about selling the team. So he's known for years what he was getting into as Pujols' free agency approached. And now it's time to do what he and his proud franchise have to do.

But that doesn't mean there isn't incredible pressure not to do it. And it doesn't mean there isn't a genuine possibility that Pujols will sail those free-agent seas. And it doesn't mean there aren't fascinating dynamics to these negotiations everywhere you turn.

So let's take a look at some of the plot lines hanging over Pujols' bargaining table in these next 25 days:

Odds this deal doesn't get done?

The first item of business here is this: When Pujols says he's done negotiating the day he reports for spring training, he's not bluffing.

He made that clear this month at the Cardinals' Winter Warm-up. And people around baseball who have spoken with his agent, Dan Lozano, report that this is no smokescreen.

So it's this simple: If Pujols' new deal isn't agreed to by Feb. 19, he is going to become a free agent next fall.

That means the threat of Pujols driving down the exit ramp is real. But the odds of his team letting him make it to that ramp? They're still shorter than David Eckstein.

"When you're doing a deal like Albert's, it doesn't just show up on your radar screen at the last minute," said one National League executive. "For them to do all the other moves they've done, believe me, they knew they were going to have to pay him, too. It wasn't like they made all those other moves and then said, 'Oops, we forgot all about him.' They've known this was coming all along."

And that's pretty much a universal view. Here's how one agent, who has done a lot of business with Cardinals GM John Mozeliak, sees it:

"He's way too practical. He's always thinking ahead. Nothing surprises him. So this has to get done."

What would have to happen, then, for it not to get done? There's only one possible scenario: Pujols would have to ask for so many years and so many dollars that even the Cardinals couldn't bring themselves to pay that tab. So that brings us to the next big question:

What's the price tag?

Is it possible that Pujols is a $300 million man?

There has never been one in baseball history, you know -- not even Alex Rodriguez. But scuttlebutt from other clubs is that that's where Pujols and Lozano began the conversation.

Ten years. At $30 million a year. For a total of $300 million.

And when the folks on the Cardinals' side of the table regained consciousness, they said something to the effect of: "You're kidding, right?"

But Pujols is not kidding. He's coming off a seven-year, $100 million deal that has turned out to be exceptionally club-friendly. So if it seems to you that the only side you've heard mention the word "discount" was the Cardinals, you don't need to get your hearing tested.

"Albert's side feels like they've already given their discount," said an NL executive who has negotiated hundreds of contracts. "He's saying: 'Now it's my turn.'"

Again, the Cardinals had to know this was coming, which means they had to know, at least roughly, where the sticker price was heading. No player in history has ever averaged $30 million a year in a multiyear contract -- or even $28 million. But how do the Cardinals argue that this guy shouldn't be the first? What's the case against him, anyway?

"He's a great, great player, and there's nobody quite like him," said an official of one AL team. "And the Cardinals know that if he gets to free agency, is there a player in baseball who would make more sense to the Cubs than Albert Pujols? So it's going to get crazy."

Now obviously, we have no idea whether the Cubs' new ownership is ready to start signing off on $300 million contracts. But the Cardinals can't be sure of that. And even if the Cubs don't drive the auction, does anybody honestly think Pujols won't have a market, just because the other big spenders -- the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers and Phillies -- appear all set at first base for years to come?

Let's just tick off a few teams: Rangers … Nationals … Orioles … Blue Jays. Maybe the Dodgers, or Angels, or even the Mets if they can get their finances straight.

"I wouldn't even rule out the Red Sox and Yankees," said one executive. "We're talking about Albert Pujols. I could see them looking at first base, looking at DH and moving people around. I don't think they could let that kind of talent go by."

But no matter where else Pujols might end up, the biggest force driving the Cardinals to write this check is the fear of life without him. They've constructed the franchise around him, in every possible way. So how exactly would they go about selling Life After Albert to the people who worship him?

"It's not like people will stop being Cardinals fans," said the same executive. "But can you really risk ticking off that large a group of people?"

Of course not. So conceivably, there's only one area where the Cardinals can possibly dig in -- on the length of the deal. Pujols just turned 31 last week. Is he really going to cash in 10 guaranteed years at historic dollars?

Yeah, it's true that A-Rod got a 10-year contract three years ago from the Yankees, at age 32. But there's no other precedent for a contract that long, even for a player this great, that would continue to pay him massive dollars into his 40s.

And remember, as we wrote less than two weeks ago, we're now in an era in which hitters routinely decline rapidly after age 35. Over the past nine seasons, we've only seen two players age 36 or older have a season in which they got 400 plate appearances, hit more than 25 homers, drove in 100 runs, slugged .500 and had an on-base percentage of .400 -- Barry Bonds (twice) and Manny Ramirez (in 2008).

So no matter how long this contract winds up being, it's pretty much a lock that Pujols won't be as productive in this deal as he was in his last one. And it's far from out of the question that the back end of the contract won't be real picturesque. So the Cardinals have the ammunition to make a stand to limit the guaranteed years to seven or eight.

There seems little doubt around the game that Pujols will set a record for average annual value in a multiyear deal. (A-Rod's current $27.5 million AAV is the standard there.) But speculation is that the Cardinals will push hard to avoid letting this deal extend past Pujols' 40th birthday.

What happens if Pujols' side says no -- that it's 10 years or see ya in free agency? Then the Cardinals have a biiiiiig problem. But most likely, it doesn't come to that.

The most widespread guess on where this eventually lands? Eight years times $30 million -- for a total guaranteed payout of $240 million. And that sounds right. But that just leads to one more huge question:

What's the ripple effect?

If Sir Albert really does get his $30 million a year, he changes the baseball landscape -- in more ways than one. But who feels the impact?

First off, the Cardinals will be feeling it for a decade -- but especially in the near term. If they pick up their 2012 options on their biggest stars and pay Pujols 30 million bucks, they would owe nearly $100 million in 2012 to just seven players (Pujols, Matt Holliday, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook, Yadier Molina and Kyle Lohse). So they'd be looking, said an official of one team, at one of the most top-heavy payroll models of modern times.

OK, then how about the Red Sox? If Pujols signs before spring training, he'll almost certainly blow up the first-base payroll scale before Boston finishes extending Adrian Gonzalez's deal. But the Red Sox and Gonzalez's agent, John Boggs, are so far down the road on the terms of Gonzalez's extension that neither side expects Pujols' deal to affect Gonzalez's contract significantly.

Then there's Prince Fielder. Once, it looked as if he might be part of a free-agent first-base megastar parade next winter that included Pujols, Gonzalez and Ryan Howard. Now it's more likely that Prince will have that stage to himself. But Prince Fielder is not Albert Pujols. As one agent put it, "[Scott] Boras will try to make those two guys comparable. But Prince matches up with Mark Teixeira. Nobody matches up with Albert."

So is there any active player who could approach Albert money in the next couple of years? We can't see one.

Joey Votto? Has the same agent as Pujols. But he's three years away from free agency, and would need MVP-caliber years in all of them to move beyond the Teixeira/Gonzalez/Fielder tier. "It's the Fielder deal that will help Votto, not the Pujols deal," one agent said.

Josh Hamilton? Still two years from free agency. And for all his talent, consider this: Pujols has topped 140 games in every season of his career. Josh Hamilton has done it once.

And then who? Evan Longoria? Under control through 2016. Carlos Gonzalez? Just signed through 2017. Troy Tulowitzki? Just signed through 2020. Miguel Cabrera? Signed through 2015. Joe Mauer? All signed up through 2018.

So the truth is, there might not be a single position player in baseball whose earning power will get any major boost from the Pujols deal for at least the next five years.

"It will be looked at as the exception," one of the agents quoted earlier said of the Pujols contract. "And it should. It's no different than A-Rod. Those two players are in rarefied air, and there are no comparables."

Yes, but there's still one monstrous difference between A-Rod and Pujols: Sir Albert hasn't reached that rarefied -air orbit -- yet. And as you were reading this, his team's deadline for signing him just drew a little bit closer.

So keep your eyeballs trained on beautiful downtown St. Louis, because that's now the best baseball show in America. And the Albert Pujols countdown clock is now at 25 -- and ticking.

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.