| Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.) Jan. 16--ST. LOUIS -- The obvious question for Albert Pujols on Sunday regarded the progress of contract negotiations with the St. Louis Cardinals.
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Pujols, celebrating his 31st birthday at the team's annual Winter Warm-Up, was largely mum as his media spokesman, Josh Goldberg, stood next to him, reminding the media that there would be no talk of the contract.
Pujols' representative, Dan Lozano, and the Cardinals have an agreement to not discuss negotiations in public. Still, questions were asked.
"I think you guys need to respect (this)", Pujols said. "I said that whenever we start talking about a contract, it's going to be quiet. If the Cardinals want to say something in the paper and talk about our business, they can say something. But myself, I think I'm more professional than that.
"If we want to get something done, we'll get it done and everybody's going to know when we get it done. What else is there to say? I think everybody knows I want to be a Cardinal."
The Cardinals exercised tbeir $16 million option on Pujols for 2011. Pujols has imposed a start-of-spring-training deadline to get a new contract completed.
Cardinals Chairman and CEO Bill DeWitt Jr. believes the deadline is somewhat flexible. The Cardinals' first full-squad workout is Feb. 19
"We've always known that spring training is a point in time that we need to have something done by, whether it's day one of spring training or ... I don't know that there's a midnight hour or anything like that", DeWitt said.
"But clearly, by the start of early spring training, we would want to have something in place if it's going to happen prior to the season."
DeWitt recently said he was "hopeful" that the Cardinals would reach an agreement with Pujols, their slugging first baseman who batted .312 with 42 home runs and 118 RBIs last season.
"We're certainly hopeful because we want him to be with us, so that's the hope we have", DeWitt said. "I think that's the appropriate word."
Beyond that, DeWitt said he would not characterize the tenor of the negotiations, which have taken place in person and on the telephone.
"As you all know, we've agreed not to discuss the status of the discussions", DeWitt said. "We have met with Albert's representative, and those are ongoing conversations we that we'll have. But beyond that, there's not a lot to say."
Pujols became frustrated with questions about the contract, even though he was reminded it's been one of the hot-button topics of the offseason.
"What is more important, my contract or my team?" Pujols said. "Do you want to bring all that into the clubhouse all year like you guys have been doing the last couple of years? No. I think you need to respect that.
"I respect my team more than this contract. I think that's more important to me than anything else. That's why you have to set deadlines like this. That's it. If you guys don't get that, sorry about that."
DeWitt said it made little sense for the Cardinals and Pujols' camp to go public with difficult negotiations that are filled with offers, rejections and counter-offers.
DeWitt expressed confidence that Pujols' lofty level of performance would not deviate this season if a contract is not done. Pujols has a .331 average with 1,900 hits, 408 home runs and 1,230 RBIs in 10 seasons.
"He's the consummate professional and I think he'll do what he always does, and that's be a great player whether he has his contract situation for the future signed or not", DeWitt said.
If Pujols plays this season without a contract, DeWitt said the Cardinals wouldn't be precluded from signing him after the seasson.
"A lot of players go into free agency and are retained by their incumbent clubs", DeWitt said. "If we don't sign him in the next four weeks, that doesn't mean he's not going to be a Cardinal. We would love to sign him tomorrow or whenever, but whether we do or don't, that doesn't preclude him being a Cardinal."
But are the Cardinals prepared to see the ante driven higher if Pujols becomes a free agent and other teams are also hotly in pursuit?
"You deal with the situation as it occurs", DeWitt.
Pujols isn't looking that far ahead.
"Danny and 'Mo' (General Manager John Mozeliak) and Bill are talking", DeWitt said. "I think everybody knows that. Hopefully, we can get something done. If it doesn't happen, then we'll figure out something else."
Other teams have overcome the free-agent departures of star players, but DeWitt described Pujols as being "iconic", and if he signed elsewhere, the degree of difficulty in finding his replacement would be off the charts.
"You can't go out and find an Albert Pujols", DeWitt said. "You can't say, 'Well, if he leaves, then I'll get this person or that player.' Obviously, you play the hand you're dealt. We'll make every effort --the Cardinals --to be competitive every single year like we've done from day one."
The 18-plus minutes press conference with Pujols did include baseball discussion. Pujols likes the constitution of the Cardinals and is eager to revisit the playoffs
"Can we get back to the postseason? Obviously, that's everybody's goal", he said. "We need to finish something we didn't do last year, and that's get into the postseason. The last four years, we've only been once. We'd like to get a little streak going here like it was in '03, '04, '05 and '06 when we were in the World Series. Hopefully, we'll get something going this year."
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