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How irreplaceable is Albert Pujols to the Cardinals?

Back in November 2009, I wrote this blog entry, about the importance of Minnesota's Joe Mauer and St. Louis' Albert Pujols staying with their respective clubs.

Two money quotes:

1) "For the good of baseball, it's essential that both guys sign their next contract - and they'll be huge contracts - with their current clubs."

2) "And really, the industry needs for them to stay, to inspire smaller-market teams that it is possible to draft and develop a superstar player, and then keep him for the bulk of his career."

Well, Mauer got his huge contract last year, and the Twins, even after a shaky offseason, appear in very good shape as they prepare for their second season at beautiful Target Field.

The Pujols talks, however, are not going anywhere as well. As Jon Heyman reports, Pujols seems headed for free agency next winter, as he and the Cardinals are nowhere near agreement on a new deal and Pujols has set next Wednesday as the negotiation deadline.

I'd still wager a small fortune that Pujols will spend his entire career with the Cardinals, and I'd even lay a few bucks on the possibility that they'll find common ground by next week. But looking back on those money quotes...I don't feel as strongly about those sentiments anymore.

If Pujols and the Cardinals part company after this year? Even if Pujols signs with the rival Cubs? Eh. Doesn't seem quite as cataclysmic anymore.

There are a couple of realities in play, and then a couple of more perceptions, that lead to this sense.

First reality: Pujols will be 32 by the time he starts his new contract in 2012. If he signs, say, a 10-year deal, can he really be expected to maintain his elite performance for even the first five years of that deal?

Second reality: While he's arguably the best player in the game, Pujols is a first baseman. With Mauer, a catcher, the Twins approached those negotiations knowing there'd be a steep dropoff from Mauer to Plan B. On the other hand, you can't walk from Busch Stadium to Mike Shannon's without tripping over a decent first baseman or two.

Look at San Diego. The Padres traded Adrian Gonzalez, another elite first baseman, to Boston, and they're going to try to replace Gonzalez's production (as well as that of their mostly unproductive second basemen, shortstops and centerfielders from 2010) with a combination of new first baseman Brad Hawpe, second baseman Orlando Hudson, shortstop Jason Bartlett and centerfielder Cameron Maybin. On the surface, at least, it's a viable plan.

First perception: Note the headline from the linked blog post: "If Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols wind up in New York or Boston..." Well, if Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein are still in power next November - and that's quite likely - then I just don't see either club investing over $200 million in a designated hitter. Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira have first base covered in Boston and the Bronx for a long time.

The Mets, of course, very likely won't be in a position to pay for so much as a lunch meeting with Pujols, let alone a mammoth contract.

And I do think that matters. I think the industry, both inside and in the media, goes berserk when the Red Sox or especially the Yankees pounce on someone else's franchise player. Such acquisitions tend to generate proclamations that the world is coming to an end.

When it's something different, like the Giants overpaying for Barry Zito or the Nationals overpaying for Jayson Werth, then the reaction seems to more of a smug chuckle. 

So if Pujols goes to the Cubs, or the Dodgers, or the Angels, I predict there'll be sadness over Pujols not staying in St. Louis, yet not the same sense of outrage. 

Second perception: As Heyman reports, Pujols wants a contract comparable to the 10-year, $275-million package Alex Rodriguez received from the Yankees after the 2007 season. As well he should. Again, he's a phenomenal player.

But if he's not willing to grant any sort of hometown discount whatsoever, that could ease the divorce proceedings from the Cardinals' side. They can argue that they just can't afford to give so much money to one player.

Of course, I'd be skeptical of that claim unless Cardinals management opened its books, but I think Cardinals fans would feel better about a Pujols departure if they believe their guy simply wasn't willing to bend to stick around.

In any case, if Pujols sticks to his deadline and the two sides don't get a deal done, Pujols will be welcomed to camp next week by a sizeable media contingent. It can be good practice for the year to come.

--In Tampa, Erik Boland caught up with Joba Chamberlain, whose lightning rod-ness figures to stay strong this year as the Yankees struggle to fill the back end of their starting rotation.

At this point, given everything that has transpired, I'd let Chamberlain pitch out of the bullpen and see if he can become a more consistent reliever. That's it. Lower the bar.

Boland also spoke with Francisco Cervelli.

--Neil Best spoke with the president of SNY, Steve Raab

--Check back later for Day 4 of Free Crap Week.

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