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Why Albert Pujols won't be a distraction for the Cardinals

Greetings from Tampa! Had a peaceful flight down last night, sharing a plane with baseball media dignitaries Jon Heyman, Tyler Kepner, Andrew Marchand and Joel Sherman

Also on the plane, in first class: Yankees team physician Chris Ahmad. I wanted to approach him and ask him for a free diagnosis, like Larry does to the Lakers trainer in this episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." But knock on wood, I was feeling fine. Nothing for the doc to examine.

Anyway, I'm going to kick off coverage today by going to Phillies camp in Clearwater, as the three-time defending NL East champs are holding their first pitchers' and catchers' workout and the quintet of Joe Blanton, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt are meeting with the media afterward. Should be fun.

But the hottest spring-training story, at the moment, is not in Clearwater. Nor is it in Tampa with the Yankees or in Port St. Lucie with the Mets.

It's the the saga of Albert Pujols and the Cardinals, who train in Jupiter.

As you can see in the linked story, and as we discussed here last week, Pujols has established a deadline of tomorrow to discuss a long-term deal, and if it doesn't get done - and at this point, that appears the most likely scenario - he'll enter free agency this fall, a frightening possibility for the Cardinals.

In the linked story, you can read the characteristically colorful quotes from Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who describes Pujols' situation as "a spectacular distraction potentially."

He then flipped it, saying it would be a "spectacular excuse," should the Cardinals underachieve and Pujols' situation be viewed as an impediment.

My hunch is that La Russa is right. That if the Cardinals fail to make the playoffs this season, it will result from Lance Berkman's failure to readjust to the outfield, or a bullpen meltdown, or something else baseball-related.

Why do I think this? Thanks for asking. The reasons are pretty simple:

1) Pujols. He can turn on the charm when absolutely necessary, but for the most part, he's a serious man. He's not going to make himself accessible to the media in every city and do the "Hey, I'd loooove to play for the Pirates!" shtick. 

When discussing these scenarios, I always go back to Torii Hunter and the 2007 Twins. Fairly or unfairly, Twins skipper Ron Gardenhire was convinced that his club was diverted by Hunter's impending free agency (the club went 79-83). I think it's unfair; Hunter put up a strong offensive season (although it was a bad defensive season, according to some of the metrics). Undoubtedly, however, Hunter helped create that impression because he's so media-friendly that he was doing the "Cincinnati?! I love chili!" shtick.

(No, I don't think he literally said that about Cincinnati.)

In any case, the season struck Gardenhire so negatively that he pushed very hard for the Twins to trade Johan Santana prior to the start of his walk year, 2008, and the Mets benefited (well, sort of) from that urgency.

Pujols is the sort of guy who arranges his schedule, minute-by-minute, days in advance. He's not going to stand by his locker when the Cardinals go to Wrigley Field, or Citi Field, and invite questions. And if he's doing a post-game news conference after a big game, he'll probably demur when queries about the future arise.

2) Dan Lozano. Pujols' agent is notoriously private and not prone to leaks. He and Pujols are a good fit because they are both very disciplined on matters like these.

3) La Russa. He's far from above trying to browbeat the media to keep away from this story, following the initial wave. And he'll have the backing of his front office (and by extension, the Cardinals' media-relations staff) on this.

Basically, I think this won't be a distraction because I don't see anyone playing along with it. A year ago, I wrongly anticipated that Mark McGwire's arrival as the Cardinals' hitting coach would be a distraction because 1) the Cardinals and McGwire handled the situation horribly at the outset; 2) I thought more details about McGwire's illegal PED past would surface; 3) I thought McGwire would react angrily to continued questions, sort of the way the demi-Hulk reacted to military helicopters in this episode of "The Incredible Hulk." 

Turned out to be a false alarm, mostly because #2 didn't happen. Most of the time, indeed, these turn out to be false alarms. I think the same will follow for Pujols and the Cardinals. 

--You read David Lennon's story about Oliver Perez being locked out of the Mets' spring-training complex (nothing personal - it was Sunday), and your response is, "Of course." Coming up today: To help make ends meet, Ollie gets a second job at a confections factory.

--Yankees Radio Broadcaster Suzyn Waldman, a breast cancer survivor, is participating as a judge in the 2011 Honorary Bat Girl Contest, which honors fans who have been affected by breast cancer. The selectees will be honored on the field during Mother's Day celebrations of their favorite teams. Starting today, fans can share their stories and vote for their favorites at www.honorarybatgirl.com.

You can submit nominees until April 14.

--I'll check in later. i'll provide afternoon updates from the Sunshine State (at least, during the week) every day while I'm down here.

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