JUPITER, FL (STLToday.com) - What St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa described Sunday as "a spectacular distraction potentially" came into sharper focus as a source familiar with negotiations confirmed first baseman Albert Pujols recently rejected the team's offer regarding a contract extension.
A week after the parties were described as "nowhere close" to an agreement, it appears increasingly likely Pujols will enter camp Wednesday morning with no deal in place. If so, talks would halt because of a Feb. 15 deadline put in place by Pujols' agent, Dan Lozano. And the likelihood of the three-time Natinoal League Most Valuable Player reaching free agency after the upcoming season would increase.
Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak described talks as in a "sensitive" phase SATURDAY and SAundy night did not comment on the report.
Lozano rejected the offer two weeks ago, according to reports by ESPN and Fox Sports. However, a source familiar with negotiations said as recently as 10 days ago the Cardinals had not tendered a formal offer.
What may be a matter of semantics underscores the gulf separating the team and its signature player. The Cardinals are unwilling to guarantee more than six years, while Pujols might be seeking a deal of up to 10 years. It is unclear if the Cardinals plan to offer a modified proposal before the approaching deadline.
The rejected offer, first reported by USA Today, has left both sides pessimistic about beating the deadline.
The Cardinals may indeed be more comfortable allowing other clubs to help sculpt Pujols' market within free agency rather than to negotiate in a vacuum. A source familiar with Pujols described the 10-year-veteran as "at peace" with the situation. Pujols has asserted consistently that he is unafraid of free agency. The stance apparently hardened after talks about an extension went nowhere last spring and was followed by Philadelphia awarding first baseman Ryan Howard a five-year, $125 million extension.
La Russa, breaking a virtual cone of silence that has surrounded the issue, acknowledged unresolved negotiations with Pujols could become a "spectacular distraction potentially," but hastened that "we won't allow it to be."
He instead called it a "spectacular excuse" should the club underachieve this season.
"It's in the players' hands to concentrate on playing games and not make excuses," La Russa insisted. "If we play bad it's because we weren't good enough to play good or the leadership on the field wasn't good enough."
La Russa spoke Sunday morning almost as if resigned to Pujols reaching opening day unsigned beyond the upcoming season. He also noted potential involvement by the Major League Baseball Players Association in urging Pujols to push for top dollar. La Russa spoke confidently that Pujols would resist any such pressure.
"He's not going to listen to the union or his representatives more than he listens to the man upstairs and his family," La Russa said during an impromptu 45-minute morning news conference in his office. "That can be unfair, putting a player in that position. It happens on every team, every year and I have never appreciated that. There should be an acknowledgement about the best situation, and it's not always dollars."
Pujols, 31, is on the final installment of an eight-year, $111 million deal signed in February 2004, shortly before reaching an arbitration hearing and more than a year before he captured his first MVP award. He now seeks a deal that would at least challenge and possibly surpass the $27.5 million annual salary of New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, the game's highest-paid player.
"The pressure that a high-profile player receives from the union and his representatives to push for the last dollar (is) neglecting anything else about that decision - type of organization, loyalty, all that stuff," La Russa said. "I don't think that's a real healthy part of our game. The union is out there for their players to keep setting the bar higher and higher."
La Russa was met with a barrage of Pujols-related questions and said he would advise players against answering inquiries about their teammate's contract status.
La Russa repeatedly dismissed suggestions that Pujols' status as a pending free agent would represent a sideshow.
"I keep hearing this thing about distractions," La Russa noted. "You allow yourself to be distracted. We're not going to allow ourselves to get distracted, which means there are going to be a lot of non-answers. Hopefully, the players will do the same. It's not what we're here for.''
La Russa abstained from discussing specifics of the talks saying the matter is being handled by chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., Mozeliak and Luzano.
"I think Albert and the people who represent him will figure out how they want to handle that opportunity. Whatever they decide... I just know that either it gets done before the practice or after it," La Russa said. "We're not assembled here to facilitate some news conference or about anything other than our team getting ready. We have one of our key players at an important part of our career. He's got a business decision to make."
Intense media interest will accompany Pujols into camp and throughout the season. Unlike the early scrutiny that followed Mark McGwire's hiring as Cardinals hitting coach last season, interest in Pujols' status is likely to increase as the season unfolds. Even so, La Russa promised Sunday the matter would not grow into a distraction for his team.
"It's not the same, obviously, but it's a good example about something here that could have been a distraction that ended up getting taken care of. It was definitely the way Mark handled it," La Russa noted. "But you choose what you want to think about. The fact is we're here to get ourselves ready to be as good as we can be. Anything that gets in the way of that... our mission is to not let it happen."
Mozeliak is expected to address media today but it remains unclear whether he will address the team's negotiations with Pujols.
Lozano may address the matter on behalf of his client later this week.
ESPN has assigned a crew to Cardinals camp for the upcoming week. A crush of national media is also expected to descend upon the complex in numbers greater than last February's McGwire watch.
Such attention could easily extend to place the team's season within the context of its star player's contract status. Regardless, La Russa said he is confident the team's fan base will view the storylines separately.
Asked if both parties could be hurt by ongoing attention that could divide the fan base, La Russa asserted, "I don't think either side can get bruised because they've got too many points going into this thing."
Pujols already has constructed a Hall of Fame career having achieved the minimum 10 years required for consideration. The Cardinals have reached the postseason in six of Pujols' 10 seasons and won their first World Series since 1982 with him as their anchor.
"The biggest bruising would be if a team that looks like it should be in contention plays like chumps," he said. "I think our fans would be more unhappy if we don't have a contending 2011 season than anything about Albert. This is a team. He's the best player. But I think it's more important to our fans that the 2011 Cardinals do something that resembles the organization."
As pitchers and catchers continued to report to camp on Sunday, La Russa held his thumb and index finger about an inch apart for emphasis.
"Not this much of me is worried about us not being good enough because of Albert's negotiations."