The Cardinals are probably going to sign Albert Pujols, but it won’t be easy and it won’t all be positive…

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As the resident Cardinals supporter on this here blog, I feel it is my responsibility to riff a little on the Albert Pujols extension stuff.

It was reported Saturday that Pujols and his agent want talks to cease once spring training begins and Albert confirmed that deadline while speaking with the media Sunday in what MLB.com’s Matthew Leach called an “occasionally testy” press conference at the Cardinals’ Winter Warmup.

Assuming that Pujols and his representatives stick to that plan — and there’s no reason to think they won’t — the St. Louis front office has about a month to get a contract worked out.  Otherwise, the greatest hitter in the game today will hit free agency next winter at the age of 31.

If I’m Pujols’ agent, I’m asking for a nine-year deal worth $270 million.  I’m not expecting to sign at that number, but it’s where I would start.

No hitter in baseball history has been so consistently prolific to start a career and Pujols is no slouch on defense either.  He’s squeaky clean, a family man and infinitely marketable.

Pujols is without a doubt the best player in the sport and it is his agent’s job to ensure that he is paid as such.  Whether the historically excellent rate of production continues into the next decade is unknown and maybe even unlikely, but the Cardinals must pay for what he has already accomplished and what he might accomplish in the future.  Because if they don’t, someone else will.

You’ve probably heard the idea that the Yankees and Red Sox won’t try to a lure in a free agent Pujols because they are both already locked into multi-year contracts at first base.  I don’t believe it, not for a second.  The Yankees are committing DH duties in 2011 to Jorge Posada, a 39-year-old with bad knees.  The Red Sox will go with David Ortiz, who is 35 and playing in a body that isn’t aging well.  Why has it been determined that baseball’s top big money clubs won’t have openings?

The Yankees will try to get Pujols if he becomes a free agent.  The Red Sox will, too.  Mark it in ink.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Pujols is definitely going to leave St. Louis if a pact isn’t agreed upon before the opening of spring camp. If the Cardinals don’t like the slugger’s asking price this winter and decide to let him dip a toe in the free agent waters, they will still be a legitimate suitor on the other end.  Majority owner Bill DeWitt Jr. is a billionaire and has already made a killing off his $150 million purchase of the club in 1995.  He runs the team like a business — with the intention of making a profit — but he is also a legitimate fan.

The money is there to battle the big boys.  You’ll hear the Cardinals referred to as a mid-market team from time to time, but it’s completely false.  St. Louis is not a big town, but the fan base extends to all bordering states and beyond because of the strong radio signals that KMOX emitted when televisions weren’t in every home. You can find big pockets of folks wearing the “birds on the bat” in Arkansas, Tennessee, southern Illinois, Indiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Iowa.

The Cardinals are in the Top 5 of league-wide merchandise sales nearly every season and they pack three million fans into the new and somewhat publicly funded Busch Stadium on a yearly basis.

The money is flowing.

But it’s DeWitt’s team.  If he decides that it is bad business to outbid offers from the Yankees and Red Sox, or even the Giants, then it simply won’t happen.  And that rightly has Cardinals fans nervous.

I don’t have sources and I don’t know any of the involved negotiators personally, but I think the deal gets done just before spring training.  I think it will be an awful contract, maybe in the eight-year, $225 million range, and I think it’s going to hamstring the Cardinals for almost its entire duration.

When the Cards need to lock up Adam Wainwright after 2013, they won’t be able to.  When Colby Rasmus hits free agency, he won’t be brought back either.  DeWitt isn’t going to operate yearly with a $150 million payroll.  He is interested in making money, and that’s fine.

But I have a feeling — wise or not — that he is going to open the purse strings for Pujols before the Cardinals head down to Jupiter, Florida in late February because DeWitt knows what it will mean for public relations if El Hombre departs and because, well, there have been no discussions about a possible Plan B.

The Cards are going all in.

The Cubs will try to clinch the NL Central on Tuesday

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The Cubs soundly defeated the Cardinals on Monday night, 10-2, sending their magic number down to one. They will try to clinch the NL Central on Tuesday with another win against the Cardinals. Alternatively, if they lose, they can still clinch if the Brewers also lose on Tuesday.

The Cubs, of course, won the Central last year en route to winning their first World Series since 1908. It wasn’t nearly as easy this year as the club was below .500 entering June and was exactly at .500 entering July. A 16-8 July, 17-12 August, and 15-8 September have helped put the Cubs back in position to return to the postseason.

Not to be forgotten, the Cardinals were eliminated from NL Central contention with Monday’s loss. Now they have their sights set on the second NL Wild Card slot and currently trail the Rockies in that race.

The matchups for Tuesday’s action:

Carter Capps to undergo surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome

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Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union Tribune reports that Padres pitcher Carter Capps will undergo surgery this offseason to address thoracic outlet syndrome, which doctors believe caused the right-hander’s blood clots. The Padres hope to have him ready by spring training next year.

Capps, 27, underwent Tommy John surgery last year and didn’t debut this season until August 7. He made 11 relief appearances, yielding nine runs on 12 hits and two walks with seven strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings. He went back on the DL on September 12 due to the blood clot issue.

The Padres acquired Capps from the Marlins last July in the Andrew Cashner trade which ended up having a lot of moving parts. Capps will enter his third and final year of arbitration eligibility this offseason. It’s quite possible the Padres choose to non-tender him.