Season 11 begins with intrigue for Pujols

Albert Pujols is about to begin what could be his final season

with the St. Louis Cardinals. The team expects a rousing welcome

for the three-time NL MVP, even though he’s playing hardball off

the field.

Year 11 for Pujols, all with the Cardinals, begins on Thursday

against the San Diego Padres. His first decade with the franchise

is among the best in major league history, with a solid string of

.300 averages with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs.

Pujols cut off contract negotiations until the offseason on the

first day of spring training, and appears headed for free agency

for the first time. General manager John Mozeliak wouldn’t reveal

the Cardinals’ best offer from mid-February but said it would be

tough to top whenever Pujols is amenable to discussing a new deal

again.

”We put our best foot forward at the time,” Mozeliak said. ”I

don’t envision that drastically changing.”

Still, manager Tony La Russa was sure there’d be only cheering,

and lots of it, when the 31-year-old Pujols is introduced during

the players’ annual opening-day parade lap around the warning track

aboard flatbed trucks.

”I wish I was as certain about us playing in October as I am

about the reception that Albert’s going to get,” La Russa said.

”I mean, his 10 years here, I think the fans are going to be

louder than ever for him.”

Positive feedback from the stands can only help. Mozeliak

anticipates fans will appreciate what Pujols has already done.

”I don’t know if there’s any gaming involved in that, I just

think it’ll be genuine,” Mozeliak said. ”Here’s what we know:

He’s part of the Cardinals for 2011.”

Neither team has its projected opening day starter. Chris

Carpenter gets the nod for the Cardinals after 20-game winner Adam

Wainwright was sidelined by reconstructive elbow surgery early in

spring training and the Padres will go with Tim Stauffer in place

of Mat Latos, who’s beginning the year on the 15-day disabled list

with a shoulder injury.

Latos, who was 14-10 with a 2.92 ERA last season, was scheduled

to progress from playing catch Wednesday to a side session on

Thursday. The team expects Latos to pitch in April.

”We have an idea of where this is headed and it’s positive,”

manager Bud Black said. ”We want him to pass all these daily

mini-tests that he’s taking but if he comes out of these fine like

we think he will you could see him in hopefully a couple weeks.

”We’ve got to make sure when he gets in a competitive situation

that we don’t have any sort of recurrence of what happened in his

last competitive situation.”

Stauffer lost out to Latos for the final rotation spot last

year, but emerged with a 6-5 record and 1.85 ERA and made seven

starts overall. The 35-year-old Carpenter makes his fifth opening

day start for St. Louis after going 16-9 with a 3.22 ERA last

season.

”I still get butterflies every day,” Carpenter said. ”When I

go out there and pitch, it’s an important day. You can still take

it in and enjoy it, but there comes a time you’ve got to let it

go.

”The older you get, the more ways you have of dealing with

that.”

Outfielder Ryan Ludwick begins his first full season with the

Padres after coming from St. Louis on the trade deadline. Ludwick

batted only .211 with six homers and 26 RBIs in 209 at-bats with

San Diego, and said he’s a lot more comfortable now.

”It’s definitely different this year,” Ludwick said. ”I can

start building time here. This is a special place, too.”

Jim Edmonds, who signed a minor league contract with the

Cardinals this winter but then abandoned comeback plans and retired

before reporting due to a foot injury, will throw out the first

pitch. Governor Jay Nixon is scheduled to be among those

attending.