Pujols, Cards not finding common ground

For more than a week now, sources have painted an increasingly pessimistic view of the Albert Pujols negotiations. That pessimism is growing even more pronounced as Pujols approaches his self-imposed deadline for an agreement.

Pujols rejected an offer from the Cardinals about two weeks ago, according to a source with knowledge of the negotiations. Barring a last-minute reversal, a deal is unlikely before Wednesday, when Pujols arrives at spring training. Once he reports, he intends to halt further discussions until the Cardinals’ season is over.

The usual caveats stand — contract talks are fluid and a breakthrough toward a record extension might be only one phone call away. But the Cardinals and Pujols are barely on the same page, sources say, increasing the possibility that Pujols will become a free agent at the end of the season.

Pujols, 31, wants a contract that reflects his status as the game’s premier player, one that likely would vault him ahead of Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who signed a 10-year, $275 million, free-agent deal at the same age.

The Cardinals almost certainly would prefer to limit the deal to seven or eight years and keep Pujols’ average annual salary below $30 million. But the exact positions of the two sides are not known.

While the Cardinals are making a sincere attempt to complete a deal, they are not in as strong a financial position as other clubs in larger markets. The team is frustrated that Pujols’ aggressive negotiating stance does not match his public declarations of loyalty. Pujols, however, has been paid below market value for virtually his entire career.

His current contract — a seven-year, $100 million deal — included a

$16 million club option that the Cardinals exercised for 2011. Pujols also was paid $16 million annually in each of the previous three seasons, his highest salary over the course of the deal.

In the first seven years of the contract, Pujols won three National League MVP awards, finished second twice and third once. He never complained publicly that he was underpaid. The Cardinals knew he was in line for a monster deal, but thus far have failed to sign him to an extension.

The bidding for Pujols as a free agent almost certainly would be fierce. The Cubs, Rangers and Angels are among the teams that could pursue Pujols. The Mets and Dodgers also could bid if their ownerships become more stable. The Yankees and Red Sox currently are set long- term at first, but could turn creative in an attempt to land Pujols.