Losing Pujols would devastate Cards

Here’s the bottom line, the only thing you need to know before the rhetoric intensifies:

If the Cardinals lose Albert Pujols to free agency — lose him for two high draft picks — it would be a devastating blow to the franchise.

Not as devastating as say, the Red Sox selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000 plus $300,000 in loans in 1920.

But close enough, as these things go.

That’s not to say the Cardinals should give Pujols a blank check; Pujols turned 31 on Jan. 16, and his next 10 seasons are unlikely to be as brilliant as his first 10.

But from the team’s perspective, a deal must get done.

Seven years might not be long enough; Pujols probably will not want to be a free agent again at 38. Alex Rodriguez’s average salary of $27.5 million will not be high enough; Pujols is a significantly better player.

The Cardinals, truth be told, already have waited too long. Salaries for top free agents again are rising. Pujols is in a position of greater leverage than the club — yes, even though the Yankees are set at first base with Mark Teixeira through 2016 and the Red Sox will be set with Adrian Gonzalez long-term soon.

As a free agent, Pujols could sign with the Cubs, Angels or some other team. But the Cardinals, without him, would be in an awful bind.

Teixeira and Gonzalez would be off-limits, along with the Phillies’ Ryan Howard, Reds’ Joey Votto and Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, all of whom are signed through at least 2013.

The Brewers’ Prince Fielder would be available as a free agent, and still would be just 27. But that’s just what the Cardinals would need: To negotiate with Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, from a position of poor leverage.

We’ve seen it before: Teams lose superstars and survive just fine. Some — the 2001 Mariners, sans A-Rod, come to mind — even improve.

Pujols, though, stands practically alone at the top of his sport. The Cardinals know that better than anyone — and acknowledge it. They also knew that this day was coming, and that they would need to increase their payroll sharply to keep Pujols and build around him.

True, Cardinals fans are loyal, and any perception that Pujols betrayed the franchise would only stiffen their resolve. The team still could compete behind a core of right-handers Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright and left fielder Matt Holliday, at least in 2012. But not even the most giddy optimist could say that without Pujols, the club would be anywhere close to what it was before.

So here we are, just more than a month away from the Cardinals’ first full workout of spring training — and Pujols’ deadline for completing a deal, as relayed to the team through his agent, Dan Lozano.

The confirmation of the deadline by Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch created an industry-wide stir, but it’s typical of Pujols’ approach — eliminate noise, focus on baseball, even in spring training.

In fact, a source said, Pujols imposed the same deadline on his negotiations with the club last year. The difference now, of course, is that he is less than nine months away from free agency. And he apparently wants to get the talks moving.

It’s Negotiating 101 — one side sets a deadline, trying to trigger action. But does anyone seriously think that the two sides will stop talking if they make significant progress by mid-February?

Another thing: A failure to complete a deal by spring training or even Opening Day would not preclude the Cardinals from trying again after their season ended. Pujols would not become a free agent until five days after the end of the World Series.

Granted, the Cardinals’ chances by then probably would be slim; Pujols surely would want to test the open market. That, indeed, makes the next month critical. The talks to this point have been preliminary, sources say, but that could change with one phone call.

This will not be Derek Jeter, Part II. Pujols is in the prime of his career, not nearing the end. He remains under contract for 2011 with a full no-trade clause. The Cardinals will not snipe at him. He will not snipe at them.

It’s strictly business.

As Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz points out, only once in Pujols’ 10 years has he ranked among the game’s 25 highest-paid players, according to USA Today.

Pujols agreed to his current seven-year, $100 million deal. He is no position to complain. But then, neither are the Cardinals, who paid him below-market salaries all these years.

No excuses. No ignoring reality.

The Cardinals need Pujols more than Pujols needs the Cardinals.