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Albert Pujols is only 45 weeks away from free agency. From Flushing to Chavez Ravine, executives are watching, wondering if the unthinkable will happen and the face of the Cardinals franchise will hit the open market. Just the thought is enough to send all of St. Louis and a good portion of the Midwest into crisis lockdown panic mode.

The Cardinals and the first baseman’s agent, Dan Lozano, had preliminary discussions about an extension last offseason before Pujols shut down talks in the spring, wishing to avoid any distraction during the season. The two sides met again earlier this month at the Winter Meetings, and Pujols reiterated his position against in-season negotiations. Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. publicly ruled out the possibility of a trade. So two outcomes remain: free agency in October or a contract extension, with a negotiating window of nine weeks before the voluntary reporting date for spring training or 14 weeks until Opening Day.

Two months ago, St. Louis exercised the $16 million 2011 option tacked on to the seven-year, $100 million deal Pujols signed in February 2004. Without a new deal this winter, no fewer than 23 players will earn more than Pujols in 2011, including A.J. Burnett and Carlos Lee. Three others—Michael Young, Justin Verlander, and Jason Bay—will match Pujols’ 2011 salary. Make no mistake: No one ever wrote a folk song about a ballplayer pulling down an eight-figure paycheck. But Pujols has been the game’s best player for the better part of a decade now, and paying a salary commensurate with that status would only be good business for an organization that wants to make him a Cardinal for life.

The discussions thus far have been less public than, say, Derek Jeter’s recent contract talks with the Yankees. But both sides have quietly staked out positions, with Pujols reportedly seeking “A-Rod money”—$275 million over 10 years—and DeWitt expressing uncertainty about whether his club can afford the game’s most lucrative contract.

With 408 home runs and a career TAv of .344, Lozano is not unreasonable to seek a contract making his client the highest-paid player in baseball. Using MORP (Marginal Value Over Replacement Player) to estimate Pujols’ value going forward, he is worth $158.7 million over the next seven seasons ($22.7 million per year), or $201.7 million over the next nine seasons ($22.4 million per year). Those figures sound almost affordable, but the numbers have a way of ballooning on the open market. MORP estimates Carl Crawford’s next seven seasons to be worth $112.9 million. He signed at the Winter Meetings for $142 million. Jayson Werth’s value is estimated at $83.7 million through 2017. He signed this month for $126 million. Ryan Howard is pegged at $49.55 million for 2012-16. He signed in April for $125 million.

Pujols is not on the open market yet, but given his résumé, he has an unusual amount of leverage nonetheless. Whether his next deal makes him the game’s highest-paid player, the agreement will be shaped by the contract’s length, total value, and average annual value (AAV).

Every contract’s length is inevitably tied closely to the player’s age. Given the early-career whispers suggesting Pujols is older than advertised, this issue might be an obstacle—if Pujols had shown even the slightest signs of decline. But to this point in his career, he has been nothing if not remarkably consistent, both at the plate and in the field.

Pujols will turn 31 in January, making him a year younger than Alex Rodriguez was in 2007 when a few select Masters of the Universe from Goldman Sachs helped broker his landmark 10-year deal with the Yankees. Once and future Phillie Cliff Lee is entering his age-32 season in 2011, and he reportedly received seven-year offers on the free-agent market. Werth, 32, and Crawford, 29, both signed seven-year deals. Entering his age-30 season last year, Matt Holliday got a seven-year deal from the Cardinals. Seven years would seem to be the minimum for Pujols, but even a contract as long as 10 years would take him only through his age-40 season.

Though it’s difficult to see any team but the Yankees agreeing to a deal north of A-Rod’s $275 million in total value, Jeter’s mark of $189 million—third all-time—is within range. Pujols’ best path to becoming baseball’s highest-paid player is likely through average annual value. Philadelphia was able to land Lee in part because GM Ruben Amaro Jr. offered him $24 million AAV, topping CC Sabathia by $1 million and setting a new milepost for active pitchers. If Pujols and the Cardinals compromised at, say, eight years, a deal worth $28 million AAV would push the overall value to $224 million, a steep price for any club. A hypothetical year-by-year breakdown paints a stark financial picture for the club writing the checks:

Bonus

$8 million

2011-2013

$28 million annually

2014-2016

$26 million annually

2017-2018

$25 million annually

2019

$24 million option, $4 million buyout

Could the Cardinals afford such a deal? Almost remarkably, their Opening Day payroll has never reached $100 million. Only once in club history (2008) has the St. Louis payroll exceeded even $95 million, though the team has pushed spending to nine figures as measured by year-end totals.

Between Pujols and Holliday (due $17 million per year through 2016), St. Louis could have two players pulling in $40 million or more. That would limit payroll flexibility for a club spending between $100 million and $110 million, in addition to roughly $20 million the Cardinals pay each year to service the debt on new Busch Stadium.

For 2011 alone, the Cardinals have committed nearly $99 million to 14 players. Add another $3-4 million for newly acquired Ryan Theriot and roughly $4.5 million for the remaining 10 players on the roster, and the Cards will reach the $107 million range on Opening Day. Factor in a bonus and a raise for Pujols, and the $120 million mark looms.

The financial squeeze becomes even tighter the following season. If St. Louis exercises its options on Chris Carpenter and Yadier Molina, the club will have $69.5 million earmarked for seven players in 2012. Add $28 million for Pujols, and suddenly payroll is at $98 million, with another 17 players to pay. But beyond that, St. Louis has some flexibility with just $30 million committed to three players in 2013 and only Holliday on the books for 2014-16.

One tactic the Cardinals have used to cushion the weight of large salaries is deferrals. Since 2007, under the terms of his current deal, Pujols has deferred $3 million annually without interest, reducing the present-day value of his contract to “only” $90 million. Carpenter and Holliday have made similar concessions. Given the obligations already on the team’s books, deferrals are almost a requirement for Pujols’ next contract.

 But without a significant bump in payroll, St. Louis faces a tough task in shoehorning a $25 million salary into the budget. Pujols is on record as saying he’d like to retire as a Cardinal. But if he truly wants to be the game’s highest-paid player, he might have to consider leaving St. Louis.