Now that the World Series has been wrapped up (congratulations to the San Francisco Giants), the St. Louis Cardinals can look ahead to a pivotal offseason.

In St. Louis, winter isn’t just a season. It’s the time between the end of one journey and the beginning of another. For a city that lives and breathes with the Cardinals, the offseason is usually a time to catch up.

Hold on, Cardinals fans. What happens this offseason may change the face of the Cardinals franchise for years to come.

For once, baseball’s Hot Stove may revolve around the Cardinals, and around a player who is still under contract for 2011. I’m speaking, of course, about Albert Pujols, the best player in the majors today, and possibly the greatest right-handed hitter ever.

As everyone in the 314 area code knows, Pujols’s 7-year/$100 million contract extension will come to an end after the final game of the 2011 World Series, and it stands to reason that he is in line for a large raise. Pujols has made it known that he will not negotiate during the season, so St. Louis has until Opening Day to lock up their star player to a multi-year deal.

However, when, or if, this deal gets done is up in the air. Pujols could certainly get more money on the open market, and he knows it, but he’s repeatedly said he wants to stay in St. Louis.

The situation is still pretty muddled. Pujols hasn’t made his demands clear. He certainly deserves to be the top-payed player in baseball, but unfortunately, the two highest-played players in baseball are grossly overpayed. So, while Alex Rodriguez money may be out of the question, something in the range of Joe Mauer’s contract ($23 million per), would be suitable for both parties.

Also in question would be the length of said contract. Certainly the Cardinals would like to have Pujols locked up for his entire career. While a lifetime contract would be great, look for a ten-or-eleven-year deal. That would take Pujols through his age 40 season.

But that’s looking at things optimistically, from the Cardinals’ point of view.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Joe Strauss, who initially placed St. Louis’s chances of resigning Pujols at 75/25, Strauss now says that the chances of reaching an extension are dwindling by the day, now may be “less than 50/50”.

Some reports are saying that Albert may in fact want Alex Rodriguez money, which is nearly out of the question for the Cardinals. That sort of contract would take up nearly one third of their salary, assuming they don’t open their wallets in a major way. So nothing’s certain.

That begs the question: How much should the Cardinals pay Albert Pujols?

Pujols has clearly been the best player in baseball. He’s already won three MVPs, and is in high contention for his fourth, and third straight. He may be one of the greatest players we’ve ever seen.

So right now, Pujols deserves as much as the Cardinals can give him. But in future years, when Pujols’ production declines, and the home runs slow down, would the contract still be worth it? Yankees fans are already upset about Alex Rodriguez’s “poor” production (.270/.341/.506), which would be welcomed, if not for the fact that he earned nearly $1 million per home run in 2010.

If the Cardinals are paying Pujols in the neighborhood of $27 million when he’s 40, that’s a large chunk of their payroll invested in a guy who may not even be fit to play the field anymore. Unless the National League institutes a designated hitter in the next ten years, such a deal could get ugly fast.

Still, in my opinion, every dollar would be worth it.

In baseball, unlike football or hockey, we don’t remember great teams, but rather great players. This holds exceptionally true in St. Louis, where Ozzie Smith, Lou Brock, Stan Musial, and Bob Gibson all outshone the teams they played on. The Cardinals have always been good about giving their star players the deals they deserve.

Even on the best teams in history, like the famed 1927 Yankees, players like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig held the teams on their shoulders. One or two future Hall-of-Famers can lift a team to a championship. With Pujols, the Cardinals would have their keystone, and would have the next decade to win that championship.

This can be remembered as a golden age in Cardinals history, similar to the Stan Musial era of the 1940’s and 50’s. Or it could be a return to the 70’s and 90’s, when one or two good, but not great players struggled to lead the Cardinals out of the cellar.

The alternative to resigning Albert is one of the ugliest things to cross the mind of the usually content Cardinals nation in many years:

Pujols will play this season with free agency impending, and most likely put up his usual MVP-type numbers. He heads into the free market, and the Cardinals make a vain attempt to resign him. He ends up signing a record deal with the boisterous, loaded Yankees or Red Sox, the worst case scenario for the humble Cardinals Nation. Despite Pujols being one of the best fielders in baseball, his new team decides to play him at DH, because, with their money, they can afford to.

What happens next is up to the Cardinals. Pujols wants to come back, and I say give him the money. Yes, baseball is a team sport, but I’m willing to admit what many Cardinals fans aren’t willing to say or believe.

I’d rather have ten years of Pujols, the greatest player I will ever watch, play on a mediocre Cardinals team, one that’s likely to make the playoffs, than have the current group of players win a World Series while Pujols wins several with some large-market team.

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