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St. Louis Cardinals: Is this the first day of the rest of your lives?

I wonder if there has ever been a more pivotal day in the history of the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Redbirds could win tonight and be one step away from winning the World Series. Or they could lose tonight and not only be prevented from turning a dream run into championship glory, but the club could be days away from watching one of its greatest players in history ride off into the sun set.

A few days ago I was very optimistic about both winning the Fall Classic and re-signing Pujols. But the Cardinals' flat play in games four and five of the World Series -- and the front office's statements about maintaining the current level of payroll next season and beyond -- suddenly makes both prospects seem shaky.

The easier problem might be the playoff picture. All the Cardinals have to do is win tonight and then take the seventh game to recover from their stumble. But it's up to the guys who write the checks to decide if the'll put pen to paper for Albert Pujols.

I think a franchise with the Cardinals' revenue has more flexibility than ownership lets on. I think $115 million is certainly in order and $120 million is reasonable for a club that draws more than 3 million paying customers on an annual basis. I also think the overall payroll number can be misleading. If a player gets a big signing bonus (perhaps paid with the unexpected bounty of cash produced by eight or nine home playoff games) as part of his deal it could lower his average annual salary. Deferred payments or an ownership stake could also make the impact on the annual budget smaller.

But I worry that the Redbirds are drawing a line in the sand on the deal they put in front of Pujols -- which he immediately rejected -- and that bad feelings are going to quickly take over.

Supposedly Pujols was offered a nine-year deal for about $22 million a year. And few thought that was going to get the job done when Ryan Howard -- a guy whose statistics can't even be compared with Albert's with a straight face -- is getting $25 million a year for five years.

I'm guessing the minimum offer likely to get Pujols to ink the dotted line is $25 million a year for eight seasons. And that might not be a bad compromise for the Cardinals or the player.

Pujols would be the second-richest player in major league history behind Alex Rodriguez's absurd contract (which has already started to bite the Yankees as his health and productivity fades.) The Cardinals would pay a little bit more a year. But they would shave a season off the back end of the contract, which would prevent the club from paying a 41-year-old player $22 million.

Plus, Pujols could still get the "respect" of being the highest paid National Leaguer AND claim he took less money to stay in St. Louis because he's such a great guy at the same time.

The most difficult part of fitting Pujols into the payroll would be season one. In 2013 the Cardinals currently stand to pay Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse a combined $20 million. They'll both be gone for much cheaper replacements in 2014 with Kyle McClellan, Marc Rzepczynski, Lance Lynn and Shelby Millers all candidates for the fourth and fifth spots in a rotation that alread includes a discounted Chris Carpenter and a very friendly option year for Adam Wainwright.

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