By GORDON WITTENMYER
MESA, Ariz. - If the St. Louis Cardinals don't want to get anything done with Albert Pujols' contract, Cubs ownership isn't ruling out the possibility of the North Siders getting involved - the first sign of any substance suggesting the Cubs could be legitimate players for the slugger when/if he becomes a free agent next fall.
Chairman Tom Ricketts, in Mesa to address the team on the first day of full-squad workouts today, said that all he knows specifically of the Pujols situation is ``what I read in the paper.''
But even in a season in which the Cubs' major-league payroll has been cut by about 10 percent from last year, Ricketts said ownership is open to a potential ``mega'' contract if the player and the length of the contract are the right fits.
``There's going to be a little more financial flexibility at the end of the season than we've had in year's past. We'll have to assess the situation when we get there and see what's available,'' he said on the subject of any major contract commitment, adding, ``The fact is, we'll be open-minded to what we think is best for the team when that comes up.''
That could be as soon as the end of this season, when first-baseman Carlos Pena's one-year deal is up, and when nearly $40 million potentially falls off the books in three players alone (Kosuke Fukudome, Carlos Silva and Aramis Ramirez - although Ramirez has a club option for '12).
Pujols, 31, reportedly turned down a Cardinals offer said to be in the neighborhood of $200 millions for eight years, with a possible ownership stake after retirement. Now that he's reported for spring training in the final year of his contract, Pujols said he plans to have no contract discussions again until after the season.
``How many major leaguers are there? Like 300? If you ask all of them, everybody wants Pujols on their team,'' Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez said. ``But at the same time, we got Carlos Pena here, and you've got to respect your teammate. ... But to answer your question, anybody would like Pujols.''
Whether it will take the 10 years, $30 million that Pujols was rumored to be seeking when talks with the Cardinals opened - or something between that and the St. Louis offer - could be the difference in whether the Cubs decide to become serious pursuers.
``It's particularly important when you look at the length of some of the contracts behind offered for the bigger starts of the game because those are big, big, big commitments, Ricketts said. ``The length of the deal is often a bigger problem than the amount of the dollars. You have to be very careful that if you're going to sign one of those longer deals, if you're going to take on one of those guys for seven, eight, nine years, you better make sure that's the guy you want.''