Pujols’ future a question as season opens Thursday

St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols flies out against the Boston Red Sox during the first inning of a spring training baseball game in Fort Myers, Fla., Sunday, March 20, 2011.  Pujols hit a bases-loaded double, driving in three runs, in the sixth inning.

St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols flies out against the Boston Red Sox during the first inning of a spring training baseball game in Fort Myers, Fla., Sunday, March 20, 2011. Pujols hit a bases-loaded double, driving in three runs, in the sixth inning. Photo by The Associated Press.

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Albert Pujols is about to begin what could be his final season with the St. Louis Cardinals. The team expects a rousing welcome for the three-time NL MVP, even though he’s playing hardball off the field.

Year 11 for Pujols, all with the Cardinals, begins Thursday afternoon (3 p.m. start) against the San Diego Padres. His first decade with the franchise is among the best in major league history, with a solid string of .300 averages with 30 home runs and 100 RBI.

Pujols cut off contract negotiations until the offseason on the first day of spring training, and appears headed for free agency for the first time. General manager John Mozeliak wouldn’t reveal the Cardinals’ best offer from mid-February but said it would be tough to top whenever Pujols is amenable to discussing a new deal again.

“We put our best foot forward at the time,” Mozeliak said. “I don’t envision that drastically changing.”

Still, manager Tony La Russa was sure there’d be only cheering, and lots of it, when the 31-year-old Pujols is introduced during the players’ annual opening-day parade lap around the warning track aboard flatbed trucks.

“I wish I was as certain about us playing in October as I am about the reception that Albert’s going to get,” La Russa said. “I mean, his 10 years here, I think the fans are going to be louder than ever for him.”

Positive feedback from the stands can only help. Mozeliak anticipates fans will appreciate what Pujols has already done.

“I don’t know if there’s any gaming involved in that, I just think it’ll be genuine,” Mozeliak said. “Here’s what we know: He’s part of the Cardinals for 2011.”

Neither team has its projected opening day starter. Chris Carpenter gets the nod for the Cardinals after 20-game winner Adam Wainwright was sidelined by reconstructive elbow surgery early in spring training and the Padres will go with Tim Stauffer in place of Mat Latos, who’s beginning the year on the 15-day disabled list with a shoulder injury.

Latos, who was 14-10 with a 2.92 ERA last season, was scheduled to progress from playing catch Wednesday to a side session today. The team expects Latos to pitch in April.

“We have an idea of where this is headed and it’s positive,” manager Bud Black said. “We want him to pass all these daily mini-tests that he’s taking but if he comes out of these fine like we think he will you could see him in hopefully a couple weeks.

“We’ve got to make sure when he gets in a competitive situation that we don’t have any sort of recurrence of what happened in his last competitive situation.”

Stauffer lost out to Latos for the final rotation spot last year, but emerged with a 6-5 record and 1.85 ERA and made seven starts overall. The 35-year-old Carpenter makes his fifth opening day start for St. Louis after going 16-9 with a 3.22 ERA last season.

“I still get butterflies every day,” Carpenter said. “When I go out there and pitch, it’s an important day. You can still take it in and enjoy it, but there comes a time you’ve got to let it go.

“The older you get, the more ways you have of dealing with that.”

Outfielder Ryan Ludwick begins his first full season with the Padres after coming from St. Louis on the trade deadline. Ludwick batted only .211 with six homers and 26 RBI in 209 at-bats with San Diego, and said he’s a lot more comfortable now.

“It’s definitely different this year,” Ludwick said. “I can start building time here. This is a special place, too.”

Jim Edmonds, who signed a minor-league contract with the Cardinals this winter but then abandoned comeback plans and retired before reporting due to a foot injury, will throw out the first pitch.

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