JUPITER, Fla. • Asked about the man that he considers a "big brother" more than a longtime teammate, Yadier Molina steals a quick glance left at the locker long occupied by Albert Pujols. Soon it will belong to someone else.
For the first time in his 12-year professional career, Molina walked into Roger Dean Stadium last week knowing that the three-time National League MVP and his closest friend in the game wouldn't be joining him. Two months after the Cardinals and Pujols separated, Molina acknowledges a sense of loss but also recognition that the game frequently operates this way.
"We've been through a lot of the same things together," Molina reflected Thursday afternoon, seven days after he arrived early at the Redbirds' spring training headquarters. "When you see a guy like Albert leave the club, you have to know this is business.
"We've got a pretty good team. But ... we're going to miss him. The type of player he is, everybody is going to miss him."
No one will miss Pujols more than Molina. The two shared adjoining lockers at home and on the road. They spent time together in the offseason. (Pujols attended Molina's two-day softball festival in Puerto Rico shortly after the Cardinals' World Series run.) They still talk almost daily.
"Albert had to make a decision," Molina said. "He made the decision that was good for him and his family. I wish him the best. I'm going to miss him. But it's part of business."
Universally considered a clubhouse pillar, Molina now holds the status that Pujols shouldered last spring: a veteran All-Star entering the final year of a contract who hopes an extension might be reached before opening day.
Molina, 29, insists the public, at times contentious, separation between Pujols and the club hasn't affected his desire to remain with the organization that drafted him 113th overall in 2000.
He also said the public bruising that occurred after the club's inability to retain Pujols, its signature player, hasn't soured him. However, it has served a reminder that sentiment has its limits.
"I'm open to staying here. I love the city. I love the fans. I love the ballpark. But it's out of my hands," Molina said. "Whatever they like to do is how it is. They let Albert go. It's business for the team, too. It's out of my hands."
The Cardinals have engaged Molina's agent, Melvin Roman, in preliminary talks about an extension. Though Molina would prefer the matter be resolved before opening day, he won't enforce Pujols' mandate that negotiations be resolved before his official report date to camp.
Well aware of burn marks created by failed talks, the Cardinals have adopted a low-key approach in discussing Molina's situation. General manager John Mozeliak sidestepped a question about negotiations, except to say: "Yadi's a very important part of this organization and has been for a number of years. At some point I would hope we could work something out."
Molina said: "I would like to concentrate and keep my focus on what's happening in the game rather than worry about a contract and what they're talking about. It makes it tougher. But I'm not going to say we couldn't listen to something once the season started. Until something is close, that's between the team and my agent. When something is close, he'll call me."
Failure to appear at the Winter Warm-Up last month in downtown St. Louis or to accompany the club on its subsequent White House visit fed speculation that Molina was angry with the club and preferred to keep his distance. Molina said he made his decision for personal reasons having to do with charity work performed in Puerto Rico.
Mozeliak characterized Molina's decision as being ill at ease at a team function that requires him to sign hundreds of autographs. Molina made a donation to Cardinals Care to offset the money lost due to his unavailability. Manager Mike Matheny was concerned enough about the catcher's state of mind that he phoned him while docked in San Juan on a team-sponsored Caribbean cruise.
"I'm sorry I didn't make it the last two years, but I had something I had to do back home," Molina said. "It doesn't mean I won't come next year or hopefully the next five or six years."
Molina will earn $7 million this season on the final installment of a $22.5 million deal signed before spring training in 2008. Since then, he has hit .300 twice and been awarded four consecutive Gold Gloves. He doubled his previous career high with 14 home runs last season while setting another career best with 65 RBIs.
Molina arrived in south Florida with a solid look. Though he said he hasn't altered his previous winter conditioning program, Molina gained quick notice with his leaner appearance.
"I work hard every winter," he said. "Last year I worked hard, but everybody was quiet because I was in Puerto Rico. This year I decided to come here early. I've been working hard. I came here with a purpose."
Molina said he and Pujols will stay in frequent contact. Pujols soon leaves for his first spring training in Arizona. Meanwhile, Molina said he will carry the lessons he learned from his friend during a trying 2011.
"I learned a lot by watching Albert deal with it," Molina said. "I watched how he went through that process. It's hard. But at the same time I'm trying not to think about it."
Though he stayed in almost constant touch with Pujols this offseason, Molina conceded surprise at his friend's decision. The pace of talks in which the Angels landed Pujols in a 48-hour window stunned him.
"When the news came out, I was sad," Molina said. "I was sad because you're used to being around your friend. You're used to being around your teammate. When you see a guy like that leave, it affects you. But at the same time, you have to concentrate on doing your job. At the same time, my job is to come here and try to win again."