For post-Pujols Cardinals, less is more - NBC Sports

For post-Pujols Cardinals, less is more
Money that would have gone to star spread around wisely in St. Louis
Reuters
The addition of Carlos Beltran will help the Cardinals offset the loss of Albert Pujols.
April 3, 2012, 8:04 pm

But one more thing will become clear, both to the Marlins and the rest of the National League. That is, the best move the opposing St. Louis Cardinals engineered last winter was the one they didn't engineer - the re-signing of Pujols.

That's no slight on AP - the Associated Press or Albert Pujols. With 445 home runs, 1,329 runs batted in, 1,291 runs, 2,073 hits, .328 batting average and 1.037 on-base/slugging percentage in 11 seasons, Pujols is a colossal weapon.

He often is referred to as the game's best player, although that is a distinction open to debate. Truth of the matter is, Pujols was not the game's best first baseman last year, much less it's best overall player. But nit-picking is not essential here.

As the crow flies, Pujols is a tremendous player, maybe even a historic one. And if his 32 years of age have been documented according to standard Greenwich Mean Time, not funky Dominican Republic Time, he should have several outstanding seasons remaining. You can almost bet those outstanding seasons will not count 10.

Moreover, seems reasonable to anticipate the season specs that have come to be associated with Pujols will begin to deteriorate well before 10 years go by, maybe before five years go by. No one knows for sure. What we do know for sure is that Pujols will be paid $254 million regardless.

There's the rub, the unusual position the Cardinals found themselves in last winter. Imagine you move into a neighborhood and find a spectacular restaurant. Not only is the food as good as it gets, the prices are reasonable, as well. That's what the Cardinals did when they brought up Pujols in 2001.

Over the next 11 seasons, he was terrific, winning three National League MVP awards, finishing twice four other times. All the while, his salary climbed from $7 million in 2004 to 14.5 million during the last three seasons. Not a blue-plate special, but given what some of the other establishments in town were getting, it was budget friendly.

Now, imagine you go to this great restaurant after these many years and management tells you it requires that you must commit to eating there for the next 10. On top of that, it will be raising it's prices substantially during that time. And it is quite likely that in the years ahead, the quality of its service and table fare will decline in the years to come.

Welcome to the Hard Rock Cafe . I kid, I kid. But seriously, does that sound inviting?

Now, imagine that by not committing to this highly-regarded restaurant, you will have room in the budget to enjoy other restaurants, maybe a Waffle House in the morning, a burger joint for lunch, etc. Maybe you even have money left over to join the fitness center around the block.

Under which scenario are you better served? To put it back on a baseball level, it's true, the Marlins won't have to face Pujols on Wednesday. But they might face Rafael Furcal, Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman to start that same inning.

If the Cardinals had signed Pujols, two of those three would not be on the roster and none of them would be batting in the first inning. More likely, the Brewers would be facing Skip Schumaker and Tyler Greene in front of Pujols. Which of those threesomes scares you more?

Moreover, the comparison goes well beyond the first inning or even this first Pujols-less season. Would the 2012 Cardinals edition be better if you added Pujols? Of course. But this would not be the 2012 Cardinals if Pujols was still wearing National League red. Cardinals editions going forward - for the next 10 years - would not look the same.

Oddly enough, the World Champions don't deserve the kudos for this courageous vision. The Los Angeles Angels get props for that. Arte Moreno and his television-stuffed wallet swooped in at the 11th hour to save St. Louis from itself and sway Pujols to La-La-Land with a 10-year deal. It makes more sense for the Angels. They are not an iconic franchise. They need a matinee idol to compete in a town with two teams, a town with a thick Latin-American market.

They can coddle Pujols with the DH rule, pamper his chronic elbow and ankle pains, perhaps extend the life of his bat a bit further. They can cover the nut and benefit from the brand beyond the statistical values.

The Cardinals are not like the Angels, or most other baseball franchises. They do not have television money drip, a Latin-American flavor to their Midwest regional audience or an identity problem.

The Birds on the Bat have more color and history than you can shake a 44-ounce stick at. Many observers didn't get it during the Pujols contract saga, but the Cardinals don't need a face for their franchise. And no matter how unprecedented Pujols was in this day and age, he was not going to fill that role.

The face of the franchise is "baseball's perfect warrior, baseball's perfect knight." Almost 50 years after he retired, Stan Musial represents the hard-nosed effort, decency and genuine wholesomeness the St. Louis franchise represent to 3 million-plus that come watch them each season.

Musial, Red Schoendienst, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Whitey Herzog, Ozzie Smith and Bruce Sutter . they will be there, in body, on the field on Opening Day in St. Louis. Meanwhile, Enos Slaughter, Johnny Mize, Dizzy Dean, Rogers Hornsby, Ken Boyer, Joe Medwick, Curt Flood, Marty Marion and numerous other royal baseball names . they'll be there in spirit.

Many teams infuse the term "nation" into their team's promotional personality. With the Cardinals, it truly is a condition, not an expression. The franchise was winning championships and individual awards long before Albert Pujols arrived, will do so long after he retires.

What's more, the Cardinals did do something. They took Pujols money and signed Carlos Beltran to a two-year deal, a player whose on-base and slugging percentages were higher than those of Pujols last season. They put Beltran in the outfield and moved Berkman to first base, a move that might extend Berkman's shelf life. Certainly, it lightens his immediate load.

They used Pujols money to sign Furcal and add left-handed relief specialist J. C. Romero, and they will retain Pujols money in the budget to make pennant-chasing tweaks later on.

They used money that might have been committed to Pujols to lock in Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina to a multi-year extension. In the years to come, they might use similar accounting to keep players like Adam Wainwright or David Freese or highly-touted pitching prospect Shelby Miller in house.

For now, the Cardinals team that will occupy the dugout on Wednesday in Miami will be better than the one that beat the Rangers in that memorable World Series last October.

It will have more speed, more flexibility, more versatility. It will offer more reliability on defense, more options on offense. There will be a Cy Young candidate that wasn't there last year in Wainwright, who missed all of 2011 after elbow surgery.

There are two postseason heroes in third baseman Freese and outfielder Allen Craig. There are three switch-hitters that have appeared in multiple All-Star games (Furcal, Berkman and Beltran). There will be three sluggers who have had as many as 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in one of their last four seasons (Matt Holliday, Berkman and Beltran). There is a team that has averaged one stolen base per game during spring training, after stealing a laborious 57 bases in 162 games last summer.

In reality, the change in the third slot in the batting order promises to be less significant than the change in the manager's office, where untested Mike Matheny has succeeded legendary Tony La Russa. On the field, the Cardinals are more formidable in the absence of the formidable Pujols.

The biggest challenge awaiting the Cardinals in the NL Central is staying healthy.

"I think the (potential problems) concerning this year's team are actually smaller than they were going into last season," said general manager John Mozeliak. "I say that because of our overall depth, which I believe is better."

As for the rest of a league that has imagined what life might be like facing the Cardinals without Albert Pujols, it could be a lesson to be learned. Be careful what you wish for.



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