Oh yes, there was considerable hand-wringing, pleas of “Don’t go,” and the like when Pujols, who not so long ago was indisputably the best player in baseball, made the grand circuit as a free agent after the 2011 season, considering offers from wealthy teams everywhere he stopped.
Through all of the emotion expressed when Pujols departed St. Louis for the Los Angeles Angels and a 10-year, $240-million contract, not one of the scenarios mulled likely included anything like what has transpired. There was debate about the wisdom of giving Pujols such a long-term contract because he was not going to be his terrific self eight years down the line.
Nobody envisioned that Pujols wouldn’t live up to his status as a future Hall of Famer almost from the first moment of the contract and that the Cardinals would continue with business as usual and not for a minute miss the guy who had been a cornerstone of the franchise.
Pujols was apparently overrated in some ways and the Cardinals were apparently underrated in others.
For his first 10 years in the majors, Pujols posted seasons where he hit at least 30 home runs, drove in more than 100, and batted at least .300. During his last season with the Cardinals Pujols struggled much of the year, but still finished just one measly RBI under 100 and one percentage point less than .300. OK, off year.
Then he took the money and ran to California and things have not been the same for him since. It took a monumental hitting rally for Pujols to reach 30 homers and 105 RBIs and a .285 average in 2012. There was some slippage, but those are still All-Star numbers.
This year Pujols has been mediocre from the start of the season and after a couple of hits in Thursday’s game against the Seattle Mariners he had finally dragged his average up to .266 with 12 homers and 46 RBIs. Once again he needs a terrific hot streak to lift his totals into the realm of stardom.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals not only found a way to reload on the field without Pujols, they more than adequately replaced Hall of Fame-caliber manager Tony La Russa with Mike Matheny after the 2011 World Series crown. Far from falling apart, the Cardinals won 88 games and reached the National League playoffs.
This year the Cardinals have the best record in baseball and are leading the NL Central Division, arguably the toughest division in the sport. How? With more depth and terrific pitching. Although he is only 33 and for whatever reason seems to be losing the edge that made him one of the greatest players of all time for a decade, Pujols was still not replaceable by one fresh face.
The Cardinals did not just reach into the farm system and pluck another superstar for the everyday lineup. But they did nurture their young talent well and promote the right guys at the right time. There is no Albert stud, but there is a lot of ability spread throughout the lineup.
Catcher Yadier Molina (.365 average) is probably the best all-around player in the majors at his position. Carlos Beltran may be 36, but it still a potent force. The Cardinals have above-average players at most positions, including Allen Craig, Jon Jay, David Freese, Matt Holliday and Matt Carpenter.
The pitching is so deep that the loss of Chris Carpenter to injury hasn’t resulted in a hole in either the rotation or the bullpen–which is saying something given his record. Adam Wainwright has won 10 games, Lance Lynn is off to a 10-1 start, and rookie Shelby Miller is 8-4. Closer Edwin Mujica notched saves in his first 21 opportunities.
And presiding over it all is Matheny in his second year. Matheny was in the in-house choice to lead what some believed was going to be a rebuilding team, despite having no prior Major League managing experience. A cerebral player and an exceptional fielding catcher, Matheny is showing that he spent all of his free time learning during his 13-year playing career.
Two years after their last title the Cardinals very much look like a team that will be in the World Series hunt in 2013.