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Albert Pu-who? Cardinals better off without him

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Posted: Thursday, September 6, 2012 12:05 am

Back in December 2011, when “El Hombre” did his best eBay impression, auctioning himself off to the highest bidder, many St. Louis Cardinals fans screamed to the high heavens. In the blink of an eye, the player who became a baseball god in baseball’s Mecca was demonized, reviled and called a number of names that can’t be repeated in this family-friendly publication.

Even then, with a heart heavy and disappointment lingering as dense as the duffle bags flown in from Anaheim, I called Pujols smart ... and the Cardinals smarter.

Many of the same people who cast Pujols as a traitor or questioned his loyalty would undoubtedly leave their jobs for such a substantial increase in salary. (Please miss me with the “how much money does a person need?” questions because the answer is almost always “a little bit more.”) While Pujols made a wise decision to take the money and run, the Cardinals knew they could still adequately man first-base without him.

Following several sub-par, injury-riddled seasons, Lance Berkman bounced back in a major way in 2011. He was immediately penciled into the vacated spot, with the expectation that first-base would better suit his creaky, old legs than the outfield. If not, homegrown farmhands Allen Craig, who had his own coming out party last season, and top minor-league prospect Matt Adams were waiting in the wings.

Of course, Berkman’s injured knee threw a wrench into the Redbirds’ original plans, but Craig’s stellar play has made that a moot point. If we do a comparison of Pujols’ and Craig’s numbers to this point, the stats are similar. After another slow start, Pujols has rebounded and is batting .287 with 29 HRs and 92 RBI and is well on his way to yet another stellar season. Craig is holding his own though, batting .311 with 20 HRs and 73 RBI in nearly 150 less at-bats. Craig has also excelled in clutch-hitting, often doing damage with runners in scoring position.

Sure, Pujols’ numbers are slightly better, but even with the extensive backloading and numbers juicing the Angels did with his contract, Pujols is earning $12 million this season (the annual per year average is just over $25M). Compare that with Craig’s meager $495k salary and the Cardinals are laughing all the way to the bank.

Well, not really. The team wisely spread out much of the funding they would have given to Pujols to bring in Carlos Beltran, who is also putting up Pujols-esque numbers, and to lock up perennial All-Star catcher Yadier Molina for another five years. But any way you look at it, the Cardinals are much more production for their dollars and even without Pujols, they lead the NL in runs scored. So much for lost-offense.

Standings-wise the Cardinals are in a similar position as last year, fighting for a wild card playoff berth. Without a miracle winning streak, it’s unlikely the team will catch Cincinnati for the division crown. But last season’s magical World Series run confirmed the well-proven fact that once you get into the postseason, anything can happen. With the addition of a second wild card spot this season, the Cards and Dodgers are jockeying for the second wild card berth.

On the coast, Prince Albert and his Angels are also essentially out of contention for the division crown and trying to leapfrog several teams in a crowded AL wild card race. In other words, it looks like Pujols will get an early start to enjoying all that cash this offseason.

Of course, the real value is in the extended view of the contracts. While the 28-year old Craig has plenty of baseball in front of him, guys like Berkman and Beltran are nearing the end of their careers. When they’re finished producing as elite-level players, they’ll likely retire or the Cardinals have the flexibility to pay them less or let them walk. While Craig’s salary will surely rise via arbitration after the season, he won’t become eligible for free agency until 2017, meaning he’ll have a reasonable contract for the foreseeable future.

A 42-year old Pujols and his $30 salary will likely be an albatross around the neck of the Angels in 2021, causing the franchise to stagger. That means the Angels must win a few World Series to make the monster contract worthwhile. Considering the club only has one World Series championship in its 51-year history, the prospects of achieving that goal are a little murky.

So while it’s easy to blame the loss of Pujols during power outages or awful offensive spurts like the team recently suffered, the truth is that the Cardinals are much better off without the best player in baseball. My bet is that St. Louis will see another parade on Market Street before Pujols leads one in Anaheim.

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