Pujols May Save the Cardinals Again

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Albert Pujols did the Cardinals a huge favor by departing for Anaheim and the Angels. Not only did he save them from paying a player who’s listed at age 32 (but might be older) $220 million for 10 years, but he gave them a substantial amount of money to use in other areas. Because they won the World Series last year, the afterglow gave them a pass for any perceived negativity.

With Pujols gone and Lance Berkman already onboard from a mid-season 2011 contract extension, they signed Carlos Beltran at $26 million for two years. He’s been an MVP candidate for them.

This current Cardinals team isn’t that good; their manager Mike Matheny has made some rudimentary strategic mistakes—as would be expected from someone who’d never managed before anywhere; they have holes in the starting rotation due to injuries to Jaime Garcia and Chris Carpenter. But they’re only 2 ½ games out of first place in a mediocre division and parity-laden National League and they have the farm system to make big deals. With the money available from not having to pay Pujols along with the expiring contracts of Carpenter, Berkman, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook, they can pursue a Zack Greinke and potentially bolster the bullpen by expanding a Greinke trade to include Francisco Rodriguez. Greinke wouldn’t have to be a rental either; the freed up money could be used to sign him long-term.

The Cardinals without Tony LaRussa are being run more like a business with Matheny a functionary and not having the power to win turf wars as LaRussa did. Carpenter is out for the season with surgery to repair nerve damage in his shoulder. In the past it would’ve been guaranteed that LaRussa would bully his way into getting Carpenter another contract in spite of his age (38 next April) and frequent injuries. Now that’s not the case. The Cardinals let Pujols leave making any player disposable if his demands are extreme.

Thanks to Pujols, the Cardinals can be big buyers at the deadline and it could benefit them greatly for the rest of 2012 and beyond.

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The Pujols Departure Makes Like Easier for Matheny

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No manager—especially one who’s brand new and has never done it before—wants to have to come to an agreement on the clubhouse power structure upon walking in the door.

Mike Matheny, whom Albert Pujols was said to like and respect when the two were teammates with the Cardinals, was going to be in just such a situation taking over for Tony LaRussa as the Cardinals new manager. Pujols was said to prefer Jose Oquendo as the new manager. Undoubtedly that will be referenced as part of the list of reasons why Pujols left; this is twisting the issue away from what really was the motivating factor—money—into something other.

If the Cardinals had given Pujols a similar contract as what the Angels gave him, he would’ve stayed. They didn’t and he didn’t.

Already we’re hearing whispers from the netherworld of rumor and innuendo that may or may not be accurate.

“I thought Albert didn’t seem happy.”

“There was something off.”

Blah, blah, blah.

This is just the beginning as an explanation is sought.

Here’s the answer: the Angels paid him a lot more money than the Cardinals were going to.

Period.

This affects Matheny because he doesn’t have to cater to anyone in that clubhouse; that’s immensely valuable to a new manager. The only player on the current Cardinals roster that he played with as a teammate is Chris Carpenter.

That’s not a small thing.

Joe Girardi walked into a similar situation with the Yankees when he took over for Joe Torre, was managing a large segment of contemporaries and former teammates. What made it worse was dealing with a bunch of bratty superstars who’d grown accustomed to Torre and the known rift between Girardi and Jorge Posada that was never adequately repaired.

Matheny has a clean slate.

It’s doubtful any of the remaining stars—Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina—are going to give him a problem; nor do they have the cachet that Pujols had to try and exert their will over a rookie manager. Pujols isn’t the type to bully and take over the room as a Josh Beckett would, but that doesn’t mean he’d be a perfectly good soldier if the two disagreed about something, anything.

Is it easier to run a team on the field without a weapon like Pujols? Of course not. The Cardinals just lost the best player of this generation and one of the best players ever, but to think they can’t function without him is absurd; the Cardinals will absolutely be better off in the long run without that gigantic contract for a player reaching his mid-to-late-30s clogging up their payroll. That they wouldn’t have the DH position to stash him when he can’t play the field anymore and the contract and his stature would make him untradeable would make the situation exponentially worse.

Right now it’s remarkably simple for them: they move Berkman to first base and find a right fielder. They’ll have a ton of cash left over to keep Wainwright and Molina and possibly lock up David Freese through his arbitration years and have the foundation for a good team without that one Hall of Famer stalking the middle of the lineup and paying him $25 million a year during his inevitable decline.

The Cardinals didn’t want to lose Pujols, but the fallout will be muted by the World Series they just won and that they’re going to acquire a name player to fill the gaping hole in the lineup.

There are outfielders available and Carlos Beltran on a 3-year contract is a perfect addition; the offense won’t be diminished all that much and with Wainwright returning, the pitching will be the strength of the team.

Much like the Stephen Strasburg injury where, I’m convinced, there were numerous people within the Nationals organization who were somewhat relieved that he got hurt and there was no one to hold accountable for it, there will be people with the Cardinals who aren’t all that bothered to see Pujols go. They’ll never admit it publicly, but it’s the truth.There was going to be a transition from LaRussa to Matheny and now it’s made much easier without Pujols to run interference on what the new manager wants to do.

The Cardinals will survive.

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They Hired Jerry DiPoto To Do This?

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A team that spends their money in this way in free agency—C.J. Wilson ($77.5 million over 5-years); Albert Pujols ($250 million over 10-years); and LaTroy Hawkins (1-year, $3 million)—and to trade a top prospect starter Tyler Chatwood for Chris Iannetta and find a taker for Jeff Mathis, probably didn’t need to hire a new GM to do it.

That’s nothing against new Angels GM Jerry DiPoto who made a series of terrific trades while the interim GM of the Diamondbacks to help build the foundation for this year’s surprising NL West champion; nor the players he acquired—he got quality for the most part and/or filled the Angels’ needs—but don’t make it seem like the act of a genius when he had an owner in Arte Moreno who authorized the payouts.

As for the deals themselves, Pujols for 10 years is more palatable when there’s the DH option as he ages, but $250 million is a lot of money for one player no matter how it’s sliced; he’s a historic player and will produce in the foreseeable future for the Angels; one thing that will be very interesting is how he ages. Will the progression and decline be natural or will he maintain his excellence for the length of the contract leading to…questions?

Pujols is this era’s Joe DiMaggio in both performance and stature; even DiMaggio tumbled rapidly and was finished by 36.

My first reaction to the Wilson contract was: “That’s it?”

From wanting $120 million, he took $77.5 million?

Obviously the visions of riches Wilson had dancing under that thick lustrous hair weren’t available from the Rangers, Marlins or anyone else.

The Angels signed a pitcher for less than the extension they agreed to with Jered Weaver and bolstered an already excellent top three starters with Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana.

Wilson isn’t young (31), but he has clean mechanics and hasn’t been a starter long enough for wear and tear to be a concern. He’s a good pitcher and will be good for the Angels.

This is a formidable team, but don’t place any appellations of “genius” or provide undue credit to DiPoto because he just did what former GM Tony Reagins and another whom was interviewed for the position, Omar Minaya, could’ve done amid all the criticism they received as GMs—he spent a load of money.

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