With the first 24 hours of the post-Albert Pujols era now in the books, it's time for a little reflection. Obviously, first post in a long time and to say a lot has happened would be an understatement.
The Cardinals are World Champs -- and as ulikely a champion as we've seen since the 2003 Marlins (or as the popular joke goes, the 2006 Cardinals).
But the big news now, of course, is the departure of Pujols. Looking at things now, it seems like we saw this one coming, but that doesn't soften the blow. All season, the standard quote regarding Pujols' impending free agent status was something like "I just can't imagine him anywhere but in St. Louis." But, to me, that always felt more like wishful thinking than anything near a fact.
My first reaction was the same as most Cardinals fans....disbelief followed by anger followed by disappointment. This quote from a 2009 article on MLB.com is exactly the type of thing we'd heard Albert say time and again when he discussed being a free agent for the first time in his career:
"Do I want to be in St. Louis forever? Of course," Pujols said. "Because that city has opened the door to me and my family like no other city is ever going to do. I don't want to [go to] any other city, but if that time comes I'm pretty sure wherever I go they are going to do the same way -- hopefully, open the doors. But I don't think it's to be anything compared to St. Louis.
"People from other teams want to play in St. Louis and they're jealous that we're in St. Louis because the fans are unbelievable. So why would you want to leave a place like St. Louis to go somewhere else and make $3 or $4 more million a year? It's not about the money. I already got my money. It's about winning and that's it. It's about accomplishing my goal and my goal is to try to win. If this organization shifts the other way then I have to go the other way."
As fans, we want to believe that all of our favorite players fall in line with this line of thinking. And I do believe that Albert wanted to stay in St. Louis....really, I do. I also think that had the Angels not stepped in with such a huge offer (and full no trade protection), then Albert would have accepted the Cardinals offer. But, the Angels played this perfectly. They let the suddenly flush Marlins up the bar, and then swooped in full force -- no doubt inspired by losing out on every big name they had pursued the past few offseasons. This time, they did not get turned away. And with that, Albert is now a former Cardinal.
In spite of the sting at watching perhaps the greatest player of this generation move on, you have to realize that we've been lucky enough to witness an 11 year run that rivals the greats of the game. Albert's numbers belong in the conversation with names like Ruth, Dimaggio, Mantle, Musial and Williams. That hasn't changed. And he did it wearing the birds on the bat. And now he'll do it wearing the red and white of another team. That is the nature of baseball (and pro sports, in general) in 2011.
And I'm OK with that. I'm not on the ledge. Really. Will the 2012 Cardinals suffer from the loss of #5? Probably. Are they doomed to be a repeat of the 2007 Cards? I don't think so. First off, the roster isn't as much of a patchwork as the 2007 Cards were. The rotation is in decent shape -- Carpenter, Wainwright, Garcia and Lohse/Westbrook are still a solid 1-4, and fifth starters are a little easier to develop and/or sign than the other positions in the rotation.
The bullpen also seems to be in a bit better shape...Motte may not be the next Mariano Rivera -- or even the next Jason Isringhausen, for that matter -- but he showed he's learned how to handle the ninth inning in pressure situations. Kyle McClellan, Mitchell Boggs, Scrabble (not going to even try to pretend that I can spell his last name)...these are solid building blocks. The team wants to add another lefty, and there are still some big name late inning guys on the market (such as Ryan Madson) that could make it possible for the Cardinals to be a team that doesn't have to score more than 3 runs a game to win.
On offense, Berkman and Holliday still give the Cardinals some thunder in the middle of the lineup. Add to that a (hopefully) healthy David Freese and Allen Craig, and it could be more than adequate. There are some "ifs" -- will Craig be exposed with more at-bats? Will Freese stay healthy for a full season? Who is going to play shortstop and second base? What about a full year with John Jay as a regular rather than a 4th outfielder? Is Furcal coming back? What about adding Carlos Beltran? Or Jimmy Rollins? Or does the team make a run at Prince Fielder -- who just might decide to take a shorter term deal in hopes of having a second turn on the free agent market in a few years. Regardless of the path they choose, Mozelik has earned a vote a confidence in my opinion. This Cardinals team has felt like a playoff contender every year that he's been in charge, and I don't think that will change in 2012.
And again, I don't think this team was ever going to repeat. It's tough to win a World Series. It is even tougher to do it a second time. That bullseye is on the Cardinals' backs now -- and that was true whether #5 was staying or not. I'm hardly the first or last to say this, but in reality, this probably sets up the Cardinals better for the next 10 years than if Albert had taken the $210 million/9-10 year deal that was reportedly on the table. True, Cardinals fans would probably tolerate a decline in his skills through his late 30's/early 40's more than any other fan base, but the fact remains that Pujols is most likely not going to get any better than he has been for the last 11 years. To pay a premium for those years is not something a successful franchise does. One of the things that made the Atlanta Braves so successful for so long is that they were not afraid to change the individual parts to improve the whole. They weren't afraid to send a good player packing if it meant saving the team from a bad contract that would hinder the team for years. True, they never faced that type of dilemma with a player like Pujols, but the point is the same even if you're only talking about David Justice.
So this is a sad day for Cardinals fans, but it isn't really a bad day. The Cardinals still have a good team, and have the financial flexibility to address some things that they would not have had if Albert stayed. Someday, we'll look back fondly on the career of Albert Pujols, who will go into the Hall of Fame as a Cardinal. We'll marvel at the 3 homer game against Texas, the time he put out one of the letters in the in the 'Big Mac' sign, how he played second base for a few innings in 2010 and played a few games at third in 2011. Maybe we'll even be giving him a standing ovation as his #5 is retired (though personally, I'm not quite ready to afford him that honor just yet). But as someone said on twitter yesterday -- "I was a Cardinals fan before Pujols and I'll still be one after Pujols." We root for the birds on the bat. Period. It's a shame that Albert Pujols is no longer wearing them. But it is not the end of the world.