Cardinals' run highlights right choice on Pujols
By refusing to mortgage club's future for one star, St. Louis paved successful path
Albert Pujols and John Mozeliak ran into each other at a charity golf outing over the summer. It was a cordial passing of pleasantries between the superstar who built his legend in St. Louis and the general manager who couldn't convince him to stay in St. Louis.
When asked about the encounter recently, Mozeliak didn't offer much in the way of details. But if he spoke to Pujols now, on the verge of the Cardinals' first post-Pujols World Series appearance, two words would be entirely appropriate:
Indeed, while it's easy to say the Cardinals' remarkable run of success from 2001-2011 -- a run that included three World Series berths and two titles -- wouldn't have happened without Pujols, it's just as easy to say that this latest late-October endeavor wouldn't have happened with him.
In this lead-up to their Fall Classic date with the Red Sox, which begins Wednesday night at Fenway Park (airing at 6:30 CT on FOX, with first pitch scheduled for 7:07), Mozeliak and the Cards have rightly been praised for moving full steam ahead in the wake of losing one of the greatest sluggers the sport has seen. It is a credit to "The Cardinal Way" and the shrewd moves made by Mozeliak and Co. -- including the hiring of Mike Matheny to replace another superstar in manager Tony La Russa -- that the post-Pujols era has included a seven-game National League Championship Series appearance last year and now a legit chance to win the franchise's 12th title.
But you can't look at the composition of this Cardinals roster without getting the sneaking suspicion that none of this stunning success would have been possible had Pujols signed the dotted line and stayed in St. Louis.
As some of us suspected at the time Pujols agreed to the Angels' enormous offer, Pujols leaving St. Louis was the best thing that could have happened to the Cards.
For one, there is the obvious issue that is Pujols' performance the past two seasons. As anticipated, the post-30 decline period awaited even a great player like Pujols, though the decline has impacted his sheer ability to even take the field quicker than most of us presumed or assumed.
Take the 2012 season out of the equation to give Pujols the benefit of the doubt that the first month or so was a major adjustment for him and he still recovered in time to post numbers (.285/.343/.516) that would have been a career year for most players less talented than he.
But in 2013, the most noteworthy number associated with Pujols' season was 34: the number of games he was physically able to perform at first base.
Beset by plantar fascia woes, he played just 99 games this season, 65 at DH. On an American League club, this was a dilemma, one of many that unraveled an Angels team that, for the second straight year, was unable to take advantage of Mike Trout's ascendance and reach the October stage.
On the Cards, it would have been an outright disaster.
Beyond the playing time particulars would have been the payroll ramifications. The Cardinals' final offer for Pujols was believed to be 10 years and slightly more than $200 million, with a decent amount of that money -- reportedly $30 million -- deferred. It was an earnest effort, though it was made quite late in Pujols' decision-making process. Truth be known, the Cards made it clear to Pujols that they weren't willing to sign him to the type of deal that would provide long-term detriment to the rest of the roster, and he would later express bruised feelings over their inability to bend over backward for him.
Still, it was a difficult but necessary business stance on the part of the Cards, because, even with a significant sum back-dated, they wouldn't have had the long-term resources to nail down the extensions -- for catcher Yadier Molina, staff ace Adam Wainwright and first baseman Allen Craig (who would have remained in right) -- that keep a significant part of their core intact through at least 2016.
"Clearly, by Albert not coming back to the ballclub," Mozeliak said, "we had resources we could redeploy elsewhere. That's just natural."
What's not as natural is to redeploy those resources so well, which is why the Cards have earned every accolade being tossed in their direction right now.
Freed from a decade's worth of potential contractual commitment to Pujols, Mozeliak wisely took a short-term chance on Carlos Beltran. Unlike Pujols, whose physical issues have leaped to the forefront, Beltran's physical concerns have retreated to the back-burner, allowing him to become the Cards' answer to Mr. October in this NL pennant run.
No, we don't know exactly how the fates would have aligned for either player had Pujols opted to stay. But what we do know is that Beltran wouldn't have been with the Cardinals in that scenario, and we know his production has ensured that the Cards have not pined for Pujols' plate presence one bit.
Last but not least, on the long list of reasons why the Cards have proven to be better off without No. 5, is No. 52: Michael Wacha.
The Cards picked up Wacha with the 19th pick of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft and have watched him blossom -- quite quickly -- into an October sensation.
"We did realize we had this," Mozeliak said. "We identified the guy we wanted, got him, but to see him doing what he's doing, a year removed from college, it's amazing."
Again, an expert application of resources on the part of the Cardinals. And it's worth remembering that the only reason they had that 19th pick in the first place is because the Angels forfeited it when Albert came aboard.
Hey, none of this is meant to pile on Pujols and the Halos, who are still in the early stages of a long marriage together. A healthy Pujols would still be a dynamic weapon, and the Angels, even with his salary creeping past the $20 million mark next year and continuing to rise through 2021, are a big-market ballclub with the ability to build themselves back into a winner.
But the Cardinals are a mid-market team with a budget, a club that can't afford a contractual albatross or an aging position player prone -- however briefly -- toward DH duties. They were right to approach the Pujols negotiations with their head and not their heart, they were fortunate that the Angels went to such great extremes to pry him away and they were savvy enough to take advantage of every resource his departure opened up.
In baseball history, there might not be a better example of a club making a clean break from a homegrown superstar who ultimately opted to sign elsewhere. Pujols hasn't been a member of the Cards since Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, but it's pretty clear his absence had a huge impact on their ability to get to Game 1 here in 2013.