While I’m sure they are still celebrating in St. Louis, reality is going to set in quick, as the Cardinals have a busy off-season ahead of them. Not only do they have to replace their hall-of-fame manager, but they have to decide what to do with the only first baseman the city has known for the better part of a decade: Albert Pujols.
There are numerous factors that are going to affect whether Pujols returns — and many of them difficult to quantify. Letting Pujols walk would be a public-relations nightmare, and it would certainly hurt the Cardinals at the gate – but I’m not going to pretend that I know what that magic number would be. There’s also the question of Pujols’ declining ability as he ages, and whether he will live up to what will inevitably be a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars. While I’m sure we’ll cover that topic in depth here at FanGraphs, that’s not what I want to cover today.
What I would like to suggest might sound blasphemous, but given the construction of their current roster — and downplaying the previously mentioned factors — it might not be the worst thing in the world for the Cardinals if Pujols walks away.
With Pujols on the roster, the Cardinals essentially have three positions for four players — Lance Berkman, Allen Craig, Matt Holliday and Pujols. In fact, given his increasing inability to play the outfield, as demonstrated by the eye test and his -10.2 UZR/150 last season, describing Berkman as an outfielder is pretty generous.
You might also be surprised to hear that, among these four players, Pujols had the lowest wOBA last season. Yes, Craig’s number was inflated by a .344 BABIP in a limited number of at-bats and doesn’t reflect his likely production going forward, but the point remains that St. Louis already has a quality first baseman in right field and would have a quality right fielder without a permanent place to play if Pujols returns.
If the Cardinals had unlimited resources and no holes on their roster to fill, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation; but that isn’t the case. There are a few areas that could be improved significantly with the so-called “Pujols money”, and the Cardinals should at least consider whether their roster would be stronger going forward by using those funds to fill the needs at other positions.
The Cardinals declined their $12 million option on Rafael Furcal, a smart move for a player who — albeit talented — has suited up for 370 games during the past four seasons. In the event Pujols re-signs, the Cardinals may not have the money to retain Furcal or to bring in a capable alternative, and Cards fans would probably be looking at a lot of Ryan Theriot (+0.6 WAR over the last two seasons) or a low-cost free agent at short.
As luck would have it, there’s a marquee short stop available this off-season in Jose Reyes. While Reyes has had trouble staying healthy in the past — and his injuries are to the part of his body where he derives most of his value — he has produced four seasons above 5.8 WAR during his career, and when healthy, has regularly been an elite player. Depending on how seriously you take Pujols’ statistical decline last season, Reyes could offer comparable future production for a smaller price tag, all while upgrading one of the Cardinals’ weakest positions. When I mention a smaller price tag, it isn’t an insignificant amount either. According to our crowdsourcing, FanGraphs readership expects the AAV on Pujols’ contract to be almost $8 million higher than Reyes’ – anything up to $10 million is probably a reasonable assumption.
During his past 929 at bats, covering two seasons, Skip Schumaker has been worth just +0.4 WAR due to some poor UZR numbers (-17.5 fielding runs) and well-below-average power (.071 ISO). While the second base market is thin, Kelly Johnson would add some pop to a Cardinals’ roster spot that hasn’t seen it in a long time. Last season, Johnson posted 2.2 WAR despite a BABIP .034 points below his career average — and he would be a huge upgrade over Schumaker. Obviously, you’re not going to need to spend Pujols’ money to get a guy like Johnson, but he could likely be had for the difference between the salaries needed to sign Pujols or Reyes. In other words, you could probably have Reyes and Johnson for about the same AAV as Pujols.
Next season, the Cards have their top four set with Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook — while Adam Wainwright continues to recover from Tommy John surgery. Rotation depth is key for any team, and $8 million to $10 million could go a long way toward locking up a guy like Mark Buehrle — who is often linked to the Cardinals — or to bringing back Edwin Jackson. Other than Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez, who are still a ways away with only Miller having a realistic shot at pitching some MLB innings in 2012, the Cardinals don’t have much in terms of starting pitching prospects in the pipeline. That leaves the free-agent market as their best bet to shore up the back end of the rotation. If they are confident with their top five, they could also add a lower-tier player like Paul Maholm, Aaron Harang or Bruce Chen as insurance. It’s not an area of glaring need, but contenders can never have too much pitching depth.
The Cardinals are fine at catcher for 2012, as they have Yadier Molina locked up for one more season. Molina has the fifth highest WAR among catchers since 2009, and it’s tough to consider three of the guys above him – Joe Mauer, Mike Napoli and Victor Martinez – full-time catchers. It might not be a bad idea for GM John Mozeliak to pocket the Pujols savings for a season in order to reward his star catcher with a long-term extension. Molina has proven himself to be durable, accumulating at least 500 at bats in each of the past three seasons; and elite young catchers don’t tend to be available on the open market.
While the following are just ballpark numbers — as I’m here to provide a general game plan not provide in-depth projections on a dozen players — we can see that using the money ear-marked for Pujols, the Cardinals could possibly get similar (or perhaps even better) production by upgrading other parts of their already potent offense. Johnson and Reyes would likely provide more of a boost over the other alternatives than Pujols would over a plan that placed Berkman at first and installed Craig in right field.
While I’m sure there would be heartbreak in St. Louis if Pujols signs anywhere else, the Cardinals have viable alternatives with other options, and could potentially put a better product on the field next year by going another direction.
Obviously, there are other factors at play beyond just expected 2012 production when it comes to re-signing a franchise icon, so we’re not saying that the Cardinals should show Pujols the door. It’s just worth noting that, given the rest of the players on the roster and what’s available in free agency, the Cardinals should be able to survive no matter what their star first baseman decides to do.