The Albert Pujols era is officially over in St. Louis.
The future Hall of Famer signed a 10-year deal worth $250-$260 million with the Los Angeles Angels this morning, leaving a bittersweet taste in the mouths of Cardinals fans. Pujols undoubtedly helped lead them to an unlikely World Series championship in 2011, but he’ll take no part of their title defense next season. One of the most beloved players in the storied history of the franchise has moved on to, quite literally, greener pastures.
Losing Pujols is tough both emotionally and in terms of replacing significant production, but it isn’t a death blow to the Cardinals playoff odds. If they spend the freed up $22 million — or a portion of it — wisely, the team can absolutely come back strong next year.
Dave Cameron broke down the deal from the Angels point of view, but how the Cardinals react is equally interesting. In fact, the entire Cardinals offseason is noteworthy, because the pursuit of Pujols clearly affected their ability to make other material moves over the last few weeks.
His deal with the Angels not only impacted the Cardinals in terms of missing out on him, but also the opportunity cost of being unable to pursue, say, Jose Reyes. Given their desired payroll for the 2012 season, Pujols was the premiere free agent on their docket. Reyes could potentially come close to replacing that production while occupying just one roster spot, but the Cardinals were never able to join that sweepstakes given the uncertainty surrounding Pujols.
However, the Cardinals don’t need to replace his production with one roster spot, even if that’s more ideal. Adam Wainwright will be back next season, and can probably be counted on for at least 4 WAR — and potentially much more than that depending on his availability — at just $9 million in salary.
Lance Berkman can shift to first base, where his defensive struggles are further masked. As a poor defensive outfielder last season he matched Pujols’s production of 5 WAR. Assuming a decline in his bat is somewhat offset by an improved fielding mark at an easier position, he should produce similarly. Suddenly, that one year, $12 million extension is looking even smarter than it did at the time.
His shift to first base opens up a permanent spot for Allen Craig, who tallied 2.6 WAR with a .312/.362/.555 line in just 200 plate appearances last season. He can clearly hit, and is more than a lefty-crusher who benefited from selective playing time. We can’t simply extrapolate Craig’s 2011 performance over a full season for 2012, but it isn’t out of line to suggest he could hover around 3.5-4 WAR next year.
A full season of David Freese — as opposed to 97 games and 363 PAs would add 1-1.5 wins above replacement as well, and the same can be said of Matt Holliday if he comes closer to 150 games played. Suddenly, the Cardinals have added value without even signing someone, by virtue of welcoming Wainwright back and moving to Berkman to his more natural position.
But they do have $22 million freed up by not signing Pujols and a couple glaring areas of need on the roster. The most notable position to fill is shortstop.
The Cardinals acquired Rafael Furcal towards the end of the season but he’s a free agent now. Reyes has signed with the Marlins and Jimmy Rollins is expected to sign with the Phillies. The Cardinals might not be able to sign a free agent shortstop capable of serving as more than a warm body — though they could certainly get back in on Rollins if they were so inclined — but the available payroll means they could stand to afford someone already signed in a trade.
Whether that means John Mozeliak calls the Orioles about J.J. Hardy, the Indians about Asdrubal Cabrera — who may have priced himself out of the Tribe’s comfort zone in extension talks — or the rebuilding White Sox about Alexei Ramirez, the Cardinals are able to do more than merely make inquiries.
The Cardinals could also sign Carlos Beltran to fill an all-encompassing outfield role, as well as the pinch-hitting and interleague DH role. He could occasionally spell Jay in center field and split time with Craig in right field. He would cost more than a typical role player but would give the Cardinals arguably the best outfield in baseball.
Losing Pujols certainly hurts, but the Cardinals now have enough wiggle room to move players around and make other acquisitions to bolster their odds of succeeding next year. They have a chance to form a more complete team, without committing 10 years and $220 million to any one player.