Albert Pujols' final season as a member of the St Louis Cardinals began ominously; before the team had even assembled for Spring Training, Adam Wainwright had already undergone season-ending Tommy John surgery. Meanwhile, the contract negotiations between Pujols and the Cardinals front office were at a standstill, casting a further pall on a team in disarray. Not unexpectedly, most experts picked the Cardinals no better than third place in the NL Central; certainly not good enough to reach the postseason.
Pujols began the season poorly, clearly distracted by his uncertain future, and increasingly irritated by a relentless media's repetitious and mundane interrogations. Still, his presence in the lineup alone certainly had a positive effect on the team's fortunes. As opposing teams focused most of their attention on containing Pujols, perhaps they took the rest of the lineup too lightly. Newly acquired free agent Lance Berkman picked up much of the slack early on, rebounding nicely from an unproductive and injury-plagued 2010 season. In fact, the entire Cards lineup consistently generated enough offense to lead the National League in all the key offensive categories:
RUNS SCORED - 762
BA - .273
OBP - .341
SLG - .425
The fact that the Cardinals barely made it into the postseason with win number 90 in game number 162 made them huge NLDS underdogs squaring off against the NL East champion Philadelphia Phillies; who were by contrast, coming off a franchise-record 102 regular season wins.
What the experts failed to grasp was how the Cardinals had dramatically improved their bullpen with several key mid-season acquisitions; turning its weakest link into one of great strength by the end of August. Even so, to understand how frustrating the season had been, the team had managed to save just 47 out of 73 opportunities. Only the Washington Nationals managed to blow more save opportunities, converting just 47 out of 77 chances.
Of course, the Cardinals didn't go on to lose all 26 of the games which they held a lead; they had merely allowed the opposition to "get back into the game" with a reasonable chance of sending the Cardinals to another galling defeat. Exactly how many times that happened is unknown (to me), although I'm sure there are bound to be some saber-metrics geeks floating around out there who know every mundane detail in each blown save, and can document the actual number of Redbird losses that resulted in those cases. For the sake of argument, I'm going to assume they could have won ten more games if they had the same bullpen that helped facilitate their late season and postseason success. In other words, they should have easily won 100 regular season games in 2011. That's how good they really were when they rolled through the last month of the regular season, and continued rolling all the way to a World Championship.
Obviously, losing Albert Pujols changes the dynamic of the Cardinals, heading into the 2012 season. For all those experts who felt the Cards were merely "lucky" to have won it all last season, they are quick to give the predictable knee-jerk reaction; no postseason play (again), guys. So what else is new?
A couple of weeks ago, Cards pitcher Adam Wainwright created a slight stir when he told reporters he thought the team would actually be a little better in 2012 than they were in 2011; even with Pujols gone. I agree; not only will the pitching staff be significantly better with Waino's return to the starting rotation, all the other "core" players will be returning, and at least starting the season in good playing condition (aside from Allen Craig's slightly delayed start).
Also, free agent acquisition Carlos Beltran should be able to at least come close to replacing the 2011 production Pujols generated; and that's not such a bad deal. Here's how both stacked up in 2011, along with a look at five other key players:
G R RBI HR BA OBP SLG
Pujols 147 105 99 37 .299 .366 .541
Beltran 142 78 84 22 .300 .385 .525
Berkman 145 90 94 31 .301 .412 .547
Holiday 124 83 75 22 .296 .388 .525
Craig 75 33 40 11 .315 .362 .555
Freese 97 41 55 10 .297 .350 .441
Molina 139 55 65 14 .305 .349 .463
It's interesting to note that none of these players appeared in as many as 150 games last season, so injuries were a bit of an issue, especially for Allen Craig and David Freese. If the Cardinals are going to silence the naysayers in 2012, both Craig and Freese need to avoid injury and pick up where they left off last postseason, with that lumber in their hands.
This is a team that could realistically win back-to-back World Championships for the first in franchise history - despite losing Pujols. Albert is still a great player and appears poised to have a monster season with his new team, and a good bet to win another Most Valuable Player Award. I think the Angels are clearly one of the elite teams in the American League now; I wouldn't be surprised to see them representing the American League in the World Series this time around.
That would be an interesting World Series, pitting the former Cardinal icon who apparently felt under- appreciated in St Louis, against his old team who would be trying to serve notice that they're still the best in baseball - with or without King Albert.