As the Cardinals and Albert Pujols prepare to face each other on a field of competition for the first time since his defection from St. Louis to Anaheim, let’s put the emotions aside.
Let’s dismiss the elements of nostalgia, controversy, blame and bitterness and jump to an obvious and automatic bottom-line conclusion:
The Cardinals are better off without him.
It's nothing personal.
But really, there’s nothing to debate here.
Considering the high level of angst at the time of Pujols’ stunning decision, it seems crazy to make such a statement. But only a season and a half removed from the Pujols-Cardinals breakup, that’s the absolute truth.
Here are the quick-hit reasons:
• Since the start of last season the Cardinals lead the majors with an average of 4.8 runs a game.
• Carlos Beltran has outhomered Pujols 51-43 (and has a higher slugging percentage) after signing a two-year contract to help replace Pujols’ missing offense.
• Cardinals first baseman Allen Craig has the more RBIs than Pujols, 155 to 154, since the beginning of 2012. One noteworthy difference: Craig has the RBI edge despite 150 fewer at-bats than Pujols.
• Since Pujols' vacated first base in St. Louis, Cardinals first basemen as a group lead the majors at the position in RBIs, are third in batting average and are fourth in combined on-base and slugging percentage.
• By losing Pujols to free agency, the Cardinals received compensatory draft choices that they used to select pitcher Michael Wacha and corner outfielder Stephen Piscotty. Wacha is widely viewed as an elite prospect. The Cardinals are excited with Piscotty’s potential; he was recently promoted to Class AA Springfield.
• Overall team performance. The Cardinals advanced to the NL championship series last season. Despite playing lousy baseball over the last three weeks, they've been first or second in the majors in winning percentage for much of this season.
• The future: The Cardinals have the most acclaimed player-development system in the majors. They have a big fan (ironically) in Angels owner Arte Moreno, who recently referred to St. Louis as MLB’s “model franchise” in an interview with USA Today.
There’s no reason for Cardinals fans to be sour.
Instead of resenting Pujols, Cardinals fans should thank him for leaving and doing a profound and lasting favor for the franchise.
Sure, Pujols could punish his old team by hitting five homers during the three-game series that begins Tuesday night. So what? One series is a mere speck in a much larger picture.
The Cardinals and their fans came out as big winners when Pujols rushed off to a new baseball beginning in Southern California.
If anything, the Cardinals were lucky. Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and GM John Mozeliak should be counting their victories, their dollars saved, and blessings.
After all, the Cardinals did offer Pujols a 10-year contract for more than $200 million.
That would have been a disastrous deal for St. Louis, which maintains a competitive but hardly exorbitant payroll.
Had Pujols embraced the offer and stayed, the Cardinals would have faced difficult challenges that included a clogged payroll, limited financial flexibility and the loss of important veterans.
After Pujols left, the Cardinals re-signed catcher Yadier Molina and pitching ace Adam Wainwright to new contracts. With Pujols on board for a 10-year commitment, the Cardinals most likely would have been forced to choose between Molina and Wainwright, with one walking as a free agent.
The Cardinals gave Craig a long-term contract extension earlier this year, and I don’t know if that happens if Pujols is still here.
With Pujols installed at first base, powerful young slugger Matt Adams has no future in St. Louis.
Going forward the Cardinals would have been pressed to wedge open the payroll space to create room for acquiring or signing a big-contract player to fill a glaring need.
The harsh truth: In Pujols the Cardinals would have been stuck with a declining, aging player who already is struggling to shake the injuries that are a factor in an eroding performance.
Chronic issues with Pujols’ foot and knee have prompted the Angels to use Pujols as their designated hitter for 200 at-bats this season. He’s had only 166 at-bats as a first baseman.
Obviously the Cardinals wouldn’t have the option of using a gimpy Pujols at first base. And Albert isn’t going to get any younger, healthier or better.
After a recent hot streak Pujols is 4 for 34 with 22 runners left on base in his last eight games. For the season he's batting .249 with a .323 on-base percentage and .429 slugging percentage.
Pujols’ combined on-base and slugging percentage of .752 ranked 87th among qualified big-league hitters. (That's right: 87th.) Over his 11 seasons in St. Louis, Pujols never ranked worse than 17th in the majors in OPS and finished in the top-five OPS seven times.
Keep in mind that after this season the Angels will still owe Pujols $212 million over eight more years — that’s an average salary of $26.5 million. Over the final five seasons of the deal — when Pujols goes from age 37 to age 41 — his salary averages $28 million.
That’s not all. The Angels will owe Pujols another $10 million in a personal-services contract that kicks in after his retirement, bringing his total compensation to $250 million.
The Cardinals were fortunate that Moreno emerged near the end of the negotiating process to make an extravagant impulse buy, driven by ego.
Moreno saved the Cardinals from an epic mistake.
For all of the warranted praise that’s been heaped on DeWitt and Mozeliak, let’s be honest here: they took a hazardous risk in proposing a 10-year deal to Pujols.
DeWitt and Mozeliak never wanted to go 10 years on a new pact with Albert but feared a post-divorce backlash from irate Cardinals fans.
I also think DeWitt and Mozeliak allowed themselves to succumb to sentimentality; it was natural to want to see Pujols play his entire career here. He’s one of the greatest players in franchise history.
So the normally level-headed Mozeliak and DeWitt went against their better judgment, gulped, and proposed that 10-year deal.
A cynic could surmise that the Cardinals intentionally underbid on the 10 years, knowing that the temperamental Pujols was looking for a reason to be offended and would leave in a huff.
I don’t buy that, because I remember talking to Mozeliak several minutes after Pujols' agent informed him that Albert was going. And Mozeliak was clearly shaken by the news.
But who really knows?
None of that means a damned thing now.
Pujols is gone, and the Cardinals are in a better place because of The Machine's tempestuous decision to throw away all that he'd built with the Cardinals to limp over to Moreno’s Island of Misfit Toys.
The Cardinals spent $104 million on salaries to receive the best 11 years of Pujols’ career.
The Angels will be stuck paying $240 million for the worst 10 seasons of Pujols’ career.
Be grateful, St. Louis.