QUESTION: If Albert Pujols were to leave the Cardinals via free agency, what area of the team do you think the Cardinals would most focus on improving with the money saved?
With Lance Berkman set to play first in this scenario and Allen Craig primed for middle-order duty as the right fielder, the way for the Cardinals to make a transformative move with the money available is obvious: shortstop. The player to spend said money on is less obvious. The Cardinals in-house options for shortstop are limited to bringing back Ryan Theriot (who is arbitration eligible) or deeding the position to Tyler Greene (who is out of options). Ryan Jackson, the Cardinals’ top prospect at the position, is in the Arizona Fall League and earmarked to be the starter at Class AAA Memphis in 2012, his first view of that level.
The opening is there to go after a top-of-the-order, electric shortstop if the money is also there. Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins are the the top names available at the position, but both have warning flags. Reyes is a dynamic player – when his legs are healthy enough to cooperate. Rollins is drifting into his mid-30s and has a shocking .316 on-base-percentage overall in the previous three seasons. His slugging percentage is also in decline. They are the best answers this market offers and are a big reason why Rafael Furcal would remain an option, Pujols in place or not.
The other possibility is the Cardinals package players to go after a shortstop in another organization they could then lock-in with the cash available. That would lengthen the list of shortstops to target, and that would do more than than change the team for 2012.
Even if Pujols stays, the Cardinals have to focus on shortstop and second base. Among the most amazing aspects of this season is how they won a World Series with mediocre performance, either defensively or offensively, or both, for much of the season, at those two positions. Should Pujols go, they might be able to imvest more heavily in one or the other. The Cardinals seem forever to be changing their keystone partners, mosty at second base, so now might be a time to present some stability.
KEVIN WHEELER (Host of “Sports Open Line” on KMOX)
That kinda depends on the timing of things, doesn’t it? If negotiations with Albert drag deep into the offseason then it would be awfully tough to redirect that money elsewhere with most quality free agents likely off the market. They might have to take a gradual approach to redistributing payroll. Maybe that comes in the form of an in-season trade or maybe it’s a free agent contract after the 2012 season.
If there’s a veteran reliever or two out there at that point it certainly wouldn’t hurt to add experience to the bullpen. Middle infield depth is always key. By that time, however, I would expect the Cardinals to have made a decision regarding Rafael Furcal at short. Maybe they’d target a veteran bench bat who can play first base and the corner outfield spots since Allen Craig would likely be getting everyday duty if Albert’s gone. The short-term goal would probably be to add depth with bigger name targets being looked at for the long term.
LARRY BOROWSKY (Founder of Viva El Birdos and editor of “Maple Street Press Cardinals Annual”)
The obvious areas would be middle infield and centerfield, but the Cardinals will be hard-pressed to spend anything close to the amount saved if Pujols signs elsewhere – unless they’re willing to pay Jose Reyes about $20 million a year, and I don’t think they will do that. Setting Reyes aside, the best shortstops left are Jimmy Rollins (who’s well into his decline phase) and the injury-prone Rafael Furcal. I also happen to think Clint Barmes has enough assets to outweigh his major flaw (a low on-base percentage). Nearly all of the available centerfielders are coming off injuries and/or bad seasons; there are some intriguing names, but none is worthy of big money at present. The Cards probably could acquire three players and still not spend all of the Pujols savings. For example: let’s say they sign Furcal to play SS, Barmes as the starting 2B, and Coco Crisp as the starting CF. That suite of acquisitions would tighten the defense up the middle, add some speed and deepen the bench. But it probably wouldn’t use up the full $20 million that’s set aside for Albert.
If Albert does sign elsewhere, I hope the Cards won’t feel compelled to throw money around just for appearances’ sake. If they can’t acquire players who actually make the team better, they should just let the payroll drop for a season or two and set the money aside until a worthwhile target comes along.