Today I'm going to talk about a topic that Cardinals fans hate to talk about. I'm going to talk about Albert Pujols.
During the NLDS against the Nationals last year, during Game 4, one Cardinals fan in the stands was carrying a sign that said, "Albert Who?" At the Cardinals fan bar in New York City where I was watching the game -- Foley's, which is where all Cardinals NYC fans should be on Wednesday night for Game 1 of the World Series -- a couple hundred red-clad fans screamed at the television: "Boooooo!" We weren't booing Albert Pujols; we were booing the fan. Cardinals fans aren't necessarily happy that Pujols left, but they don't miss him either. And they certainly don't want people thinking they're still thinking about him. This is not Cleveland and LeBron.
Now that Albert Pujols is not a Cardinal -- and has not been a Cardinal for two years -- it seems strange to say this, but it is still inconceivable that Albert Pujols isn't going to spend his entire career as a Cardinal. There's no more central figure to the Cardinals experience than Stan Musial, and Pujols was groomed, from the beginning, to be the next "The Man." (Even his nickname, El Hombre, was Stan-related. It's worth noting that Pujols did not prefer this nickname.) The whole organization was structured around him: Every player, manager, clubhouse attendant, even executive, deferred to him. This wasn't done in a Barry Bonds way either; Pujols might have been a bit brusque at times, but he was well-liked and well-respected. You deferred to him because he was El Hombre. Because he was The Man.
That Pujols would be a Cardinal forever was a given. Which is funny because now that he's not… he's a huge reason why the Cardinals are playing in the World Series. The plan was to win by building around Albert. When he left, he made the plan even better.
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The Cardinals are not known for front office intrigue. Our general managers don't rappel down buildings or sneak out of the offices in a gorilla suit. Since the days of Whitey Herzog, Cardinals executives have mostly been anonymous guys in ties shuffling papers around, remaining invisible. But six years ago, the Cardinals had a full-blown drama on their hands.
Basically, before the 2006 season, in which the Cardinals won the World Series with quite possibly their worst team of the decade, Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt, seeing the escalating nature of baseball salaries, decided that he would have to make some changes to keep Albert Pujols a Cardinal forever. Pujols had just signed a seven-year, team-friendly extension before the 2004 season, and two years in, he had established himself as the next Ted Williams. With Alex Rodriguez signing $250 million contracts, DeWitt knew that the way the Cardinals were doing business under general manager Walt Jocketty --essentially leveraging the farm system in trades for players like Larry Walker, Scott Rolen and Mark Mulder -- was unsustainable in this new age of baseball. The Cardinals were not the Yankees: Paying for veterans every year was not going to work. Jocketty's undeniable talent for trades was the past, not the future. The only way the Cardinals would be able to hold on to Pujols forever would be to surround him with young, cheap talent. The Cardinals would have to remake the whole farm system. They had five years to do it.
This was not pleasing to Jocketty, who had taken over after the strike in 1994 and turned around a moribund franchise. (The Cardinals' best players in 1994 were Mark Whiten and Bob Tewksbury. Two years after Jocketty took over, the Cardinals were a game from the World Series.) He had saved the franchise and didn't like DeWitt's intrusion, particularly the appointment of stathead Jeff Luhnow as the head of amateur scouting. The battle lasted the entire 2006 season, and not even that world championship could heal the wounds: A year after the parade, Jocketty left to take over the Reds, and the Cardinals promoted Jocketty's assistant, John Mozeliak, though only after now-Indians general manager Chris Antonetti turned the job down.
Mozeliak's primary charge: Build a team so we can keep Albert and still win. This became the Cardinals' central focus. Luhnow honed in on the minors while Mozeliak constructed the roster, including a risky trade and extension for left fielder Matt Holliday. Luhnow was the key, though: As St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Derrick Goold noted last year, you could construct an excellent team simply consisting of the players Luhnow drafted for the Cardinals in six years:
C Tony Cruz
1B Matt Adams
2B Kolten Wong
SS Pete Kozma
3B Matt Carpenter
OF Jon Jay
OF Colby Rasmus
OF Allen Craig
OF Oscar Taveras (signed as an international free agent)
SP Shelby Miller
SP Carlos Martinez (signed as an international free agent)
SP Jaime Garcia
SP Lance Lynn
SP Joe Kelly
RP Trevor Rosenthal
RP Chris Perez
RP Kevin Siegrist
That, friends, is a roster that can support a $30 million Albert Pujols contract: cost-controlled, young players, exactly how DeWitt imagined it. All the Cardinals had to do now, with that much "free" talent roaming around, was sign Pujols. They'd given him Holliday as lineup insurance. They'd given him Molina, his best friend on the team and the best defensive catcher in baseball. They'd even given him two World Series titles. (Albert had a bit to do with that himself.) The plan was working to perfection. The Cardinals would have their El Hombre.
Except: The Angels stepped in. There was some frustration between the Cardinals and Pujols during the negotiations -- mostly because of a desperation offer by the Cardinals that was more money, less years, which the Pujols family took, strangely, as an insult -- but when Arte Moreno popped up with a 10-year, $240 million contract, to a 31-year-old man, well, the Cardinals couldn't compete with that. They'd likely budgeted near that, but not that high, and at the end, it was starting to look like Albert wanted to leave anyway. (A 10-year services contract with the Angels was another bone of contention, which seems strange, considering the Cardinals probably would have let him run the team forever if he'd stayed and retired with them.) Suddenly, amazingly … Albert was gone. He would be no Stan the Man. It remains surreal.
The Cardinals had a plan for a competitive team that also paid $20 million or so to the first baseman over the next 10 years … so thus, out of nowhere, the Cardinals had $20 million a year extra lying around. And this is how the plan worked out even better than the Cardinals could have imagined. If they had signed Pujols, like everyone thought, there would have been an extension for Adam Wainwright or maybe an extension for Molina, but not for both. Now? They'll both be Cardinals through 2017, at least. If they had signed Pujols, there wouldn't have been a two-year, $26 million contract for Carlos Beltran. If they had signed Pujols, there wouldn't have been a smart extension for Allen Craig. If they had signed Pujols, there wouldn't have been any money around for a potential shortstop signing this offseason. If they had signed Pujols, the Cardinals roster would have looked nothing at all like the one in this World Series.
As it turned out, Pujols is struggling with injuries and ineffectiveness: His two years with the Angels, the two seasons in which he has been paid his highest salary ever, have been the two worst of his career, by far. But that doesn't really matter. The Cardinals didn't think he would drop off so dramatically; if they did, they wouldn't have offered what they did, they wouldn't have reconstructed their whole organization just to please him. But the flexibility that reconstruction gave them allowed them to not only survive his exit, but to thrive. At first it looked like they were succeeding in spite of it; more and more, it's looking like it's because of it.
The only time you hear Pujols' name come up that much anymore with the Cardinals is to point out that the draft pick they received in compensation for his signing with the Angels turned out to be Michael Wacha. But the story with Pujols and this roster doesn't end there. Pujols' stamp is all over this team. The second-best player in Cardinals history is still contributing to the team now that he's gone. He is, almost accidentally, the reason it exists.
There is some thought among Cardinals fans that they would like to win a World Series without Albert on the team, not to show him up, but just to show that they can. There is less animosity toward Pujols now, which is why we all booed the fan with the sign. Few want him to do poorly with the Angels. It's over. The Cardinals won. Cardinals fans are doing just fine in his absence … because of his absence. If the Cardinals win the World Series this year, Pujols won't get a ring. But he'll probably deserve one. You won't see him on the field on Wednesday night for Game 1 of the Cardinals-Red Sox World Series. But rest assured: He's there.
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