Many people have already grown tired of the constant Albert Pujols contract coverage, including Albert Pujols and his Cardinal teammates. That’s too bad, because for the next eight months the media will continue to push this topic into our faces, and for once I don’t think it’s hype without substance.
What could possibly be bigger than the greatest current player potentially leaving the only team he’s played for–a storied franchise with some of the best fans in baseball–in the midst of one of the greatest careers ever seen? It’s just like LeBron last summer, if he had played for a team that mattered, and if he had actually helped that team win something in the playoffs.
So every highlight and story about the Cardinals this summer will come with a standard package of contract talk and speculation. Get used to it, because the media has two annoying habits of being lazy about pursuing new angles and of wanting to talk about things that are really, really important. This story deserves the breathless attention it’s received, because it could dramatically alter the landscape of baseball over the next decade.
In baseball, a single player has less of an impact on the outcome of an individual game and a season in whole than in any of the major sports. However, it’s difficult to overstate what an impact he has mentally on his opponents and his teammates. If he were to leave St. Louis via free agency the organization would be left reeling without its identity, while any team that might add him would instantly have the swagger of invulnerability about it.
Insert him into any lineup and immediately that team will become dangerous and will tax opposing pitching simply through the sheer mental stress he places on pitchers. The effect isn’t just on the hitters immediately before and after him, but two and three spots on either side and that impact is nearly as stressful on opposing pitching as his own at-bats.
If I must quantify it, I’ll use the sabrmetric standby Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Albert Pujols has led the National League six straight seasons, averaging nearly 8.5 over that span. Last year his 7.2 was his lowest total over that span and the Cardinals finished second to Cincinnati with 86 wins. Take away Albert and you’ve got a below .500 team lost in the shuffle of the mediocre NL Central, and that’s with a dominant pitching staff headed by Adam Wainwright’s near Cy Young season.
Naysayers might point out that over that same span the Cardinals only won the division once which was also the only season they topped 90 wins. However, if you went back and replayed those seasons with anyone else in baseball taking Pujols’ place how would they fare? Arguing his impact on a team is ridiculous because of the nature of the game. Single stars just don’t transform a season like they do in other sports, but the fact is, as baseball players go Albert is as impactful as they get and his decision will impact MLB more than anything in the previous or the coming decade.
So while you may already have all the scenarios memorized get ready for a summer of speculation because the story’s not going anywhere until Albert does.