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.
As a Cubs fan, it pains me to write about the excellence of a St. Louis
pitcher, but Adam Wainwright is a huge key to the Cardinals success of
this season and has been a great number two behind Chris Carpenter.
He’s leading the team in wins, innings, and strikeouts, while posting a
solid 2.79 ERA. More importantly, he’s been a consistent go-to guy,
particularly during the extended absence of Carpenter, both last year
and earlier this season.
The Cardinals will always be Albert
Pujols’ team, and now that Matt Holliday is there, Big Al has the
sidekick he’s been looking for for several years. Pujols’ dominance
hasn’t been enough to overtake the Cubs the last two years, though, and
the reason the Cardinals have been leading the pack much of the year
has been the consistent pitching which starts with Wainwright.
has shown that consistency in the last two seasons with a 14-win
campaign in his first as a starter, 2007, and then a breakthrough year in
2008 going 11-3 with a 3.20 ERA, in only 20 starts. With at least five
more starts in August and all of September, he has a real shot at 18 wins or more, and along
with Jason Marquis, could be a surprise entry in the Cy Young race.
not that no one could foresee this level of success for Wainwright, but
with Carpenter’s return this year and King Albert’s reign, he kind of gets lost
in the fold in St. Louis. The tremendous fans of the ‘Lou’ definitely
know who he is, and if their team can hang on to play into October, it will feature a tremendous second gun that is invaluable in
the shortened format of the Division Series.
The Cubs have
made a strong second half push and narrowed the gap, even jumpnig into
first for a few days, but St. Louis has shown far greater consistency
offensively and defensively for a full four months, and with July
acquisitions that strengthened their lineup they’ll be very difficult to
outlast. That additional firepower will only make it tougher for teams
looking to outscore or outpitch such a well-rounded, fundamentally
With Wainwright showing no signs of slowing, this
team could be a sleeper in the National League race against the more
ballyhooed teams in Philly and L.A. If they can manage to get into the
eight-team fray, there’s plenty to like on this team, which has the
pieces to win the pitchers’ duels and the fireworks shows. Typically, October baseball is more about pitching, defense, and situational hitting than it is about blowouts. This team is built to succeed either way, and Wainwright’s arm will be especially welcome when the temperature starts to drop and the bats cool off.