Albert Pujols reportedly turned down the Cards’ last offer and we’re almost at his Wednesday deadline. Which suggests to me that there's a very real possibility that, at this time next year, we're going to be wondering what the Cardinals are going to do without him.
Great players change teams all the time, of course, whether via free agency or trades, and their former teams recover. But if Pujols leaves the Cardinals, it might be different. Because Pujols might be the best player in baseball. What happens when that guy leaves? What happens when the player who leaves is irreplaceable?
Using Baseball Reference's Wins Above Replacement leaderboard for every season since 1900, I've found eight players who led their respective league in WAR and moved on before the next season. Here are those players, and how their teams fared in the aftermath:
Jason Giambi, 2001 Oakland A's: In 2001, Giambi was 30 years old and absolutely destroying AL pitching. He hit .342/.447/.660 with 38 homers. He came in second in the AL MVP race, leading the A's to 102 wins and a wild-card berth. In 2002, with Giambi on the Yankees, the A's replaced him with Scott Hatteberg and upgraded to Mark Ellis at second base. They did even better, winning 103 games (although their run differential was worse) and the AL West. The A's went to the playoffs three times in the five years after his departure.
Alex Rodriguez, 2000 Seattle Mariners: A-Rod's last season with the M's was his best year ever, as he hit .316/.420/.606 with 41 homers, 134 runs and 132 RBIs to finish third in the AL MVP race. The Mariners won 91 games and the wild card and advanced to the ALCS before being defeated by the Yankees. Amazingly, after plugging Carlos Guillen in at shortstop and reaching across the Pacific to bring over Ichiro, they would win 116 games in 2001, setting a record for the most regular-season victories ever.
Barry Bonds, 1992 Pittsburgh Pirates: Before he became the Home Run King and the face of the Steroid Era, Bonds was just the best player in baseball for the small-market Pirates. At 27, Bonds won the NL MVP by hitting .311/.456/.624 (a 205 OPS+) with 34 homers, 39 steals AND won a Gold Glove. The Pirates won 96 games, the NL East, and came within one out of going to the World Series. After the season, Bonds signed with the Giants. The Pirates never recovered. They replaced him with Al Martin, a good hitter but a poor all-around player, finished with 75 wins in 1993, and haven't finished above .500 since.
Sandy Koufax, 1966 Los Angeles Dodgers: Koufax suffered from incredibly painful arthritis and ligament damage, exacerbated by the incredible workload he shouldered. In 1966, Koufax gutted through an incredible season, winning 27 games and striking out 317 batters. His 1.73 ERA sparkled and he was worth 9.9 wins above replacement. The Dodgers won the NL pennant with 95 victories. Without Koufax in '67, the pitching was still good, but nowhere near as dominant as it had been, dropping from first overall in runs allowed to fifth. The Dodgers only won 73 games and finished eighth in the National League.
Enos Slaughter, 1942 St. Louis Cardinals: Slaughter was 26 when he hit .318/.412/.494 to class the National League. His Cardinals won 106 games and the World Series. But there was a war on, and Slaughter missed the next three seasons to military service. Thanks largely to the farm system Branch Rickey built, the Cardinals didn't feel the effects of missing their biggest stars like other teams did and won the next two pennants.
Ted Williams, 1942 Boston Red Sox: Like Slaughter, Williams entered the service after winning both the traditional and the sabermetric triple crown, hitting .356/.499/.648 (a 216 OPS+) with 36 homers. With him, the Sox won 93 games and finished second in the AL. In the three years he was gone, they finished no better than 77-77, and stumbled badly. When Williams came back in 1946, the Sox went to the World Series and came within a game of winning it all.
Rogers Hornsby, 1927 New York Giants: Hornsby played every game for the Giants, hitting .351/.448/.586 with 26 homers and went 22-10 as an interim manager. So when he was abruptly traded that winter for two relative unknowns, everyone was shocked. The New York Times called it "the most mysterious trade in baseball history." What happened? TCM will have the story later this week on his blog. The Giants actually improved from 92 to 93 wins, but still finished behind the Cardinals for the NL pennant. They would have won easily if they'd hung on to Rajah.
Babe Ruth, 1919 Boston Red Sox: Ruth was only 24 and a full-time outfielder for the first time when he hit .322/.456/.657, setting a new MLB record with 29 homers. While Ruth helped the Sox win the 1918 World Series, by 1919 Boston was not a good club, finishing five games below .500 and in sixth place in the AL. So contrary to popular belief, Frazee's sale of the Babe didn't ruin his club or break up a dynasty. But it sure didn't help either. The Sox wouldn't finish above .500 again until 1935.
So what did we learn from this exercise? First, that it's exceedingly rare for a player of Pujols' caliber to change teams. Most clubs, when faced with a choice about whether to keep or let their superstar leave, will find a way to get by. But of those who do part company, there’s a distinct difference between those who adequately prepare for the loss and those that don’t. So the next year will be crucial for the Cardinals to get their house in order.