Commentary

It's simple: Cardinals must move on

Losing Albert Pujols certainly stings, but many say it's not a death blow for St. Louis

Originally Published: December 8, 2011
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

DALLAS -- More than a decade before St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak was forced to deal with the fallout from Albert Pujols' departure, Pat Gillick experienced the same sense of shock with a young star named Alex Rodriguez.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAlbert Pujols led the Cardinals to two World Series titles in the last six years.

In December 2000, the Texas Rangers took the podium at the Anatole Hotel (the site of this year's MLB winter meetings) and announced that they had signed Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252 million contract. The news was a major gut punch to Rodriguez's former team, the Seattle Mariners, who had to adjust on the fly to the harsh reality of losing A-Rod to a divisional competitor during the peak of his career.

Gillick, then Seattle's general manager, didn't waste any time lamenting the sudden shift in the baseball landscape. The Mariners signed Ichiro Suzuki from Japan, moved Carlos Guillen to shortstop, acquired Bret Boone by trade from San Diego and went on to win 116 games in 2001 before losing to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. So he speaks from experience when he says the loss of a franchise icon isn't necessarily fatal.

"Sometimes you don't have any alternatives," said Gillick, a Hall of Fame executive who now works as an advisor with the Phillies. "You have to be prepared and ask yourself beforehand, 'What are we going to do if we lose a player of this magnitude?'"

Mozeliak, understandably, wasn't around to field media inquiries when news broke during the Rule 5 draft Thursday that Pujols had just agreed on a 10-year deal with the Angels. Mozeliak bolted for the airport before reporters had a chance to question him on where the Cardinals go from here.

Without question, Pujols' decision to leave the heartland for the West Coast will be difficult for some diehard Cardinals fans to digest. But executives at the winter meetings agreed it's nothing close to a death blow for the Cardinals, either perceptually or between the lines. Here are a half-dozen reasons why:

They're five weeks removed from a champagne celebration, remember?

The Cardinals are fresh off a World Series victory -- their second since 2006 -- and have the foundation for a competitive team even without Pujols. They still have a five-time All-Star left fielder in Matt Holliday, a perennial Gold Glove-winning catcher in Yadier Molina and a career .954 OPS veteran in Lance Berkman, who can shift to first base. Chris Carpenter is coming off a 237-inning season, Jaime Garcia keeps getting better and Adam Wainwright, who finished second in the NL Cy Young balloting two years ago, will return in the spring after missing the 2011 season because of Tommy John surgery.

In addition, the Cardinals finally have a legitimate flow of young talent in their system. Before Jeffrey Luhnow left to become the general manager of the Astros, he drafted the likes of Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Daniel Descalso and Lance Lynn, and the farm system still has two mega-pitching prospects in Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez.

Pujols signed for 10 years and $254 million

Did the Cardinals drag their feet in the belief that Pujols was so comfortable in St. Louis and so concerned about his legacy that there was no earthly way he would leave? Perhaps. But the sheer magnitude of his deal gives Mozeliak and ownership some cover. In addition, the Angels have the option of moving Pujols to DH in a few years if his body wears down with age. The Cardinals can argue that they didn't have that luxury.

"I think the contract speaks for itself," said an AL GM. "That deal is crazy. The Cardinals are a $100 million payroll team. They're not a $180 million payroll team. They just won the World Series. How can anybody be mad at them for this?"

Pujols is now 1,580 miles and an entire league away

It would have been a lot worse if Pujols had signed with the hated Cubs, or remained in the NL to torment the Cardinals for years to come. But he's now in the AL, and he'll be playing more than half his games on the West Coast, at times when much of Cardinal Nation is in bed.

"I'm sure it's going to be a shock and there's going to be some fallout on it," said an NL scouting director. "But at least he left the league, and they don't have to see him 19 times a year."

There are other fish in the sea

With some money freed up by Pujols' departure, the Cardinals have the luxury of being lighter on their feet and upgrading at multiple spots. If they decide they want to sign a shortstop, they could make a play for Jimmy Rollins. With Craig recovering from knee surgery, they could choose to add an outfielder with the ability to play right field or center. Carlos Beltran seems like a good fit, at least in theory.

Both Rollins and Beltran are represented by Dan Lozano, who happens to be the agent for Pujols. We're not saying either deal is going to happen, but the mere suggestion falls under the "delicious irony" category.

Pain experienced now could mean less drama later

Of course, there's going to be a void next year when the No. 3 spot in the order rolls around and someone other than Pujols is stepping into the batter's box for St. Louis. The Cardinals haven't experienced that sensation since 2000.

But if history means anything, Pujols' production is going to decline in his late 30s, and the Angels might decide he needs more rest or should be dropped in the batting order. That could lead to a test of wills and the potential for some hurt feelings.

It's happened numerous numerous times in recent years, with the likes of Frank Thomas and Sammy Sosa in Chicago, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio in Houston, Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter in New York, Barry Larkin in Cincinnati and a bunch of other civic treasures in cities around the majors. Great players get older, their skills decline, and fans and media members start wondering if they might be overstaying their welcome.

Fans in St. Louis lived through that scenario years ago with the ugly spat between Tony La Russa and Ozzie Smith. It was a classic case of what former big league GM John Hart called the "don't-let-a-falling-star-fall-on-you" scenario.

"Look at the model John Schuerholz built in Atlanta," said an AL assistant GM. "He let stars leave, and except for guys like John Smoltz and Chipper Jones, he wasn't saddled with contracts where he was burdened with stars in their twilight-and-decline seasons. The Braves had a litany of guys who walked out the door who had been All-Stars or Cy Youngs."

In baseball and sports in general, life goes on

"The Rangers lost A-Rod, and what did they end up doing?" said an AL GM. "The Mariners lost A-Rod and Randy Johnson and look what they did. The Twins lost Johan Santana and Torii Hunter. The Mariners lost Junior [Ken Griffey Jr.]. And what did they all end up doing? They all still won. This isn't the NBA, where one player can dominate. It doesn't happen that way."

I think the [Pujols] contract speaks for itself. That deal is crazy. The Cardinals are a $100 million payroll team. They're not a $180 million payroll team. They just won the World Series. How can anybody be mad at them for this?

-- An American League GM

As heir to the Stan Musial legacy, Pujols meant more than batting titles, 40 home runs and 100 RBIs per season in St. Louis. He sacrificed a statue outside Busch Stadium for the prospect of a new beginning in Anaheim, and now the Cardinals will discover what life is like in an Albert-free zone.

"I think Billy Beane said it perfectly: 'You can always recover from the player you don't sign. You can never recover from the player you signed at the wrong price,'" said an NL GM. "There's some truth in that. Everybody is replaceable. But if you make a mistake and sign the wrong guy, that can be crippling."

Mozeliak and Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt will have some spinning to do in the coming days. But once the shock wears off, life after Pujols will come down to whatever the St. Louis front office, new manager Mike Matheny and the players are able to make of it. If the Cardinals have any doubts, they can just ask Pat Gillick.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer