Rarely do we see iconic players hit the open market and actually change allegiances. In fact it’s so rare that you could look across the four major sports and say Drew Brees is possibly the best free agent signing of all time (spare me LeBron “witnesses,” talk to me when you “witness” him win a championship). But in that same breath, Albert Pujols can claim something that neither Brees nor James could say when they left for greener pastures: Pujols is a proven winner. One championship can be viewed as simple luck. Two? Now we’re starting to see a pattern. Since Pujols entered the league in 2000, only two other franchises have won two World Series titles: the Boston Red Sox (’04 & ’07) and the New York Yankees (’00 & ’09). Brees has one Super Bowl title. James is 0 for one since he ditched Cleveland. Is there any place Pujols can go and accomplish more than what he already has in St. Louis?
The answer is unequivocally a resounding NO. Stan Musial. Ozzie Smith. Bob Gibson. Albert Pujols. Those should be the four names (in any particular order) that one associates with the Cardinals organization for the rest of time. Not only should the Cardinals pay him for he has done, but to think he will not remain one of the best players in the league well in to his 30′s is foolish in and of itself.
Pujols is coming off of his worst statistical season of his career, yet he remains in the discussion for MVP. Pujols reaffirmed his nickname, “The Machine,” when he broke his left arm in half trying to make a play at first base. Doctor’s projected the injury would take approximately two months to heal, yet Pujols was back in the lineup just 16 days after he was placed on the 15-day disabled list. Players in the their early 20′s don’t rebound from injuries like that. This guy is not human.
And while the Red Sox and Yankees are set at first base for the foreseeable future, the Cubs, Marlins, Angels, among some other organizations all have expressed interest in Pujols’ services. None of these interested teams would put him into contention like the Cardinals can year after year. Do the Cardinals have the most talented roster? Not by a longshot. But they just beat teams with significantly better rosters, on paper, throughout the post-season. Matt Holliday will bounce back from injury. Lance Berkman has at least one more productive season left in him. David Freese isn’t going anywhere fast. I’d be shocked if Yadier Molina skipped town. And if the Cardinals do nothing more than re-sign Albert Pujols they have the luxury of the biggest addition in all of baseball without signing another player. And no, I’m not talking about Pujols.
I’ve harped on this point since February and if anyone thinks I’m changing my attitude I don’t know what to tell you. This Cardinals team is the most dangerous team heading into next season if they make zero roster moves other than retaining their current lineup, staff, and bullpen. Why? Because Adam Wainwright is coming back to town, that’s why. One of the best pitchers in all of baseball recorded a 0-0 record last season with a 0.00 ERA, a 0.00 WHIP, while striking out 0, walking 0, and allowing 0 hits. Wainwright did not take the mound once all season because of the Tommy John surgery he had early on in Spring Training. While the Cardinals still had Chris Carpenter, their rotation had many question marks.
Not next season. With Carpenter coming back along with now third year starter Jaime Garcia, Wainwright makes this a formidable triumvirate and one of the top rotations in all of baseball. While Edwin Jackson is likely to go, Kyle Lohse had an excellent season, and if he can build off of this past season, he will be a more than serviceable number four. With Jason Motte holding down the closing duties, there is no reason to assume this team will not be back playing October baseball, likely as a division winner this time.
But it all depends on Pujols. Prince Fielder is skipping town in Milwaukee. Their window of opportunity seemingly slammed down as quickly as it was opened. While the Reds offense is as tough as they come, their pitching staff lacks depth behind Johnny Cueto. The Pirates… Well, the Pirates still haven’t had a winning season since I was two. The Cubs? Unless Theo Epstein starts shagging balls in center, I don’t see them making too many strides for at least a few seasons. And the Astros…well they almost won with Carlos Beltran…remember?
Pujols would be foolish to go anywhere. While the NL doesn’t have the luxury of the designated hitter position, there is no reason not to sign him to an eight year deal. While the Cardinals would look bad in the short term for not locking up one of the greatest hitters of all time, Pujols would ultimately be the one frowned upon. He has already left a remarkable legacy on the storied St. Louis Cardinals franchise, but it pales in comparison to the one he could leave if he stays put at first base at Busch Stadium.
That red number five has become iconic. When I see someone wearing a Cardinals jersey, I am shocked when the name “Pujols” is not adorned across the shoulders. There has been no hitter in baseball who accomplished what Pujols has accomplished throughout his first 12 season in the big leagues, and when it’s all said and done, you’ll be hard pressed to find a handfull of players who will be able to boast the resume’ Pujols built. Keep baseball alive in St. Louis, Albert, uhh, Mr. Pujols. Your legacy begs you.