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The Strike Zone

Pujols to face Cardinals, who haven't missed him, for the first time

Albert PujolsAlbert Pujols is hitting more than 70 points below his career average. (AP)

Albert Pujols will take the field against the St. Louis Cardinals in a regular season game for the first time Tuesday night, a season and a half after he left St. Louis for a $240 million contract with the Angels. The last time Pujols wore a St. Louis uniform, he and his teammates celebrated a world championship as victors in Game 7 of the 2011 World Series. Since then, the Cardinals have continued to be one of the best teams in baseball, while Pujols and the Angels have traveled a much rockier road.

St. Louis enters play on Tuesday with the second-best record in baseball and coming off a season in which they returned to the National League Championship Series. The Angels, meanwhile, are four games below .500, nine games behind the division-leading Rangers in the AL West and 7 1/2 games out of the second AL wild-card spot, coming off a season in which they failed to make the playoffs despite addition of that extra spot.

It's unfair and inaccurate to single Pujols out as the reason for L.A.'s shortcomings over the last two seasons, but there's no denying that his performance as an Angel thus far has been disappointing. He did ultimately have a strong 2012 season, hitting .285/.343/.516 with 30 home runs, 105 RBIs, and 50 doubles, even if all but the RBI and doubles totals from that line were a career low. Still, it doesn't take much effort to connect the team's struggles with Pujols'.

Last year, the Angels fell four games shy of that second wild card spot, something many, myself included, blame on their lousy performance in April, when they went 8-15 (.348). Had they gone 12-11 instead, just a game over .500, they would have finished in a three-way tie for that spot. The Angels did not call Mike Trout up until April 28 of last year, in part because he needed a month to get ready after missing most of spring training due to the flu, but they also had to endure a .217/.265/.304 performance from Pujols that month, and their $240 million man didn't hit his first home run until May 6.

This year, Pujols has been hindered by plantar fasciitis in his left foot and soreness in his right knee, which he had surgically cleaned up in October. In part as a result of those injuries, Pujols has hit just .249/.323/.429 this season -- including a 4-for-34 tailspin entering the series with St. Louis -- albeit with solid counting stats (13 homers and 49 RBIs in the Angels first 82 games). Josh Hamilton, who signed a five-year, $125 million contract in December with a higher average annual salary than Pujols' 10-year deal, and the pitching staff have been more detrimental to the Angels' cause thus far this season, but Pujols isn't doing a lot to help.

The organization has praised Pujols for playing through his injuries, even if they have more often than not relegated him to designated hitter duties, but one must wonder if both he and the team wouldn't be better off giving him a month to heal and getting two months of full-strength Pujols rather than three more months of what he's done thus far. Indeed, wins above replacement suggests that two months of Pujols at his 2011 level would be worth twice as much a repeat of Pujols' last three months.

Of course, his return to that 2011 level is no guarantee, even though that was not the peak of is powers. Pujols is 33 and has seen his OPS+ decline in each of the last five seasons from his blistering career high of 192 in his age-28 season of 2008 to this year's 111. The Angels can't realistically have expected Pujols to replicate his Cardinals years in Anaheim (Dan Szymborski put it best when he tweeted at the time of Pujols' signing that the Cardinals "got the Beatles, the Angels get the solo stuff"), but they might have expected that decline to proceed more slowly.

As for the Cardinals, they replaced Pujols by signing Carlos Beltran to a two-year, $26 million contract to play rightfield and installing Allen Craig at first base in place of the injured and since-departed Lance Berkman. Here's how Pujols, Beltran, and Craig have produced over the last season and a half (note: oWAR is offensive wins above replacement, from Baseball-Reference.com):

PlayerAVGOBPSLGHRRBIOPS+oWAR
Pujols.273.336.486431241294.9
Beltran.282.347.514511471335.5
Craig.311.356.505311551344.4

Beltran has exceeded Pujols in every category listed above, while Craig falls short only on home runs and total oWAR, the latter due entirely to his two disabled list stints in early 2012.

I wrote about how surprisingly easy it would be for the Cardinals to replace Pujols upon his singing in Anaheim, floating Beltran as a possible solution even before he signed in St. Louis and praising them for the singing once they made it, and that table above suggests that the Cardinals played the winter after their World Series win perfectly.

Of course, the real reason for St. Louis' success since Pujols' departure has been the strength of its farm system. In addition to Craig, who was officially a rookie in 2011, the Cardinals have fleshed out their lineup with newly-minted second baseman Matt Carpenter, their rotation with leading Rookie of the Year contender Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn (like Craig a rookie in 2011), and their bullpen with Trevor Rosenthal and Seth Maness, while getting solid fill-in work from swing man Joe Kelly and slugger Matt Adams, and there's more on the way in the form of potential superstar outfielder Oscar Taveras and righthanded starter Carlos Martinez, among others.

Adding those players to the remaining core of Yadier Molina, who has emerged as a perennial MVP candidate, Adam Wainwright, who has returned to his Cy-Young-contending form in his second year back from Tommy John surgery, Matt Holliday and David Freese, who have been admittedly disappointing this season -- as well as strong pitching from the likes of starter Jake Westbrook and reliever Edward Mujica -- has allowed the Cardinals to continue winning without Pujols.

As for whether Los Angeles can start winning with Pujols, despite the addition of Hamilton and the growth of young All-Stars Trout and Mark Trumbo, the team appears to have a cloudier future. Trout, Trumbo and Peter Bourjos will hit arbitration before Hamilton's contract expires, limiting the Angels' ability to spend further, and the Zack Greinke trade of a year ago cost them their top prospect, shortstop Jean Segura, who could start the All-Star game for the National League in Troy Tulowitzki's absence. There wasn't much behind Segura on the farm, and Pujols, even if he does rebound from his current injuries, isn't getting any younger. With the A's building on their breakthrough 2012 season and the Rangers holding strong, it could be a while before Pujols plays his first postseason game as a member of the Angels.
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