Jon Heyman
Wednesday May 12th, 2010

If Albert Pujols is as proficient a scout and talent evaluator as he is a ballplayer, the rest of the National League could be in trouble. Pujols thinks this Cardinals team is special, way better even than they have performed so far. And so far, they haven't been too bad at all.

"When we get it going, watch out,'' Pujols told SI.com. "I am glad we're struggling [early]. When we start it going, it's going to be scary.''

Considering they are 20-13 and in first place in the NL Central, some might say the Cardinals already are scaring plenty of folks in the National League. But Pujols doesn't see it that way. He said he hasn't been especially good, the offense as a whole can be better and the pitchers are carrying the Cardinals so far.

"The pitchers are taking care of business,'' Pujols said.

Pujols is plainly disappointed in his output thus far. He was batting .327 as he spoke a few days ago and is down to .320 now, still excellent but not up to his standards (he's a .333 lifetime hitter). He has seven home runs and 25 RBIs, also slightly below his normal output.

"I feel all right. I'm just not consistent. It's not where I'd want it to be,'' Pujols said. "Missing half of spring training can throw you off. But there are no excuses. I'm seeing the ball good, and I'm feeling good at the plate.''

If Pujols isn't himself, neither is $120 million man Matt Holliday, who's been ailing and not delivering like usual. Youngster Colby Rasmus and rookie David Freese, who's been the real unsung hero so far for the Cardinals, have made up for slow starts by the stars. Freese, in particular, has impressed Pujols. "He's worked hard to prove he belongs, and I'm happy for him,'' Pujols said.

What Pujols really feels best about is the attitude of this Cardinals team. On this day, virtually the whole team was at the park by 9:30 a.m., or 3 1/2 hours before they were to face Phillies' ace Roy Halladay. If they weren't anxious to play the game, they weren't showing it.

"We have a great group,'' Pujols said. "The guys are really excited to get to the park and be around each other. By 2:30 [for night games] you're going to see a full clubhouse. That's something we don't have a problem with.''

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa seems to love this team as much as Pujols does. "They're a good group, we'll just see if we're good enough,'' La Russa said, choosing the same word as Pujols. "We've got a chance, though.''

They have a chance partly because the team leaders like Pujols and starting pitcher Chris Carpenter are pros who put the game first. The young players who comprise the vast majority of the team have little choice but to follow.

The history helps, too, according to Pujols.

"There's a legacy here,'' he said. "In this organization, there are great examples to follow. Bob Gibson. Stan Musial. Red Schoendienst. Bruce Sutter. Ozzie Smith. Lou Brock. All great players. Willie McGee. Guys who played the game the right way. That's drummed in from Day One.''

According to Pujols, La Russa is the one who pulls it all together.

"Our manager is our leader. He lets us joke around. But if we are out of line, he puts us back in line,'' Pujols said.

Pujols called the entire Cardinals experience "something pretty special.''

It sure sounded like it wasn't anything he wanted to give up. But he stopped short of talking about wanting to make the Cardinals experience his complete career experience. His contract is up after 2011, and while the sides have talked, there's no evidence of progress to this point.

"I don't have anything to talk about that now,'' he said when asked. He had said enough.

Some Dodgers-connected sources are expressing doubt Joe Torre will return to manage the team next year even if Torre has been expected to resume contract talks with the Dodgers during the season. The original plan was for Torre to manage one more year, but little has been said since the iconic manager abruptly contract halted negotiations this spring after the first Dodgers offer was made, and those close to the situation are now saying they don't necessarily expect owner Frank McCourt and Torre will reach an agreement.

It isn't known what Torre was offered in the brief contract talks this spring, but according to the L.A.-connected people, McCourt is telling associates he doesn't believe a manager is worth north of $4 million. Sources say Torre was baseball's highest-paid manager at slightly more than $4 million when he signed his three-year Dodger deal, and now trails only La Russa, who is believed to make slightly more than Torre but slightly less than $5 million a year. Torre walked away from the Yankees following the 2007 season after saying he was insulted by an offer that included $3 million in incentives but guaranteed $5 million.

McCourt is embroiled in a bitter and public divorce and has cut the payroll from $120 million to $83 million over two years, but beyond any general financial concerns, he is apparently questioning the value of a manager to some confidants. Only four teams are believed to pay their manager at least $3 million (the Cubs' Lou Piniella and the Reds' Dusty Baker make in the mid $3 millions). Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly, the presumed successor to Torre in L.A., is a Torre disciple who likely wouldn't cost more than $2 million a year.

Another issue involving Torre and the Dodgers is that the spring contract offer spelled out a new role as some sort of consultant following the 2011 season. While it isn't know whether the managerial offer was contingent on him taking the consultant job in subsequent years and that could be considered a nice add-on, Torre's friends in the game believe he loves managing and will want to keep doing it beyond 2011, no matter what he's telling himself or saying publicly now.

While McCourt has a very good relationship with GM Ned Colletti, Dodgers connected people say they believe McCourt and Torre aren't especially close. There's no evidence of any special disharmony in their relationship, but there may also be nothing pulling McCourt toward Torre. Others say never to count Torre out, though. Nobody is better than Torre at leveraging his sterling reputation and excellent relationship with players to get what he wants, they point out. And what he wants is to keep managing, according to people close to him.

Lou Piniella's position as Cubs manager is a matter of some mystery, too, and insiders are saying that new Cubs owner Tom Ricketts has concerns about Piniella's health, which might lead to only a get-well card. Or it could lead to something more.

Piniella, whose contract expires after this season, still seems to have pep for a 66-year-old. But there have been issues with a couple of his star players, so nobody could blame him for aging a little with all he's been through in Chicago -- though the offseason trade that sent Milton Bradley to Seattle has to help his psyche.

General manager Jim Hendry is thought to be a Piniella backer. But it would be naïve to think Ricketts wouldn't have some say.

"He loves Lou,'' one person close to Ricketts said. "He just thinks Lou may be burned out.''

That seems to fit with a cryptic remark made by team president Crane Kenney at the start of the year in which he said of Piniella, "If he feels well and wants to keep going, we'll have an interesting conversation. He has done a great job. He has raised the bar and that's a little bit of the burden we all carry now." Characteristically, Piniella responded to that remark by reminding everyone that he is not yet on his death bed.

• If Ken Griffey Jr. really was sleeping during a game in the clubhouse, he should either retire or get help for his sleeping situation. The Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune reported that two unnamed players said he was unavailable to pinch hit in a game because he was asleep, an assertion that was denied following a rather lengthy team meeting. Griffey and manager Don Wakamatsu issued denials that Griffey was sleeping on the job, but there's no denying this episode has become an issue in Seattle. A team meeting was held prior to Tuesday's game. Mariners people say there's no consideration now to releasing Griffey. Can't imagine they'd ever do that to The Kid.

• If Cliff Lee's headed for the free agent market, he will do very well ($100 million plus). If he's headed for the trade market, he'll draw a haul. He's pitched at least seven innings and has a 0.94 ERA through three starts.

• Today's meeting at MLB headquarters in New York should be the last owners meeting for the Rangers' Tom Hicks. That's what baseball powers hope, anyway. The sale of the team from Hicks to Chuck Greenberg is still held up by one creditor, who wants the deeply indebted Hicks to pay what he owes. The original sale deal had Hicks remaining on the team's board to represent the Rangers at future owners meetings. But after all his shenanigans, he won't be welcome back.

Johnny Damon sure does have a sense of the moment. He homered on Monday night against the Yankees in his first game against his former team.

• The Mets have a much better feel in their clubhouse. And a lot more magic. And rookie Ike Davis has been huge for them, both offensively and defensively. He's gone head-first over the dugout railing no less than three times to catch foul popups.

• Another difference, believe it or not, is improved coaching at third base. Chip Hale has done a terrific job there for the Mets.

• Dodgers people say rookie pitcher John Ely, a Chicagoan acquired in the Juan Pierre trade, has "average'' stuff. But they love the heart he's showing.

Hank Blalock, who is currently in the Tampa Bay Rays minor league system, will exercise the out clause in his contract if something isn't done soon in terms of a promotion, agent Scott Boras told the St. Petersburg Times. Blalock is leading the International League in hitting.

• Everyone said the Rockies had tremendous depth. But it's really being tested with injuries to at least a half-dozen key players (Brad Hawpe, Huston Street, Jeff Francis, Jorge de la Rosa, Jason Hammel, Franklin Morales and Troy Tulowitzki).

• Congratulations to Tom Glavine who deserves to have his number retired (as it will be, by the Braves), and deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, too.

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