Monday June 20th, 2011

Five reactions to Monday's news that Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols will miss the next 4-to-6 weeks after fracturing his left forearm in a collision at first base with the Royals' Wilson Betemit:

1. The Cardinals need to weather the storm for one month

Even before Pujols' injury, the shine on the Cardinals' hot start was starting to fade. After ascending to the top of the overall major league standings at 38-26 on June 9, St. Louis lost seven straight and fell behind the Brewers in the National League Central before rebounding with wins Saturday and Sunday to even the division leaderboard.

It's the first four weeks of Pujols' absence that are the real challenge. If he returns on the early side, which would be roughly July 19, he'd miss 22 games, including six against their divisional rival Reds, four against the surprising Diamondbacks and three each against the NL East-leading Phillies and the AL East's resilient Rays.

If the Cardinals are still in reasonable shape through those four weeks, they may be able to ease Pujols back in or allow him to miss the full six weeks, as their next four series are all against sub-.500 foes -- the Mets, Pirates, Astros and Cubs -- against whom the Redbirds are already 12-5.

Despite an array of preexisting injuries -- Pujols becomes the eighth player on the Cardinals' disabled list -- the club is equipped to handle this one (as best one can when losing a superstar). Rightfielder Lance Berkman, who has primarily been a first baseman the past few years anyway, will likely play most games at first in Pujols' absence. And fourth outfielder Jon Jay was already in need of more at bats, as he has a batting line of .313/.364/.436.

2. Pujols was just starting to hit like, you know, Pujols

Since June 2 Pujols was 20-for-59 with five doubles, eight home runs and nine walks, good for a .339 average, .435 on-base percentage and .831 slugging percentage. Those rates are nearly identical to his pre-2011 career average (.331) and OBP (.426) and a huge increase over even his own prodigious career slugging mark (.624).

Now this injury continues what has been a very strange 2011. About the only way this fracture would have been worse is if it happened during The Hug, his much ballyhooed (though, truthfully, probably inconsequential) embrace with Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, prompting conspiracy theorists everywhere to imagine that Pujols' post-2011 plans were decided and that he'd defect to the Cardinals' Public Enemy No. 1.

The season, of course, began with Pujols' self-imposed deadline for a contract extension passing without a deal, with the sides reportedly not all that close, either. Few expected contract uncertainty to weigh on Pujols -- he has been nicknamed The Machine for his inhuman consistency and strength, after all -- but he struggled in the first two months, as his pre-June 2 batting line (.262/.333/.412) was even a tick below that of the average NL first baseman (.265/.349/.440).

3. Pujols is a miracle healer

This is only the third disabled-list stint in Pujols' 11-year career -- the first was for a "moderate to severe" strained oblique in 2006 and the second due to a strained calf muscle in 2008 -- and in both cases he returned way ahead of schedule, roughly halving a pair of six-week projections into three weeks. The Cardinals were 8-7 in his absence in '06 and 6-7 in '08.

It's harder to beat the schedule on a fractured bone than on a muscle, but Pujols has also played through considerable elbow pain in his career. It's been jammed, it's had bone chips, it's suffered tendinitis and doctors had told him for years he might need reconstructive surgery.

4. Oddly, there is a bright side

For one, the Cardinals' outfield defense will improve. And, heck, maybe Pujols will be more re-signable this offseason.

Though Berkman has been rejuvenated at the plate this year, the same cannot be said about his defense. He had not been an everyday outfielder before the Cardinals put him in right this season, and it shows. According to Ultimate Zone Rating, Berkman has cost St. Louis six runs in rightfield -- with a staggeringly bad -23.3 UZR/150, a prorated measure over a typical season total of 150 games -- and his Plus/Minus runs saved total is -5, which ranks 34th in the majors. Jay is not a Gold Glover, but he does maintain the virtue of not being Berkman in right.

Advanced defensive statistics can vary widely in evaluating first base play, but by most accounts Berkman is at least adequate there -- he won't be the Gold Glover that Pujols is, but he'll acquit himself fine at first.

Such an injury can also depress Pujols' free-agent market this offseason, particularly if his swing is a little sluggish upon his return. Surely this wrist fracture won't eliminate any suitors, but it could force teams to re-think how much money and how many years they'll offer the 31-year-old. The Cardinals likely can't go dollar-for-dollar with the majors' biggest spenders, but they'll certainly match any reasonable offer, so this injury may increase the chance Pujols finishes his career in St. Louis.

5. Don't expect any change on baseball's collision policy

In a scant few weeks baseball has now lost its best player (Pujols) and one of its top young stars (Giants catcher Buster Posey) in collisions. There was significant furor in San Francisco at the way Posey was injured in a home-plate collision with the Marlins' Scott Cousins that included calls for a revision of the sport's rules.

There was nothing malicious about Betemit's collision with Pujols, as the latter was taken into the baseline by an errant throw. Plays at first base are already regulated with the runner being instructed to remain in foul territory and stay within the parallel chalk baseline on his approach to first. Umpires may well be reminded to strictly enforce whether a runner is out of the baseline and in fair territory, but there likely won't -- and shouldn't -- be a rule change after this injury.

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