By Cliff Corcoran
December 08, 2011

Don't cry for the Cardinals. Yes they just lost one of the greatest players in baseball history to free agency, but there's life after Albert Pujols in St. Louis. In the long term, the path ahead doesn't include the team spending $254 million for the age-32 to -41 seasons of a single player who doesn't have the benefit of the designated hitter and can't be moved if his defense declines. In the short term, replacing the 5.4 wins above replacement (per Baseball-Reference's WAR) that Pujols was worth in 2011, his worst major league season, isn't nearly as hard as Pujols' iconic status would make it seem.

In fact, the Cardinals are already expecting the return of a player nearly two years Pujols' junior who averaged six wins above replacement over the 2009 and 2010 seasons. That would be 2010 NL Cy Young runner-up Adam Wainwright, who missed the entire 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery but was throwing off a mound during the postseason. It's too much to expect Wainwright to be all the way back right away in the coming season, but he should still be a significant upgrade over the combined starts of Kyle McClellan and Edwin Jackson, who went 11-8 with a 3.96 ERA, 1.35 WHIP and 1.96 K/BB in 181 2/3 innings over 29 starts for the Cardinals this past season. As an upgrade over those two, Wainwright should be able to make up roughly half of Pujols' 2011 value.

The rest can be obtained through any of a variety of means, or a combination thereof. The Cardinals are covered at first base for the coming season because general manager John Mozeliak had the foresight to give Lance Berkman a one-year extension in late September for exactly this reason. That not only keeps a big bat at the position, but moving Berkman out of rightfield and replacing him with an actual outfielder could save the Cardinals as much of a win on defense alone.

Allen Craig was supposed to be that actual outfielder but after playing the second half of the season with a broken right kneecap, Craig underwent surgery to repair the knee the week before Thankgiving and could miss as much as two months of the 2012 season as the recovery time for his surgery is expected to be four to six months.

That has prompted some to suggest that the Cardinals should sign free agent rightfielder Carlos Beltran, who had a nice comeback season for the Mets and Giants this past year at age 34 following knee surgery of his own. That could prove to be overkill, though, if Craig is ready ahead of schedule, as Beltran is no longer viable in centerfield and leftfield is occupied by Matt Holliday, now the Cardinals' best everyday player. However, given nagging injuries endured by Holliday, Berkman, third baseman David Freese and Beltran himself last season and Craig's ability to spot everywhere but shortstop and catcher, there should be plenty of playing time to go around for all even if Craig does come back early. If there's not, that would be a good problem for the Cardinals to have. Beltran was worth 4.4 bWAR last season, and having him effectively replace Pujols on the roster, in combination with Wainwright's return, would put the Cardinals ahead of the game.

Another possible solution is the middle infield, where the Cardinals have a hole at shortstop and a collection of underwhelming stop-gaps at second base. The big name available on the market is Jimmy Rollins, who is no longer the four-to-six win player he was in his prime, but at 33 is still above average at his position on both sides of the ball and would be a significant upgrade over the combination of four months of replacement-level play the team got from Ryan Theriot and two months of, well, Rollins-level play, really, that the team got from Rafael Furcal. Furcal himself is a free agent and player the Cardinals might be interested in re-signing, but he's a year older that Rollins and far more likely to spend the bulk of the coming season on the disabled list due to his chronic back issues. Again, Rollins plus Wainwright would make up those 5.4 wins above replacement the Cardinals got from Pujols this past season, if not more

Then there's the long shot: Prince Fielder. The Berkman extension was clearly Plan B for the Cardinals at first base in the event of Pujols' departure, but now that an Albert-free Redbirds has become a reality, the still-unsigned first baseman of the division rival Brewers has to look like an attractive alternative, particularly with some rumors suggesting that Fielder just might return to Milwaukee after all. Singing Fielder, who has averaged four wins above replacement over the last five seasons, wouldn't replace Pujols in full, but it would hurt the 2011 division champions and bring in a young (28 in May), exciting, intimidating slugger who could fill more of the symbolic hole left by Pujols than either Beltran or Rollins. The problem is that Fielder would also cost several times what Beltran or Rollins would, as he's likely looking for something north of Ryan Howard's $125 million, five-year extension and has been said to be asking for a $200 million deal, which he's simply not worth. Signing Fielder to a contract of that size would erase the one benefit of losing out on Pujols: avoiding his potential albatross of a contract. Better the Cardinals stick with Beltran or Rollins.

The Cardinals needed a mad dash to sneak into the postseason on the final day of the 2011 regular season, but according to third-order wins, the difference between the Cardinals and division champion Brewers was just four wins, a difference which could disappear if Fielder signs with a new team and the Cardinals ink Beltran or Rollins (or Fielder for that matter), Meanwhile the Braves team that by all rights should have won the wild card instead of St. Louis was worth shy of 84 third-order wins.

Losing Pujols might had devastated Cardinals fans emotionally, but it is not all that large a blow to the defending World Series champion's status as contenders for the coming season. They should be right in the thick of things again. Meanwhile, they just got to enjoy one of the greatest 11-year runs of all-around dominance in the game's history, one that made the seven-year, $100 million extension the Cardinals gave Pujols in 2004 look like a bargain and netted three pennants and two World Series wins capped by the greatest single-game postseason performance (his three-homer output in Game 5), and one of the greatest World Series conclusions, in major league history. Given the talent on hand and the options available to them the rest of this offseason, don't be surprised to see the Cardinals make a run at retaining their title.

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