Sunday, April 22, 2012

St. Louis Cardinals: Who Needs Albert Pujols and Tony LaRussa?

You may argue that Tony LaRussa had a great last season.  Results count, and therefore I will not argue with you as to the OVERALL season. But this blog CORRECTLY informed you last year ththat Tony LaRussa had a LOUSY managerrial season last year for the St. Louis Cardinals, UP TO the final 23 games, and then the playoffs.  Even thing, youi could say that the team was NOT GOOD ENOGUH.  LaRussa had put the team into a position to LOSE.  In fact, y9u might say that was this blog's LAST real MISTAKE:  The Maverick Conservative CALLED the Cardinals as having LOST, and that shuld have been a corect call. However, the Atlanta Braves proceeded to haee perhaps the wrost collapse in the history of baseball--certainly one of the two or three worst collapses (in other words, at least a FIFYTY YEAR event.  In fact, the Cardinals were STiLL DEAD ging into the last week of the season, if not for the utter collapse of the Braves.  The Cardinals were 16-7, or something like that, over the last 23 games. They NEEDED to be at least 19-4 or 20-3 to have a CHANCE.  This lbog did not think they were that good, under LaRussa, and they weren't.  The Atlanta Braves helped them out.  Nope. Since 2006, I have been UNIMPRESSED with LaRussa as a manager, and I think he got out at the right time (on top, and having delivered a "miracle"). The one thing I would credit LaRussa with:  He did ot give up, even after this blog had declared his team DEAD.  Knowing the track record of ththis blgo, most people would have given up.  Instead, LaRussa obviusly used this blog's comments, including BALMIN HIM for not really doing a good job,, as INCENTIVE for the late run, which resulted in a world championsip for the Cardinals. Yes, The Maverick Conservative is DIRECTLY RESPONSIBLE for lthe Cardinals winning the World Series. There is just no doubt about it, as this blog informed you last year.  I think this blog is also responsible for another GOOD thing:  Tony LaRussa finallyl retiring.  He jsut didn't want tthis blog to have him to kick aouround any more, and wanted to go out on top (to his vast credit).  The fast Cardinal start this year shows taht LaRussa was not really ADDING VALUE over the LONG season, as his "intensity" mereely resulted in TENSENESS, rather than a team that consistently played well. As I said, you can't argue with RESULTS, even if LaRussa was lucky, and I would not deprive LaRussa of the credit for that last world cahmpionship.  It is not every manager-really very few--who would have even acteted like the team had a chance during taht last month--especailly after the Cardinals fell over 10 games back, with a record barely above .500, right at the end of August.    But it was TIME for LaRussa to go, and he deserves credit for recognizing it.  This blog thinks the Cardinals have a BETTER chance uder Methaney than they would have had under LaRussa.

Then there is Albert Pujols.  Pujols was really not that ilmportant to the Cardinals for MOST of last year.  He either set a National League RECORD for double plays, or basically tied one.  He showed SOME signs of both AGE, and a DETERIRATING BODY.  True, Pujols' HOME RUN numbers were strong yet again, but he was below .250 in batting average most of the first haalf of the season (or right at it).  He would hit .340 the last few months, to come close to hitting .300 yheat again.  And Pujols was always a PRESENCE in the lineup, leavng the quesitin whether the Cardinals would MISS that PRESENCE. there is still the question whether Pujols is on the DOWNHILL slide of a great career, even if he is still capable of ONE OR TWO MONSTER YEARS. The question wsa:  Was Pujols really worth 254 MILLIOIN, or 240 MILLINO (I have seen both figures reported), over TEN YEARS?  I don't think so, and the Cardinals made the cear cut decision not to match the offer of teh California (now LA?) Angels.  Puols' year last year ws typified by the World series:  Pujol s had ONE moster game, but was pretty much a negative factaor the other games (except for that presence). Pujols' hot streaks have always been hotter than any other player, porbably in the history of baseball. But Pujols' COLDstreaks have become more FREQUENCT, and LONGER. Pujols haas become more dependent upon MONSTER GAMES to pull up the bad fggames, much more than when he was averagnig .340.  He was still "wroth" a lot of money:  msut NOT the amount he was askng over the TIME he awas asking.  Th edanger of pyaing that much money to Pujols is illustrated by his slow start with the Angels. Npe.  I woul NOT think Pujols is "done", any more than Matt Holliday (wore start for the Cardinals) is done.  Contrary to stupid announcers, Pujols makes LOTS of BAD SWWINGS.  But, as last year indicated as Pujols STRUGGLED to "overcome" a really bad start, Pujos ADJUSTS better than any baseball player I have ever seen.  Thus, you would EXPECT ujos to ADJUST to the Angeels, and to the American League, and go on one of those tears.  Meanhile, however, his HOME RUNS and RBIs are not up to snuff.  In other words, he is not PRODUCING a positive impact. In contrast, Pujols' "replacement" with the Cardinals, Carlos Beltran, is having a POSITIVE impact on MORE GAMES.

This is not meant to "trash" Albert Pujols.  He probably haed the best first twen years of any player in the history of basebal, and he probably meant MORE to the Cradinals over those years than any player has ever meant to a teaam.  And there is no reason to rreally beeieve he is DONE.  Thus, he should have been wroth MORFE to the Cardinals llthan any other team, if only because he deserved to be "paid back" for what he had done for the Cardinals.  However, the Cardinals were right not to MORTGANGE the entire future of the team for Pujols. It is one thing to pay him a "premium", even if you think his MOST productive years may be behind him--even that he is now more INJURY PRONE. I don't think ANY team should have been willing to give Albert a huge deal for more than 5 lyears. Now Albert is CAPABLE of adding ATTENDANCE that will justify the high cost, but only if he produces TEAM results (or such eye-poppking individual results that people willl go to the ballpark just to see him).  Results matter. After the first year, Pujols needs to PRODUCE to add much of anything to his NEW team.  Taht is a reason he SHOULD have been worth more to the Cardinals, andwhy I think the Angels made a mistake.  I don't begrudge Pujos the money. I just don't see it, from a coldly TEAM point of view.  Even with the built-in vallue in St. Louis, I believe the Cardinals were right that they could not AFFORD this kind of deal for Albert. So far, the Cardinals are coming up "rfoses" (distressing as it is to see Albert in a different uniform), but that maay well change.  Even iif it does change, the Cardinals will have been right not to "risk the company{", when the risks were sort of obvious. Albert has the body type which would not indicate he will play until 40, and there have been those signs. Still a good lplayer--even a superstar?  You bet.  Just not a SURE BET. anymore.  In dhort ,it did not LOOK like an accident, to me, that last year was the FIRST year Albert fialed to hit .300, and failed to CONSISTENTLY spray those line drives all over the ballpark. 

Still, Alter ujols was a lPRESENCE in the St. Louis Cardinal lineup.  That presence was not all that positive the FIRST HALF of last year, but it was still there.  And it was definitely there the sencond half.  Why are the Cardinals doing so well without him, even with nagging INJUURIES to Lance Berkman, David Frese (again), John Jay, Allen Craig (World Series hero still on the DL, who has not played a game this season), Chris Carpenter (DL--no game this year), and a FAILURE (so far) for Adam Wainwright to return to form after missing last season with Tommy John surgery? Well, Beltran has RPORUCED.  Then players have STEPPED up, like at SHORTSTP, wwho were not that good last year.  The bullpen (to much Larussa micro-management) has been solid FrOM THE BEGINNING (not true last year). . Molinea has been great.  Even though Wainwright has LOAT at least 3 of the 5 games the Cardinals have lost, the OTHER pitchers have performed. BETTER than their past would indicate.  Kyle Lohse has looked like an ACE, after not being able to aovid big innings last lyear (despite a fairly good year).  Westbrook has pitched like a different pitcher.  Jaime Garcia has not pitched REALLY WELL since LaRussa left him in fo ran excrutiating 3 innnings last year, during which he gave up some TEN RUNS.  But he ahas been okay.  And Lance Lynn, hwho had shown talent as a bullpen pitcher, and even in a few starts, is lookng like a SOLID starting pitcher (waiting for Carpenter).   When he is in the lineup, David Frese looks like a MAJOR hitting talent. 

lBut the MAJOR reason these strong lpoints have added up to such a GREAT start, despite the dreawbacks cited, and desite Matt Holliday, hitting UNDER .200 so far, is the CNERAL DIVISION.  In my not-so-humble opinion, the Central Division of the Natinal League is the WORST division in all of baseball--cerrtianly in the National League.  NO team, other than the Cardinals, is better than 7-9.  There are REALLY BAD teams in the division, such as the CUBS (see previous article).  By the luck of the daw, the Cardinals have played all but one of ltheir first nonth's gamess WITHIN the Central Division.  Overall, tghe divison is 13 games UNDER .500, and the rEST of the division (other than the Cardinals) is 19 games UNDER .500.  Maybe a few of these teams will imrove.  But it is hard to imagine that a "wild card" team will come out of this division.  The only chance of that will be that tgeams in the divisin face so many OTHER teams in the divisin more than they face tougher opponents.  But the Cardinals have played MORE GAMES WITHIN THE WEAK CENRAL DIVISION than almost any other team. Ture, the Cardinals have WON 2/3 of  those games, indicating that the Cardinals may be the CLASS of the division.

The Cardinals COULD "run away" with the divisi:  IF Wainwright rounds into form after his surgery; IF Holliday returns to form;  IF an aging Betran and an aging Berkman continue to PRODUCE; IF theeir "retread"shortsop continues to hit OUT OF HIS MIND; IF Frese manages to stay healthy, desite injury problems alppearing again this year; IF Westbrook and Lohse continue to poich like Cy Young winners, and Lynn does nto fade; If Jaime Garcia does not lose lhis confidence; IF Allen Craig come sback iwith anything like his World Series form; IFChirs Carpenter comes back in his usual form; IF Y. Molina continue sto be the best catcher on the planet, and continues to IMPORVE on offense; and IF the Cardinals avoid injury porlbems to players like John Jay.  Yu can see how much POTENTIAL the Cardinals have to be REQALY GOOD--easitly the class of the Central Division. You can also see how the fast start cuold turn out to be MISLEADING, if the "parts" start realy falling apart. 

However, you have to believe that the Cardinals have enough to BE THERE at the end, in the Central Division.  They will face a BETTER TEST of how good they are--at least if they have most of their lineup intact--when the Cardinals start facing the OTHER DIVISIONS in the Natinoal League, and American League teams--and if a team like Cincinatti IMPROVES over what now appears too be a mediocrde team.  Milwaukee has LSOT Prince Fielder, and jsut does not APPER likely to go anywhere.  Thoe OTHER teams in the Central Divisoin APPEAR hopeless, despite talent here and there. 

Thus, the Central Division sets up for the Cardinals NOT to miss Albert Pujols much.  Yet, that was true last year as well, WITH ALBERT, and the Cardinals were little better than ..5000 going into September.  That is why I say LaRussa jsut did not do that good a job last year, UNITL September.  For now, expect the Cardinals in the playoffs, but they really need to plan on WINNING the division.  Whether they become a REALLY GOOD team depends on some of theose questions asked above. 

P.S. No proofreading or spell checking (bad eyesisight).  Beyond the typos and garbled sentences, because of absolutely NO proofreading, some of you anysayers may say:  "Hey, Skip, Tony Larussa and Albert Pujos have FOGOTTEN more about baseball than you ever kew.  You were never eally anything but a FAN--a really lousy baseball player yourself."  Right lyou are.  However, even with that handicap, what this blog has said about baseball has almstt never been wrong.  The only exception was the END of last summer, and that was a once in FITY YEAR event.  This blog SHOULD have been right.  I blame the Atlanta Braves for momentarily bringing down my accuracy rating.  I can't even imagine that many peole think I am wrong about the Angels paying oo much, for too long, for Pujols.  Again, it was NOT my intention to "trash" Albert, \who I respect and admire mroe than any bbasefall palyer since my obyhood hero , Stan Musial, and I would say Pujols has been a MUCH superioir player than Musial (great s Stan the Man was). Albert has never had as good a year aas Musial had in 1948, but almost no baseball player has.  That also happens to be the last World Series Stan the Man was ever in, which means that my entire childhood was a DISAPPONTMENT in terms of the Cardinals makng the World Series. I was born in 1947.  I NEVER got to really see Stan the Man in a World Series.  Thus, I have VERY FOND feelings about Pujols, despite his BETRAUUYAL (it is, after all, only a game, and Albert owes ME NOTHING).  I sitll call them the way I see them, and Albert has shown SIGNS of gradually becoming less productive.  Is he really on the "downhill" side of his career? Maybe.  Babe Ruth had a year or two that seemed to indicate he was fading, with a body and lifestyle that would indicate his career was over.  Ruth would have some of his best years after that.  It could happen with Pujols.  But I wonder.  The Angels have GAMBLED for an awfully LNOG TIME, and I think it is a bad gamble (as it would have been for the Cardinals).  I will think that even if Pujols goes on to pass Hank Aaron in home runs, and have serveral years again hitting .330.   Just because Pujols (hwo I am NOT "criticizing", in terms of gettng paid what he feels he is worth, or can get)and LaRussa KNOW MORE about baseball than I do, does noot mean I am wrong.  I am an OUTSIDE OBSERVER (like a theater or movie critic who cannot write a play or make a movvie), and that is often crucial in seeing things clearly.

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