The injury to Derrek Lee, the recent resulting offensive struggles of the Chicago Cubs, and Albert Pujols' day off Wednesday against the Cincinnati Reds, have kicked that hamster in my head into overdrive. Just how would the St. Louis Cardinals fare if the baseball gods were to hurl a lightning bolt at their most valuable player and first baseman?
The Cubs are doing a valiant job in attempting to hold their own in a tough division even without Lee, but runs have been hard to come by. Surprise, surprise. They have benefited tremendously from the early season stellar performance of Greg Maddux (5-1, 2.35 ERA), rookie Sean Marshall (2-0, 3.45 ERA) and closer Ryan Dempster (7 saves, 1.29 ERA). Even the off-season acquisitions of Bobby Howry (2-0, 1.38 ERA) and Scott Eyre (0-0, 1.98 ERA) have proved brilliant strategic moves in boosting the bullpen and assuring those close games get into Dempster's hands. But Lee's absence has really been felt during a skid where the Cubs have dropped four of five games and scored just five total runs.
The combination of Juan Pierre and Ronny Cedeno atop the Cubs lineup, Weapons of Small Ball as I like to call them, has been spectacular at setting the table for the middle of the Cubs order. But setting the table isn't good enough if there isn't a hungry family ready to feast when the dinner bell is rung. Todd Walker, who has moved to Lee's number three spot in the lineup boasts the Cubs' top batting average (.342) and is hitting .438 with runners in scoring position. But pitchers are starting to pitch around him. Why? Because they know that something is up with Aramis Ramirez. Normally, this would seem ridiculous, but Ramirez is in an ugly funk, batting just .205 on the year, and a not-so-cleanup .167 with runners in scoring position. Yep, his production has been so ugly that he flipped his bat in disgust with himself when he popped out Wednesday night with Cedeno standing on second base and the Cubs down 4-1.
With the WSB and an occasional clutch hit here and there from the likes of Matt Murton, Jacque Jones, and Cardinal killer Michael Barrett the Cubs have squeaked out a few noticeable wins as they continue to fight the good fight. Still, you can't help but wonder how different things might be for the Cubs if Derrek Lee was the man coming to bat with Pierre and Cedeno repeatedly on-base. They could quite easily be sitting in that fortunate position the Reds find themselves, atop the National League.
So, what would the Cardinals be like without Albert Pujols?
Now, I'm by no means placing a hex on Pujols or wishing any ill fate. I really enjoy watching him play the game of baseball. I'm simply wondering how the Cardinals would deal if they were placed in a similar predicament as the Cubs.
Pujols was last year's National League Most Valuable Player and is clearly on-pace to be the 2006 MVP. But the 2005 Cardinals are NOT the 2006 Cardinals. Pujols is far more valuable to the club this season than he was last year. The outfield and the bullpen have changed the most since last season, and coincidentally, they are the two biggest weaknesses of the club; weaknesses so bad that only Albert Pujols, off to his best start of the season, could neutralize and even overshadow.
start with the outfield. Jim Edmonds is ailing, and though he didn't have
a huge 2005 season, his 2006 numbers are distant from those he put up in recent
years. Those 20 RBI might look alright, but that .202 average and 12 runs scored
aren't so hot. And though
(0-0, 0.77 ERA), and even Braden Looper (2-0, 1.46 ERA) have been bright pleasant surprises. But Ricardo Rincon, who is currently on the DL, just isn't as effective as Ray King. And Jason Isringhausen, well, he appears to be holding on by a string. It doesn't really matter how great a job Thompson, Wainwright, and Looper might do, if the task of getting those last three outs proves too daunting. Isringhausen has blown two saves already, is 0-2, and has looked shaky even more than he has in years past. Just think, as fans, you've got five more months of Izzy closing games out this season. I hope you've stocked up on your antacid medication.
With a weakened bullpen and a softer lineup in 2006, Pujols' presence is so critical to the success of the Cardinals that I believe the club would enter into an ugly tailspin without his bat and glove. Not even the great managing mind of Tony La Russa or the deal-making abilities of Walt Jocketty would save them. Even with Pujols, this club is just not dominating the competition like it has the past two seasons. If they were to lose him for any prolonged length of time, it would be devastating; more devastating than Lee's loss for the Cubs. Many critics predicted a similar tailspin for the Derrek Lee-less Cubs. Some even said it was time to start the "Wait ‘til next year " campaign. But because of their pitching and WSB, they have managed to keep their heads afloat and are still fighting the good fight.
How do you think the Cards would do without Pujols? Would they do better than the Cubs without Derrek Lee? Post your thoughts on the Birdhouse discussion board, or sound off to firstname.lastname@example.org.