So "crap" wasn't the actual word that came from my mouth when I saw Albert Pujols grab at his side in the second inning Saturday, but you get the idea. Most members of Cardinals Nation haven't even dared speak the possibility of losing Pujols for an extended period of time (although more than a few Cubs' fans, including our own Pete Khazen have mentioned it after their own Derrek Lee woes) for fear that it might become true. Well, for the first time in his Cardinal career, Albert Pujols has hit the DL and fans, pundits and the team are left to ask "what now?"
Here's my breakdown of what could work, what would be passable and what could go horribly, horribly wrong.
Tony La Russa:
His gamble that Jim Edmonds playing
first won't make things worse pays off.
Nowhere in any medical opinion does it say that for an abdominal strain that "only playing first" is the best treatment. The injury is exacerbated and now instead of having two players rehabbing, you have Pujols rehabbing and Edmonds out for the year and a huge power hole in the lineup until Pujols returns and a diminished team even afterwards.
Jocketty and the ownership:
Doesn't panic, but realizes that
the four-headed outfield monster of Luna, Taguchi, Rodriguez and Bigbie lacks the consistency and power
at the plate and the all-around defensive ability of an everyday starter. Picks up a good power hitting outfielder
that allows both
Call up Chris Duncan fills in nicely, Scott Spiezio stays away from John Rodriguez's sushi and Jim Edmonds possibly does his share at first base, too. The ultra-platoon situation in left field works out and Juan Encarnacion steps up to justify the faith the organization put in him when they signed him. Jocketty still looks like a genius for not spending money and getting by.
The bench players show why they're
Cardinals fans have the greatest memories in sports for players — if Encarnacion steps up now, all will be forgiven from the first part of the season. And even if he falls off after Pujols returns, he will always be thought of as a hero — the "Bo Hart Effect", as I like to call it.
.244/.423/.274 (avg/slg/obp) Nothing to get too excited about, but better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, I guess.
Remember the first part of April? That happens again.
Carpenter comes back and is as good
as ever. The minor aches and pains
of the other pitchers work out.
Mark Mulder gets his stuff back together. Marquis and Suppan get into their usual
second-half grooves and carve up opposing lineups and Ponson continues to make
the most of his comeback. If there
are some bumps, Anthony Reyes comes back up from
Things continue the way they are now. Management trades either Reyes or Wainwright for a very good outfielder. The pitching staff keeps the team in control of the division until the bats can come back. Isringhausen limits himself to a walk every other game.
Management trades Wainwright and/or
Reyes for Barry Bonds, who is the promptly banned for life from baseball by the
Commissioner's office for shooting a man in
If the team can maintain the pace without Pujols that they had with him, it would be an incredible achievement — both because Pujols is an amazing player and because the Cardinals have been playing (record-wise) so well. I still have concerns about the Cardinals' record in the Central Division, but even so, if they can match their current pace, there's no question that the Cardinals as a team are the real deal.
I think this is the situation most people expect. The Cards will miss the pop and intimidation that Pujols brings to the lineup but they still end up an above .500 team in the meantime. While they're not as likely to blow the socks off their opponents, they'll stay competitive in the Central and will in good position once Pujols returns.
Pujols takes longer to come back than originally expected; other injuries take their toll on both the position players and the pitching staff. Take a quick look at the Cubs to see how quickly the wheels can fall off. While the Cards are in a more enviable position with a current three-game lead over the second place team in the Central and a seven-and-a-half game lead over the third place team, leads can go quickly. Recent Cardinals teams don't have a big reputation for choking off — the 2003 Cards' second-half swoon being the only example with the post-2000 teams — so it's hard to imagine a complete implosion of the team, but stranger things have happened. In short, it's not over yet, but a few strategic moves could definitely make life a little easier over the next month and beyond.
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