To Pay or Not to Pay: St. Louis Cardinals Learn Why It's Hard to Lose a Superstar

By Paul Grossinger

If Albert Pujols were swinging his bat in the 3rd spot of the St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup last night, would he have led them back to the World Series?

Pujols’ hypothetical impact is impossible to know but it still makes you think: after a great season, the Cardinals finally felt the consequences of his departure. When they were down 7-0 and needed a big hit, the kind of hit Pujols delivered with mechanical efficiency for his whole St. Louis career, it was nowhere to be found.

All season long, the Cardinals made it their business to show everyone Pujols did not matter. Their lineup, led by no-name stars Matt Holliday, David Freese, and Allen Craig, made the playoffs and tromped to the NLCS, while Pujols’ star-studded Angels squad watched the playoffs from home. But, when it mattered, in Game 7 of the NLCS, the Cardinals found that Pujols’ absence left a gaping wound in their lineup.

Fear of a moment like this, a moment of desperation like the Cardinals faced last night, has driven many teams to overpay their superstars to stay. The New York Yankees feared Alex Rodriguez’ departure in 2007 so much that they paid him for 10 years and 275 million. Talent evaluators knew Rodriguez had five years of good production left, at best, and steroid questions already surrounded his early-career numbers but the Yankees brushed that aside. Their fear of missing A-Rod’s big bat in a critical moment drove them to pay him the insane contract they are just now beginning to regret.

The Cardinals, whose franchise lacks the Yankees’ absurd spending power, were not interested in a Rodriguez-like financial outlay. Confident in their undervalued stars and exceptional farm system, they let Pujols walk to Los Angeles.

To Pay or Not to Pay: St. Louis Cardinals Learn Why It's Hard to Lose a Superstar
September 30, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols (5) doubles in an RBI against the Texas Rangers in the first inning at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Photo Courtesy By Jim Cowsert-US PRESSWIRE.

New York won a World Series in 2009, buoyed through tight postseason races by Rodriguez’s best career playoff performance. They Yankees would never have won without him. Then, in 2011, the Yankees still had A-Rod but paid the price for their financial lassitude; their $30 million man was so bad they benched him when down 3-0 in the ALCS.

Would the Cardinals have won this year’s NLCS with Pujols in the fold? It’s an impossible question to answer, with many variables. St. Louis was up 3-2 on the San Francisco Giants and could have closed out the series before Game 7. But, in back-to-back shutout losses in Games 6 and 7, including one to fallen star Barry Zito, St. Louis could not buy the kind of hit that Pujols made look easy his whole career. Unlike the 2009 Yankees, who milked the last MVP-level performance out of Rodriguez to clinch the World Series title, the Cardinals could not milk the last out of Pujols and went down swinging.

What should future teams facing a gut wrenching decision over their best player make of these decisions? The Texas Rangers, who lost in this year’s ALDS after back-to-back World Series trips, may conclude they lack the firepower to let star Josh Hamilton walk in free agency. Eventually, when Miguel Cabrera reaches free agency, the Detroit Tigers will sign the check. But, depending on circumstance, there are no hard conclusions to draw.

As philosophers say, “all is perception.” But, after watching Game 7 of the NLCS last night, my perception was that the Cardinals sure could have used one more, big hit from Albert Pujols.

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