After the 2000 season, the Seattle Mariners let Alex Rodriguez, a 24-year-old shortstop coming off a season in which he hit .316/.420/.606, with 41 home runs, 132 RBI, and outstanding defense, walk in free agency. In 2001, the Mariners won 116 games, and Rodriguez suddenly became both the best player in baseball and weirdly underrated. Five years later he was more famous for being a centaur than being on pace to break the all-time home run record.
If Albert Pujols were to leave even before the 2011 season, those Mariners provide an excellent plan of action for how to perpetuate the continued underrating of superstar-caliber players, and it's clear now that the Cardinals are already following it. In 2012—2011 in this thought exercise—the Cardinals will win 116 games and film a hilarious commercial about the 1906 Cubs, while Albert Pujols is harangued in the New York press for—
To be honest, I don't know what Albert Pujols would be dinged for. Maybe he cares too much. But they'll find something.
1. Grab a replacement-level second baseman
Check! In replacing Alex Rodriguez the Mariners chose to go with kind-of-prospect Carlos Guillen and aging, occasionally useful second baseman Bret Boone up the middle. Boone proceeded to hit 37 home runs and, by bWAR, outplay Rodriguez all by himself.
The Cardinals' Ryan Theriot has actually been a little better to date than Boone—he's got 4.9 career WAR, to Boone's 3.1. Projecting from that, then, we can expect Theriot to have a 14.7 WAR season in 2011, which is better than Albert Pujols has ever managed, anyway.
2. Get a guy people have doubts about to play an MVP-caliber right field
Ichiro was the first Japanese position player to have a major impact in America, which means the Mariners were able to get a guy who had a 1005 OPS the year before at a steep discount. Lance Berkman is the first right fielder to ever attempt to play entirely without the use of his knees, which is why the Cardinals were able to get a guy who had a .907 OPS in 2009 at a steep discount.
"Doubts" are one area in which a team that doesn't resign a homegrown superstar is always upgrading. Albert Pujols-related doubts are terrifying but not especially risky—what if he really is just a 7 WAR player now? What if he's no longer Lou Gehrig? Lance Berkman gives you some real doubts, like, what if his legs don't work? What if he's forgotten how to wear an outfielder's glove? What if nobody's told him he has to play the outfield yet?
If there's one thing Sports Illustrated's World Series issues and that commercial with Tim Tebow exercising in an abandoned warehouse have taught me, it's that no team has ever succeeded without overcoming a bunch of legitimate doubts. When the Cardinals let go of Albert Pujols, they'll find themselves with plenty of them.
3. Allow your popular catcher to have a bounceback season
The Mariners' offensive renaissance between 2000 and 2001 was helped along by Dan Wilson, solid-hitting catcher and lead singer of Semisonic, having a terrible year in 2000. In 2001 he bounced all the way back, putting up his best season since 1997.
Yadier Molina's offensive deterioration in 2010 was ugly at the time, but all he has to do now is repeat his 2009 season to put a dent in the difference between Albert Pujols and Allerk Craigilton. This kind of planning ahead is what makes Tony La Russa one of the great managers in the history of baseball.
4. Also, all of your pitchers should have career years
Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer combined for 1.4 WAR in 2000 and 7.0 WAR in 2001. Moyer won 20 games. Gil Meche, their top young prospect, missed the entire season and it didn't matter; Joel Pineiro was outstanding in his extended debut. Arthur Rhodes was totally invincible. Moyer was so helped by Alex Rodriguez's banishment that he's successfully pitched for 10 years since finishing his age-37 season with an ERA of 5.49.
All of this portends good things for Kyle Lohse, whose 25 wins should get him a win or two over replacement level for his $40 million contract to date. Ryan Franklin will save 50 games and continue to pitch until he's 49.
So take it from this look at national joke Alex Rodriguez—it doesn't take much to compensate for losing the best player in baseball, so long as Ryan Theriot hits .350, Lance Berkman remains ambulatory, and every one of the Cardinals' pitchers improves on his 2010 season.