Albert Pujols and why other teams might want the Cardinals' underperforming first baseman

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 16: Albert Pujols #5 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits a home run in the eighth inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on June 16, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

After that home run off  future Cards Talk mainstay Tyler Clippard Albert Pujols is hitting .308/.420/.788 in the month of June. It's the first Albert Pujols Month of the year, and it pushes his seasonal OPS all the way to .844, which is 20th in the National League, behind Brett Wallace, Todd Helton, and other people who aren't as interesting to mention.

Even in June he's not the hottest hitter around. He's still behind Prince Fielder (.379/.559/1.025), Matt Kemp (.429/.541/.980), and Andrew McCutchen (.479/.552/.667, winner of the honorary Tip O'Neill award for the line that most closely resembles an outstanding season for a hitter of the 1880s.)

All these home runs aren't quite enough to stave off the Pujols-decline talk that's been built up over two ugly months of adequacy (though he's now on pace, once more, to hit 37 home runs and drive in 100), but they do help explain why he'll be a free-agency circus anyway: If Pujols finished the month with his OPS of 1.208 it would only be the fifth best month of his career. It would be the 22nd time he finished a month with an OPS over 1.100, which is usually enough to put you in the running for a player of the month award (he's won six.) 

What was strange about Pujols in 2011 was that he wasn't playing up to the consistently excellent level he usually did; what was strange about Pujols before that was just how high that level was. Until this year Pujols put up, month after month, the kind of lines that would top off a season for a regular star; if he begins to do it again people are going to forget the Pujols they saw in April and May in favor of the Pujols they saw almost constantly for 10 years. And that's why free agency is going to suck. 

With Mitchell Boggs and Fernando Salas both seeing heavy use on Thursday we're about to get the chance to see just how thin this bullpen is without Eduardo Sanchez. Jason Motte is the only fresh pitcher in the bullpen whose numbers aren't terrible; after that Tony La Russa can decide between home run rates of 2.5 and 3.2 per nine innings, or two K:BB ratios under one. Given those options I can understand why John Mozeliak is supposed to have been sniffing around J.C. Romero recently, even though Romero looks to me to have basically the exact same problems Trever Miller does. (I'd still rather try Raul Valdes, who has the same problems Brian Tallet does.)

Jess Todd hasn't exactly forced Mozeliak's hand in Memphis, but the Cardinals are now carrying four relievers whose poor play has caused La Russa to tiptoe around them in favor of the Young Pitchers. That's unsustainable, even for a manager who loves veterans and 13-man pitching staffs, and Todd is the only reliever left in the box with the chance to succeed in important innings.

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Speaking of bullpen problems, is anybody interested in a reclamation-project left-hander? He once struck out 239 batters in a season, and he's only 27! Also, he's allowed 29 earned runs in 15 innings with the Salt Lake Bees. I think the Scott Kazmir story is even sadder than the Mark Prior story, in its particulars. Kazmir began his career as a kind of perfect introduction to baseball for people whose desire for smarter-than-the-guys-in-the-room analysis was piqued by Moneyball, when in 2004 the Mets traded a guy who didn't look like a starter but had put up outstanding minor league numbers for a guy who did look like a starter, one who managed to lead the American League in walks allowed despite leaving at the trade deadline. 

Instant Moneyball gratification: Kazmir came up immediately as a 20-year-old and struck out 41 in 33 innings. Then over the next several years things just never fit together perfectly; Kazmir was always great, but he lost a gear as soon as the Rays got enough offense to win him games, and over his brief career with the Angels we watched as he abruptly lost the ability to pitch the way he once had in front of the cameras. There was no disappearance, like with Prior, and in Salt Lake the minor league fans who saw his 17.05 ERA caught an ugly chapter that Prior must have come to terms with by himself, in gyms and on practice fields.

Shoulder problems are vicious—they obliterate a pitcher's identity, and the long-lost Moneyball reader in me knows that intuitively. But even now I hope Kazmir catches on somewhere else. You'll be happy to know that the worried Scott Kazmir meets Dave Duncan connection has already been made on BTF.

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