[I picked up my bag, I went looking for a place to hide; When I saw Carmen and the Devil walking side by side...]
Last year, by Albert's standards, was a down year for the Cards' perennial MVP candidate. It's true that his numbers were better than just about everyone else's on the planet but they didn't quite meet to his standards. Consider the following:
- Albert's OPS of .997 was the 2nd lowest of his career and his lowest since 2002
- his .336 EQA was his lowest since 2002, 3rd lowest of his career
- his VORP of 72.1 was the 2nd lowest of his career and his lowest since 2002
- his isolated power of .241 was the lowest of his career
- his RC/27 was the 2nd lowest of his career
- his 27 GIDP was the highest of his career
- his PA's were the 2nd lowest of his career
- he hit the fewest homers, had the fewest RBI and runs scored of his career
We also know that, despite the fact that he did play in 158 games, he played much of the season injured. Additionally, many of us noticed and commented throughout the year that Albert just didn't seem the same at the plate. He seemed at times, contradictorily, overly patient and impatient. He had the most walks of his career yet seemed often to be pulling off the ball, trying to do too much or hit it too hard and hitting weak choppers or grounders to third. That stuff is simply anecdotal yet we cannot ignore the correlation between what we observed over the course of the year and the bulleted list above. There's no way that we were simply imagining his impatience or overstating its significance given the numbers above.
I must admit wondering whether we've seen the last of Albert as we've known him. Don't get me wrong - he's still one of the best hitters in the game but it's crossed my mind that we may not see him return to the level he exhibited from 2003-2006. Those 4 years in particular are almost unmatched in baseball history. It's still stunning to me that he has just 1 MVP trophy.
On the other hand, he is just 28 years old. He's still a little young to be past his prime and, even if he is, he's still a great hitter. And last year, one in which he was injured and got next to no help in the Cardinals lineup, there was still a pretty good case to be made that he was deserving of the NL MVP.
Every projection available has Albert improving on last year's performance in 2008. Hopefully, they're right. It may, of course, depend on his health but it's important to understand the context of last year's performance when projecting 08's.
Last year he got nearly no help in the Cards' lineup. Many of us believed him to be pressing --- trying to do too much. Perhaps some of that was caused by Carpenter's injury and the pressure of trying to repeat as World Champions but the fact that the rest of the lineup went to hell last year (Do not pass GO; Do not collect $200!) didn't help either. The table below reflects the performance of the 2 hitters immediately in front of him in the lineup and that of the 2 hitters immediately following him. The first OPS is that of that spot in the lineup and the next column is the rank in the NL. "Most PA's" is the Cardinal who got the most PA's in that spot in the lineup and his OPS IN THAT LINEUP SPOT. (Warning - be prepared to make a quick run to the bathroom!)
The 2 hole in the lineup was outstanding. Duncan got the most PA's there but Ankiel and even Taguchi were sensational out of the 2 hole. Aside from that, however, the numbers are downright odious! Those aren't misprints -- dead last in the NL out of BOTH the #4 spot and the #5 spot in the order and 2nd to last out of the leadoff spot. A .706 OPS out of your cleanup hitter and an Eckstein-like .674 out of the 5 spot?! No wonder Albert was pressing! If he doesn't get any more help that that, it's going to be another (relatively) rough year for Big Al.
Most of us aren't exactly expecting big things from the team this year. Nonetheless, it's a very important year in several regards. This team has to show some fundamental improvement from some of its players if the team is to compete in 2009, 2010 and beyond. Rasmus will be a rookie in '08, whether he begins the year w/ the team or not but he will be one of the main cogs in the lineup in years to come. Who'll be there along with Pujols and Rasmus?
Albert's contract calls him to be with the team, at a bargain basement (for his production) price of $16 million through 2010. The club also holds a $16 million option on the 2011 season. However, Albert turned 28 about 6 weeks ago. By the time Albert enters free agency, he'll be approaching 32. One would expect that, though he'll still be an outstanding player at 32, he probably will have passed his prime.
If the Cardinals are going to be competing for division titles in 2009, 2010 and 2011, Albert's going to have to get some help from the lineup. If anyone is counting on Rasmus to do it all himself, they need to be seen by a team of psychiatrists. There's no bigger Colby Rasmus fan than me but he will only be able to hit once out of every 9 PA's. The team is going to need more.
This is so important b/c Albert will never re-sign with the Cardinals once his contract expires if the team has been unable to be competitive in the next few years. Therefore, his greatest trade value will likely be with a couple years left under the team's control - after the 2009 season. The Cards really have 2-3 years, at most, to build a solid team around Pujols. It's reasonable to question whether we'd want to re-sign Pujols in 2011 - when he's 32 and likely to get some sort of 7-8 year, $200 - 250 M contract but we'd like to have that option rather than have Albert demand a trade 2 years earlier b/c the team wins 75 games per year.
One thing to follow this year is the development of David Freese and Allen Craig in the minors. If one or both of them can develop into the kind of hitter who can be an average to slightly above-average 3B, that could provide a lot of help, both offensively and payroll-wise to the club. Getting some solid production out of a 3B earning the minimum will allow Mozeliak to build the lineup w/ another star or two through trade or free agency to help out Pujols and Rasmus.
Most importantly, however, this is a very big year for 3 of the Cardinals' outfielders. Chris Duncan has to prove that he can be effective for a full year. He's shown flashes of becoming a great offensive player. He walks a lot and has power to spare but has just over 650 AB's the last 2 years combined. Can he put together a solid offensive season with 550+ AB's? If he's going to develop into an everyday player, he needs to do it.
Rick Ankiel emerged with an explosion last year and no one was more captivated than I. Still, he's older than Pujols; he'll turn 29 in July and already has more than 4 years of service time in the big leagues. That's right - though he has just 172 career AB's as an OF, he'll be a free agent after the 2009 season. It may be unfair to expect him, considering his relative inexperience as a position player, to solidify his status as a major leaguer but that's the situation he's in. It's a big season for him to prove that he can do what he did last year more consistently. If he can put up 500+ PA's of solid baseball, we may have a commodity with which to work. But the team can't wait forever for him.
Finally, Ryan Ludwick turns 30 this July. He, too, has shown flashes of being a solid major league contributor. Like Ankiel, though, he's not getting any younger. Do we need him to become an All-Star? Certainly not, but if he can get 400+ PA's and give the team some power and solid defense from the right-hand batter's box, it will go a long way toward making the team competitive in the next 2-3 years.
It's important to understand that I'm not saying that these 3 will be the cornerstones of the offense beyond 2010. But, the team's performance over the next 3 years will be, to some degree, dependent on their performance over those 3 years. If they perform well, Albert will also and, more importantly, so will the team. In order for the team to be in the position of being able to consider whether or not to re-sign Pujols after 2011, they're going to have to perform well in the next couple of years. Adam Kennedy's not going to be a difference maker. Neither are Cesar Izturis or Skip Schumaker. Moreover, we don't even need ALL of the 3 players I mentioned to become solid everyday contributors. But if two of them can, it gives the team options for the 2009 and 2010 seasons and gives Pujols a reason to consider staying.
If he demands a trade before the 2010 season b/c the team has been horrible in 2008 and 2009, the team will have to seriously consider granting it in order to get maximum value in return. Right now, the Cards can't get from another team what Pujols is worth but that may not be true in 2 years and this may be an option the team has to consider if the next 2 years are as bad as they might be.
[Take a load off Fannie. Take a load for free. Take a load off Fannie, and (and) (and) you put the load right on me.]