For Cardinals fans it is a long season, as the aphorism goes, but it is also a long offseason. Enter article one seeking to place Albert Pujols in greener pastures through the awesome journalistic power of stacked hypothetical situations, courtesy Ken Rosenthal, who would be better served continuing to break news if this is his idea of making sense of it:
The most rational course for the Cardinals would be to attribute their shocking elimination to the randomness of a best-of-five series, and try again next season.
If only it were that simple.
The Cardinals are at a crossroads. They cannot bring back the same club and count on better postseason luck in 2010. Too much in their world is fluid.
Left fielder Matt Holliday, third baseman Mark DeRosa and right-hander Joel Pineiro are among their potential free agents.
What he describes is not sole provence of this Cardinals team—it is the dilemma of, if I had to guess, half of the teams that makes the playoffs in any given year. Teams that succeed are filled with uncertain parts, players having career years and then either regressing or asking for contracts commensurate with their new and uncertain talents. Good teams are rarely both good and solid, and even those squads have trouble remaining on top of their games.
Rosenthal's main problem is his appeal to sheer numbers in constructing his argument. Three free agents? Why, that's a lot! In fact Mark DeRosa's subpar half-season with the Cardinals brought their composite third baseman's year-to-date numbers all the way to .229/.292/.369, with a defensive non-value of negative five runs. The Cardinals are losing, to free agency, a set of third basemen who managed to nearly approximate replacement level. That one of them is a name player who should have done better than he did is irrelevant to the team in 2010, especially as it relates to the one in 2009.
Do the Cardinals have an internal option to fill Mark DeRosa's spot when he departs? They do categorically—the idea of replacement level, which may as well have been called the Joe Thurston Line, demands it. Even without taking into account the presence of one David Freese, cheap, superior on offense and defense, unlikely to get into a second consecutive off-season car accident, Mark DeRosa's departure is no skin off the Cardinals' proverbial nose. It would be nice if it was, considering the price they paid, but it isn't.
Teams that struggle in the course of attributing their elimination to randomness and trying again aren't the ones who have big holes to fill in the offseason—they're the ones whose value was divvied up a mile wide and an inch deep, the easier for it to slip just-perceptibly as no one position cries out for an upgrade. The Cardinals stand to gain a win or two by not playing last year's version of Mark DeRosa; that they can do it without signing next year's version of Mark DeRosa is a bonus.
Joel Pineiro and Matt Holliday are more valid concerns; Pineiro was lightning in a bottle, and the Cardinals would be ill-served to try to recreate things by resigning the bottle. But the flukishness of his performance doesn't change the value of it, and the Cardinals find themselves in the welcome but still difficult position of replacing 200 great innings they didn't know they had.
Whatever you think of Jaime Garcia, this probably can't be replaced from within; to approximate Pineiro's value the Cardinals will have to hope they can trade 200 innings of Joel Pineiro and 200 innings of Kyle Lohse and Todd Wellemeyer for 400 innings that are coherently average. It's possible, but it'll be tough; the rotation is one place where the Cardinals will be hard-pressed to improve on 2009.
Matt Holliday is another case of the seasonal whole being less than the last part the Cardinals plugged in; unlike DeRosa he was well above replacement level once he arrived—2.8 wins, above average for an entire season, according to Fangraphs—but he was still relegating two replacement level players to the bench and Pawtucket, respectively.
Rosenthal is right in suggesting that the team has an important offseason ahead, but he's caught up in his own idea of its severity and not quite pegging the real reason it will be so difficult to get the same value out of the same players in 2010. The important thing isn't just the players who won't be around next year—it's that the Cardinals got 400 Cy Young caliber innings out of one pitcher whose injury problems are legendary and another who had never pitched that well before in addition to the ones that will be leaving with the ghost of Christy Mathewson. This is not a team in crisis; it's a team that missed a good opportunity but has the potential, with the emergence of its remaining younger players, for more of them.
That overreaction leads to, and invalidates, the most terrifying part of his article:
Even if both sides are well-intentioned, the odds of the Cardinals keeping Pujols beyond 2011 probably are not good.
Let's say Pujols views Alex Rodriguez's 10-year, $275 million contract as his benchmark, even though it was a free-agent deal signed in a better economy.
Let's say the Cardinals view an eight-year, $160 million deal as more realistic, even though Pujols would start his next deal at the same age that Rodriguez did, 32.
If you were Pujols, how much of a discount would you give?
If you were the Cardinals, would you really be so loath to offer Pujols a contract that just barely tops the one the Cubs are currently paying Alfonso Soriano? If they are, to be honest, they don't deserve Pujols; but all the mechanics to which Rosenthal is gesturing start with the Cardinals being in dire straits from here on out. They are not.
Finally, on an unrelated note, a sportswriter Pet Peeve:
Right-hander Chris Carpenter looked like he had a tired arm in Game 1, according to one rival GM.
I don't doubt the rival GM's honesty or his motives, but this is not Wikipedia; you're allowed to do some original research as a sportswriter. The game was on TV; the pitchf/x numbers are widely available. Did it look to you like he had a tired arm, Ken Rosenthal? You can tell us.