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Imagining the Albert Pujols era without Albert Pujols

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The Cardinals are 0-3 so here's some stuff about Albert Pujols to distract and entertain us.

Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

The Cardinals are off to their worst start since 2007 so let's discuss something more uplifting like Albert Pujols. Pujols is hitless in seven plate appearances so far in this young season. That's excused when you've had to face Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester right out of the gate, however, it's no secret that he hasn't been the same player since heading west. Nor is that really a surprise when you consider his age and modest decline in production his last few years as a Cardinal. And "modest" probably isn't even the right word. In 2010, Pujols's second to last year with the Cardinals, he hit .312/.414/.596 with a 164 wRC+. At that time it was his second worst season by fWAR.

The Cardinals were lucky to not only get Pujols's prime but a historic prime at that. In 7,433 plate appearances wearing the birds on the bat, he hit .328/.420/.617 with a wRC+ of 167 and was worth 81.4 fWAR. If you go to the Cardinals' Baseball-Reference page and look at the franchise leaders by bWAr, Pujols is the fourth guy staring back at you behind shoo-in Hall-of-Famers Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, and Bob Gibson and comfortably ahead of another one in Ozzie Smith.

By contrast, here are his numbers in Anaheim: 2,476 plate appearances; .265/.325/.477; 122 wRC+; and 8.9 fWAR.

On Episode 851 ("The Squid is Fried") of the great Baseball Prospectus podcast Effectively Wild, hosts Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh answered a listener's email question as to whether the Cardinals' organization since 2000 is overrated by reputation as a result of lucking into Albert Pujols with a pick in the 13th round of the 1999 draft. This is a very abbreviated summary but Miller more or less answered the question in the affirmative and was comfortable subtracting Pujols' WAR totals from the Cardinals' win-loss record from 2001-2011 to point out that the Cardinals would have been around a .500 team. Lindbergh was hesitant to simplify it to that degree but it was a very interesting discussion and I would encourage everyone to give it a listen if you haven't already.

This, luckily, is only a thought exercise and we don't have to worry about a reality in which we didn't get to enjoy Pujols's prime, but what might life had looked like without him in St. Louis?

A few mental gymnastics are required before going any further. First, for the sake of simplicity, I'm going to follow Miller's lead and assume that the Cardinals would have only been able to employ replacement level players to fill Pujols's void (even though I don't think that would be the case). So there's no signing of Carlos Delgado, trade for Todd Helton, etc. And second, even though I'm subtracting wins from the Cardinals I'm not adding these wins to any other team. For example, in 2009 the Cardinals won 91 games. Pujols was worth approximately 8.4 fWAR that year which, once subtracted, lowers the Cardinals' win total to around 83 and tied for the Cubs for first in the division. I'm not awarding the Cubs any of those subtracted wins even though it's logical that's where a win or two could have gone. (To ensure nice, crisp round numbers I'm rounding up the fWAR numbers at five because that's what I was taught in elementary school, i.e., 8.4 = 8 wins; 8.5 = 9 wins.)

W-L

Pujols fWAR

Adjusted W-L

2001

93-69

7.2

86-76

2002

97-65

5.4

92-70

2003

85-77

9.5

75-87

2004

105-57

7.8

97-65

2005

100-62

7.7

92-70

2006

83-78

8.1

76-86

2007

78-84

7.7

70-92

2008

86-76

8.7

77-85

2009

91-71

8.4

83-79

2010

86-76

6.8

79-83

2011

90-70

4.0

86-76

Total

994-787

81.4

913-869

Miller was close to being right. With Pujols the Cardinals had a .558 winning percentage, which was third best in baseball behind the Yankees and Red Sox. Take him away and they are near .514.  This would have been 11th in baseball during that span, sandwiched between the White Sox (.521) and the Astros (.501).

With these adjustments, the only years the Cardinals are firmly entrenched in the postseason are 2004 and 2005 when they still would have finished with the best record in the National League. (In 2005, the Braves had the second best record in the NL with just 90 wins.) Still, without Pujols so many things would have been different. Brad Lidge might never have one day stopped ceasing to exist. Adam Wainwright's strikeout of Carlos Beltran probably doesn't happen. We likely never experience 2011 - the Cardinals would have finished three games behind the Braves for the wild card. David Freese isn't a household name. And the Phillies would have probably gone to their third World Series in four years and gone down as one of the more dominant teams in recent memory.

2007 would have been a tough year - 70 wins - which would have been the Cardinals' lowest total since 1990, but still two games better than the 68-win Pirates, and their streak of only one last place finish since 1918 (1990, again) would still be intact. And that's important because that's one of my favorite (albeit possibly meaningless) stats that I like to distract myself with when my preferred baseball team is 0-3.

Simply put, if Albert Pujols wasn't still available in the 13th round of the 1999 draft there's a very good chance the Cardinals are still stuck on nine World Series titles and that their pristine post-millennium run doesn't happen. He was a once in a generation talent who could turn a normally pedestrian team into a juggernaut. The 2006 version of Pujols would have complimented the 2016 Cardinals and their 37:2 strikeout to home run ratio quite nicely. And while I do find it doubtful that circumstances without Pujols would have been as dire as the numbers presented above, it sure was nice having him around all those years.