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Would the Cardinals be worse off with Albert Pujols?

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Part II

St Louis Cardinals Victory Parade Photo by Ed Szczepanski/Getty Images

For Part I in this ridiculous hypothetical, check it out here.

2015

Without Wainwright and Wacha the Cardinals pitching depth heading into the year is not what it once was. That means the Cardinals are unlikely to pull off the trade that netted Jason Heyward. The rotation is now John Lackey, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, and Jaime Garcia with Tyler Lyons and Tim Cooney maybe getting more of a shot or maybe the Cardinals still have some veteran they signed before 2014. Assuming Miller pitches as well as he did with Atlanta (which is quite an assumption, just like that Pujols would do just as poorly in St. Louis as he did in Anaheim*), the Cardinals pitching staff is actually better with Pujols than without him.

*There is a pretty decent argument to be made the Albert Pujols play better in St. Louis than in Anaheim. There’s the familiarity part, of course, but there is also a designated hitter penalty that hurts your batting line, and it also probably makes a player like Pujols keep playing poorly instead of going on the disabled list or taking more days off. We don’t know that Pujols would have played better in St. Louis. He might have gotten hurt or played worse, but it is something worth considering.

Not having Heyward stings, and it is also a good time to remind everyone that they wouldn’t likely have Stephen Piscotty, either. He was taken with the 36th pick in 2012 as part of the compensation for Albert Pujols. Maybe they would have taken him at 23, maybe they would have taken him at their next pick, no. 56, but in all likelihood Stephen Piscotty, and his 256 plate appearances in 2015 are gone.

The Cardinals might have tried to cobble together an outfield out of Jon Jay, Peter Bourjos, Randal Grichuk, Matt Holliday, and Tommy Pham. It might not even have been that bad, and adding Brandon Moss would have made the group okay, but not even close to as good without Jason Heyward. The free agent market was pretty bare as Nick Markakis and Melky Cabrera were the two biggest free agent signings.

There’s another alternate reality where the Cardinals still trade Miller for Heyward and then they go out and sign Max Scherzer or Jon Lester. Payroll goes up an extra $20 million in 2015, but then the Cardinals have that core-level player they’ve been searching for even if Heyward departs for free agency. Scherzer’s contract does have a ton of deferred money. Let’s not go that far, though.

In 2015, the Cardinals got replacement-level play from Mark Reynolds and Matt Adams at first base while Albert Pujols put up a 115 wRC+ and an average two-WAR season. The Cardinals won 100 games, the division, and would have made the playoffs if they were 15 games worse, but if they had been three games worse they would have been in the wild card game. Would Pujols and a better pitching staff have been good enough to make up for the lack of Heyward. It would be close. Further, if the Cardinals missed the playoffs in 2014, and then lost as a wild card in 2015 are there more clamors for the manager’s job? If they won 97 games probably not.

In any event, their 2015 probably looks much the same with different players (unless they got Scherzer and Heyward, in which case, watch out), and there are a bunch of questions heading into 2016.

2016

After 2015, John Lackey is a free agent and Lance Lynn has Tommy John surgery. In the outfield, Jon Jay probably still gets traded for Jedd Gyorko, Peter Bourjos gets shipped out, maybe Randal Grichuk is still named the starting center fielder for 2016. Holliday is back, but the Cardinals have a big hole to fill in the outfield. They could fill it with Brandon Moss or they could fill it externally with Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes the best options with Denard Span and Dexter Fowler also available.

The rotation consists of Carlos Martinez, Shelby Miller, and Jaime Garcia. Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver are in the background. Perhaps the team signs Mike Leake. Perhaps they go harder to sign David Price or make some sort of run at Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija or Wei-Yin Chen. Maybe they trade Miller for Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte, but I doubt anybody is foolish enough to do that.

The team would have plenty of money and a lot of options with Pujols’ salary still swapped in Wainwright so it’s difficult to go down the road of what they might do. Shelby Miller wasn’t very good last year. Neither was Jaime Garcia, although he did provide innings. He also provided a nearly similar ERA to Adam Wainwright. If you want to add Mike Leake, the rotation is likely slightly worse than what the Cardinals got last season.

As for Pujols, he wasn’t great, putting up a 111 wRC+ and being worth roughly a win above replacement. Of course, this was better than what the Cardinals got from first base as they put up a 101 wRC+ and if you remove the time there from Matt Carpenter and Matt Holliday (who only got 35 PA, but had seven extra base hits), the Cardinals were below replacement at the position. The team would be without Piscotty’s contributions, but getting even the poor years from Heyward and Upton plus Pujols at first base would put the position players in the same spot.

All that said, the Cardinals missed the playoffs last season, and the squad with Pujols seems to be in roughly the same position, maybe better off if they had signed an ace pitcher.

2017

Well, Matt Carpenter is not moving to first base in this scenario. Unless the Cardinals are pushing for a universal designated hitter in the last CBA talks, Pujols is staying at first base. He’s at third base. Jhonny Peralta has likely been traded for something or other in this scenario as a salary dump with Carpenter staying at third base. Interestingly, Peralta and Pujols have virtually the same projections for next season.

Piscotty is still gone in this situation as are Wainwright and Wacha. The rotation is still lead by Carlos Martinez along with Lance Lynn and whichever free agent pitcher they decided to sign. Maybe they sign Dexter Fowler like they did this offseason. If Heyward is in right field, maybe they feel comfortable with Grichuk and center and maybe they bring back Holliday for one more go-round. Either way, the outlook for this season would be similar, though at some point we’d be watching Pujols hit his 600th home run.

2018-2020

Albert Pujols still making $22 million per season probably isn’t ideal, though at some point in 2018, he probably gets his 3,000th hit in a Cardinals’ uniform. He’s not likely to provide anywhere near the value he’s getting paid, but as the Cardinals payroll gets closer to $200 million carrying $22 million for a few more seasons isn’t the worst thing in the world.

So what does this all mean? The Cardinals never actually got the opportunity to sign Albert Pujols for $198 million. The Angels offered $56 million more, even if it was significantly backloaded, so Pujols did the sensible thing and signed elsewhere. But were the Cardinals all that lucky to have missed out on Pujols? I’m not really sure they would find themselves in a much different position than they are now, and competitively, they would have been fairly close to what they have been the last few years.

The common refrain seems to be that it is easier to watch Albert Pujols decline because he is not with the Cardinals and that the Cardinals caught a break. The other side is that it might actually be easier to see Pujols decline with the Cardinals because the team would still be winning, he’s still been a positive player with the bat, and he would hit many milestones being a lifetime Cardinal. I might have complained a bit about his level of play and the money owed, but being able to complain about Pujols’ play in what would be his 17th season as a Cardinals player doesn’t seem so bad.