Will Albert Pujols' former team or current team be the first to win it all?
by Charlie Miller
With Albert Pujols signing with the Los Angeles Angels, ending his 11-year tenure in St. Louis, just how much does that swing the balance of power in baseball? While the Cardinals are coming off their second World Series title in six years, even with Pujols they would have not been a favorite to win again in 2012. But how far does Pujols’ defection knock St. Louis down the pecking order in the National League? The NL Central isn’t exactly the toughest division in baseball.
And how much do the signings of both Pujols and starting pitcher C.J. Wilson push the Angels up the depth chart in the American League? Are those two signings enough to tip the scales to L.A. in the AL West? Remember, two-time AL champion Texas resides in that division. And with the strong AL East — eight of the last 10 AL wild card teams have come from the AL East — winning the division is the only realistic shot at the postseason if you play in the Central or West.
So, who wins the World Series first, St. Louis or the Angels?
The Case for St. Louis
St. Louis has a few loose ends to tie up in order to lock up some key players, but World Series hero David Freese, clean-up hitter Matt Holliday, rising star Allen Craig, centerfielder Jon Jay, starter Jaime Garcia, prospect Shelby Miller and essentially an entire bullpen are locked up for the next four years or beyond. And at relatively reasonable prices. Ace Chris Carpenter, who was one of the Redbirds’ postseason heroes last season, is signed for two more years. So not only do the Cardinals have a proven core in place, but there remains enough payroll flexibility to fill holes.
Now back to the “loose ends.” They hold the key to the Cardinals’ next five years. Catcher Yadier Molina can be a free agent after 2012 and Adam Wainwright is signed through 2013. Getting extensions done for Molina and Wainwright will keep the Cardinals squarely in the hunt in the National League.
They may not be the odds-on favorite to win any single season, but as we’ve seen over and over again, once teams reach the postseason, the season resets enough for any hot team to win. Were the Cardinals really the best team in baseball in 2011? No. Not even the best in the National League. They squeaked into the playoffs courtesy of the Atlanta Braves on the final day of the season. Having an ace in Wainwright and stalwart Molina behind the plate gives the Redbirds a terrific opportunity to reach the postseason. Then anything can happen.
The final loose end is securing one more first baseman/outfielder. Not only for 2012 while the Cardinals wait for Craig to return from knee surgery, but for 2013 and beyond after Lance Berkman is presumably gone.
It’s easy to see how the Cardinals can be in the hunt in the NL Central for the next several seasons. The reigning champion Brewers are about to lose Prince Fielder and MVP Ryan Braun is facing a 50-game suspension. That’s a huge blow to the lineup in Milwaukee. It remains to be seen how quickly the Cubs can become contenders again, but at this point there are no real signs of improvement. They lost their best hitter from last season and have two ugly contracts (Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano) strangling their payroll. I suspect new president Theo Epstein will right the ship soon, but I don’t see the Cubs becoming a juggernaut in the near future. The Reds can be contenders, but they face payroll constraints and must deal with the impending free agency of Brandon Phillips after 2012 and former MVP Joey Votto after 2013.
Let’s face it, there are no dominant teams in this division, leaving an opportunity for St. Louis.
What could go wrong
St. Louis is beginning a new era, and not simply because No. 5 is no longer hitting in the No. 3 hole. Tony La Russa is no longer in charge in the dugout. Rookie manager Mike Matheny is the new sheriff in town and has little experience. While Matheny played a role in the development of both Molina and Wainwright, both could leave just as Pujols — a close friend of Molina — did this winter.
And what if Matheny just isn’t ready? Having a veteran pitching coach in Dave Duncan in the dugout and experienced Jose Oquendo still on the staff provides some kind of safety net. But if Matheny falters badly, the franchise could be set back a few years. The bullpen, which was much maligned early last season, became a team strength down the stretch. But counting on arms like Jason Motte, Eduardo Sanchez, Fernando Salas, Lance Lynn and Marc Rzepczynski could prove to be fool’s gold. And what if Freese’s World Series performance turns out to be the peak of his career?
There are certainly no guarantees, far from it. But the Cardinals will continue to put themselves in position to make the playoffs for the next several seasons. And that alone gives them a shot at winning the franchise’s 12th championship.
The Case for Los Angeles
Right off the bat, any team with Albert Pujols in the lineup and a rotation that features Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson and Ervin Santana has a chance. A very good chance. Wilson, the ace of rival Texas the past two seasons, is arguably the No. 3 starter on this staff. That gives the Angels a pretty good chance to win three out of every five games. Manager Mike Scioscia can’t ask for much more than that. And certainly Pujols, in addition to adding pop in what has been a punchless lineup the last few years, makes every spot in the order better. Weaver, Wilson and Pujols are locked up for the next five years (10 for Pujols). That’s a terrific core to build from.
And with the Angels’ $150 million per season broadcast deal with Fox for the next 20 years, there will be no payroll constraints, even given the enormous deals currently in place. So re-signing necessary parts like Haren and locking up rising stars like Mark Trumbo and Mike Trout are entirely possible.
What could go wrong
The bullpen could falter, costing the rich rotation wins at the price of having to throw more innings than necessary.
The 25-year-old Trumbo, who led the Angels with 29 home runs and 87 RBIs last season, must find a new position. Of course, DH makes some sense, but what will that mean for Bobby Abreu, to whom the Angels have committed $9 million in 2012? Trumbo has played some outfield, but one of the strengths in recent seasons has been the outfield defense. Moving Trumbo to third is risky as well.
How do the Angels fill in the lineup around Pujols? During most of the second half last season, Abreu, Hunter, Trumbo and Wells batted 3-6 in the Angels’ order. Let’s assume Pujols is slotted at No. 3 and Trumbo becomes the DH. That leaves Hunter, Trumbo and Wells as protection for King Albert in the lineup. That’s hardly Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday protection. So, Pujols may see 45 intentional walks this season, and get Jose Bautista treatment, in that no one pitches to him with runners in scoring position. And Pujols showed the propensity to become impatient and to get himself out at times this past season, unlike in his previous 10 seasons. If the Angels turn into a one-player lineup, it may not matter how stingy the rotation is, the Halos may not be able to score enough.
The Angels must make prudent decisions in free agency. With a hefty payroll, the team will rely on signing free agents in building a team over the next few seasons. That puts pressure on GM Jerry DiPoto to build quickly, while Pujols is still in his prime. And that prime may last only another 5-7 years.
Scioscia is one of the best managers in the game. He relishes the National League style of pitching, defense and speed keeping pressure on the defense. Now with a big bopper at his disposal, the manager will squeeze every ounce possible out of this lineup.
We’ll see both of these franchises in the playoffs regularly for the next decade. But winning the World Series? That is all a matter of getting hot at the right time. With their young talent locked up contractually for the next few years, and having the postseason experience from 2011, the Cardinals will have more talent and stability on the roster, which gives them the slight advantage. St. Louis will reach the promised land before the Angels do, but neither team will be an overwhelming favorite in the next few years.
With little hope in mid-September, the St. Louis Cardinals somehow have managed to find their way into the NLCS for the fourth time in eight years. Meanwhile in Milwaukee, the Brewers will play in the NLCS for the first time in their history. Back in 1982, the Brewers played in the ALCS and defeated the California Angels to reach the World Series.
This series could not be much more evenly matched. The two teams split their 18 games this season and know each other so well. Both feature big boppers in the heart of the lineup and pretty good, but not great, starting pitching. The only real difference lies in the bullpens. The Brewers’ dependable bullpen gives Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke comfort in knowing his team is 81-1 with a lead after eight innings. Setup men Takashi Saito and Francisco Rodriguez in front of closer John Axford take the pressure off the Brewers’ starters to have to go more than six innings. The much-maligned Cardinals’ bullpen was shaky at best for much of the season. But there have been fewer better performances than the Redbirds’ relievers gave with six shutout innings in their Game 2 comeback win over Philadelphia.
Milwaukee has been the best team at home throughout the season, but rest assured, the Cardinals will not be intimidated. They just survived the Halladay-Lee-Hamels-Oswalt gauntlet and won Game 5 before a raucous crowd in Philadelphia. And since August 1, after both teams made final adjustments to their rosters, the Cardinals won seven of 12 meetings. No doubt this series will be a battle between these two familiar rivals of the National League Central.
The Cardinals’ offense, which led the NL in runs during the regular season, struggled with only 19 runs and two home runs in the five NLDS games.
Keys for St. Louis
The Cardinals must get quality innings from the bullpen. Manager Tony La Russa was able to play matchups and manage his way through some tough innings, especially in Game 2, against the Phillies. Unlike the Brewers. the Cardinals don’t have the consistent go-to guys late in the game. La Russa was a master at controlling matchups in the series with Philadelphia by mixing and matching his entire bullpen.
Keys for Milwaukee
As good as the Brewers have been at home this season, they lost both games at Arizona and didn’t look like the same team. So they must hold serve at home. It was also clear how much they rely on their stars, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. As the series with Arizona wore on, the Diamondbacks pitched around the two MVP candidates. Expect similar treatment from St. Louis, so the Brewers must have clutch performances from the supporting cast.
Cardinals to Watch
Albert Pujols is poised to break out this postseason. He hit the Phillies well enough to receive an intentional walk that loaded the bases with one out for Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday late in Game 5. Rafael Furcal will set the table and spark the offense. Look for Yadier Molina to provide a clutch bat.
Brewers to Watch
Expect Jerry Hairston, Corey Hart and Nyjer Morgan to step up in support of Braun and Fielder. Hairston had a good series against St. Louis in late August and was clutch in the Arizona series. Hart drove in 15 runs in only 16 games against the Redbirds while Morgan ignited the offense with a .393 OBP. Hart, who has batted leadoff since Rickie Weeks went down with an injury, may be moved to the No. 5 spot to protect Fielder.