Early in spring training, the St. Louis Cardinals received the devastating news that their ace, Adam Wainwright, would need to have Tommy John surgery and miss the entire 2011 season. The runner-up for last year's NL Cy Young Award, Wainwright went 20-11 with a 2.42 ERA. The 29-year-old was expected to anchor a rotation this season that would need to be at its best in order to compete with division rivals Milwaukee and Cincinnati.
Despite losing Wainwright, St. Louis has remained very much a part of the NL Central race. The Cardinals are currently tied with Milwaukee for first place; last year's champions - the Reds - trail by two games. With three legitimate playoff contenders, the central has undoubtedly developed into one of the best divisions in baseball. Even the perennial bottom-feeding Pittsburgh Pirates (35-36) are playing decent ball this year.
If there is one player that the Cards cannot afford to lose, it's Albert Pujols. It's hard to think of many other situations around the league where a player means more to his team. That is precisely why today's news is so disturbing for the St. Louis faithful.
The 9X All-Star first baseman will reportedly miss 4-6 weeks with a fractured left forearm. The injury occurred on a play when Pujols was pulled off the first base bag in an attempt to tag Kansas City infielder Wilson Betemit. Pujols leads his team in runs (52), is tied for first in home runs (17), and is second in RBIs (45).
It's June 20. Albert Pujols has 17 HR and 45 RBIs. And we're talking about a year in which Pujols is "struggling" at the plate. Albeit a down year by his standards, the 3X NL MVP is still an invaluable piece of St. Louis' core. He is still the most feared bat in all of baseball. Without "the machine", there is a monstrous void in the middle of this lineup. Lance Berkman (.308, 17HR, 51 RBI) is having an excellent year; but he's no Albert Pujols. As players such as Berkman and Matt Holliday are now forced to shoulder more of the load, their production will decrease. One of the main reasons why these players have success is because of the protection that Pujols provides.
Losing Wainwright was bad, this is much worse. Although Wainwright is certainly St. Louis' best pitcher, he's only playing once every five days. Albert Pujols has never played less than 143 games in his career. Why is he called the machine? the dependability, the consistency. Cardinals fans know that every single year their first baseman will be among one of the best players in the game.
At the end of this season, there is a possibility that the Cardinals lose Pujols to free agency. Over the next four to six weeks, this franchise will get a taste of life without Albert. My prediction - the Cardinals will have difficulty staying atop this division.
There is a silver lining here. Pujols has never been injury-prone throughout his career. The injury coupled with a slight decrease in production this season may have lowered his value to potential suitors. Of course, this is all speculation. Pujols could return from injury and play like an MVP. But, When he hits free agency this summer, potential big spenders (such as the Cubs) now may be less inclined to throw A-Rod-like money at the 6X Silver Slugger Award Recipient. The result: St. Louis may have a better shot at signing their first baseman.
For the next four to six weeks, Cardinals fans will miss their best player. All they can hope is that the rest of this lineup does enough to keep this team afloat until old reliable number five returns.