After nearly completing a nice article where I suggested that we all hold off judgment on Albert Pujols, he signs a contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. So much for all of the nice things I had written about the former Cardinals first baseman.
For full disclosure, I thought that there was no chance that Albert Pujols was going to sign anywhere other than St. Louis. Apparently, I owe an apology to Aaron Hooks of Cardinals Diaspora who pretty much called this one about a year ago. Sorry, buddy. I guess it’s not cynicism when it actually happens.
In honor of the number he wore for most of his 11 years in St. Louis, here are the top 5 reasons why the Cardinals are going to be OK without Albert Pujols.
5. Mark Hamilton
It is a bit of a long shot, but the left handed first baseman could be the Allen Craig of 2012. Even though he hasn’t shown much as of yet in the big leagues, Hamilton has been a steady producer throughout his (ahem) six year minor league career – and that’s a big part of the story. A combination of being blocked by the greatest player of his era and some pretty bad injuries has left Hamilton in the minor league system so long that he has been somewhat forgotten. 2012 will be a tipping point in his career with Matt Adams, perhaps the next Prince Fielder, moving up to Memphis (AAA).
Thanks to off-season surgery to permanently repair Allen Craig’s knee, there is an opportunity, albeit it a tiny one, and it is up to Mark Hamilton to seize it, much as Craig did in 2011. Speaking of Craig, both players were drafted in 2006, Hamilton in the second round and Craig a little later, in the eighth. Both were drafted out of college, so they started their minor league careers with a little bit of an advantage over the players drafted out of high school. Let’s see how each of them did.
Note that it was Mark Hamilton, and not Allen Craig, that got the promotion from short season A (State College) to low A (Quad Cities).
Both players started the 2007 season at Palm Beach (High A) and again, it was Hamilton that was promoted to Springfield (AA) midway through the season. Although his power had yet to surface, Hamilton was looking every bit the high draft choice.
A hand injury in July that limited Hamilton to just 70 games is the where the minor league careers of he and Allen Craig separate. Hamilton had been suffering through other troubles before the injury and the result was a less than stellar season at AA. On the other hand (that was not an intended pun), Craig was turning into a very reliable hitter and the power numbers were really starting to come around. Craig would be promoted to Memphis following the season and Hamilton would return to Springfield.
After starting the season in Springfield (AA), Hamilton earned a promotion to Memphis, joining Craig. While the Texas League is somewhat known for inflating hitters numbers, you can see that Hamilton maintained a consistent level of production after his promotion to the Pacific Coast League.
Once again, injuries took their toll on the young first baseman, but when healthy, he hit with authority. Craig was hitting for higher average, Hamilton for more power.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Mark Hamilton has been his resilience. Again, injuries kept him out of the lineup, but as he did each time before, came back as an offensive force. It took a while for the power stroke to come back last year, but it finally did, unfortunately too late to help Memphis win their third consecutive division title.
I know that I’ve spent a lot of time on this, but the point that I wanted to make is that a lot of fans did not give Allen Craig much of a chance, probably based on how they saw him play with the Cardinals in 2010. Mark Hamilton has shown, when healthy, to be every bit as good a hitter as Craig. The key with him is a combination of staying healthy and getting playing time. He might get a small window of opportunity next April as the Cardinals will start the 2012 season with Allen Craig on the disabled list, not Mark Hamilton.
4. Dry powder
As much as I hate this phrase, it does describe a major benefit that the Cardinals will receive, now that they don’t have to put $20M+ aside for Albert Pujols. How they will use this money will be hotly debated over the coming weeks and months, but it is a luxury that the team has not always had.
Let’s take a look back to the Whitey Herzog era to get a historical perspective on this. While Gussie Busch was alive, Herzog had a reasonable payroll to work with, generally around the league average. His challenge in managing the Cardinals was that there would be no money available for a big mid-season upgrade. That meant that if a key player became injured, the playoff chances of the Cardinals would end right there. That did happen in 1984 (Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee) and 1986 (Jack Clark), although the Mets were going to win the division even with a healthy team.
This became a bigger problem after Gussie Busch turned the team over to Fred Kuhlmann because he started cutting the payroll and proactively trading away players who were hitting free agency, to the point of not having a competitive team.
None of that is happening here. The money that would have gone to Albert Pujols could be used to sign an impact free agent, put towards a contract extension for Yadier Molina or buying out some arbitration years of a young player as they did earlier this year with Jaime Garcia.
Given the current makeup of the team, and the hopes that Allen Craig and Adam Wainwright can recover from their injuries, that money might be put away for a rainy day, or as we have come to call it, dry powder. I still hate that phrase.
3. Adron Chambers
Adron Chambers didn’t make his major league debut, he exploded onto the scene. The kid is a bundle of energy. If watching him play in Springfield and Memphis is any indication, he may be exactly the catalyst that the Cardinals need in a post-Pujols lineup.
The player he most reminds me of is Vince Coleman. Although he doesn’t possess Coleman’s raw speed, he does have his aggressive competitiveness. He makes lot of mistakes on the bases (getting thrown out stealing third base when a good hitter is at the plate), but he also sets an operational tempo and bothers opposing pitchers. That was a part of the game that Tony La Russa never seemed to be interested in, but Chambers may be a genuine game changer. Just remember, it was an injury to David Greene, somewhat of an Allen Craig type hitter, that created an opening for Willie McGee. McGee wasn’t really thought of as a major league talent, or at best, a reserve outfielder. A couple of years later, it was an injury to McGee that created an opening for Coleman. Coleman was a bit different as he was expected to play in the major leagues, but not for a while yet.
Adron Chambers could follow in these players footsteps. If last year taught us anything, it is that history has an odd way of repeating itself. Often, when you least expect it.
2. Allen Craig
One of my favorite blogs of 2011 was from our friend, William Tasker, who made the point that the Cardinals need to find a way to get Allen Craig into their 2012 lineup on a regular basis. I’m not sure that’s what William had in mind, but we can now drop the notion of Craig learning how to play second base. William will get his wish, once Craig recovers from his off-season knee surgery and Cardinals fans will soon be cheering for him as their memories of Albert Pujols fade into the happy past.
1. Matt Adams
I wrote an article comparing Matt Adams and Prince Fielder back in August. If you would like to read the entire piece, you will find it here. If not, here are the last couple of paragraphs.
People who have seen this young man play just utter a single syllable: BEAST. He’s a big kid that hits just about everything HARD. Even his singles are smashes. Can we say, Matt Holliday ? Dare we say… Albert Pujols ?
Unfortunately, Albert Pujols did not play enough games in the minor leagues to even leave a tiny clue for comparison. But there is one recent player that might be able to give us some guidance – Brett Wallace. When you think back at offensive prospects in the Cardinals farm system, Wallace’s name bubbles to the top very quickly. The Oakland Athletics thought so much of him that they were willing to part with Matt Holliday – that speaks volumes.
Believe it or not, Adams production in the minors so far has outpaced that of Brett Wallace.
Can Matt Adams continue to produce at this level as he moves up in the Cardinals system ? Nobody knows, but if I was buying a house based on his comparable statiscs, I wouldn’t hesitate to sign at the dotted line. A lot can still happen, but he creates one fascinating scenario.
What if Albert Pujols and the Cardinals are unable to reach an agreement prior to the start of the 2012 season, and El Hombre goes elsewhere ? [edit: now we know the answer to that] Perhaps Lance Berkman could bridge the gap until Matt Adams is ready for the big leagues. Would another year of Lance Berkman, this time playing first base, be all that bad, based on what we have seen this year ?
I don’t think so. While I would rather see Albert Pujols remain a Cardinal for a variety of reasons, if his salary demands exceed what the Cardinals are able to pay, I am no longer fearful of the Pupocalypse. It’s not the doom and gloom scenario it once was, thanks to Lance Berkman and a young man you will be hearing a lot about – Matt Adams.
Those are my top 5 reasons I’m still optimistic about the Cardinals. What are some of yours ? Please let me know in the comments – I always enjoy reading them.
As for Albert Pujols, it is time to politely thank him for eleven outstanding seasons. He gave Cardinals fans a lot to cheer about. At the same time, Cardinals fans showed their appreciation, even when he was struggling last season. We have both done our part and nothing more is owed in either direction. I will remain ambivalent about Albert’s new career path, not from outrage, but because it would take attention away from the players that are still on the Cardinals roster. Those are my favorite players because I am a Cardinals fan first. Always have been, and always will be.