Heading into the 2011 MLB Winter Meetings, the St. Louis Cardinals had one thing on their minds. They needed to re-sign Albert Pujols. Their future Hall of Fame first baseman was a free agent for the first time in his career.
After not reaching an agreement in the winter of 2010, some felt that Pujols was upset that the "Birds on the Bat" did not meet his demands, but would still show favoritism to them over similar offers. After the new Miami Marlins made their big offer, the Pujols camp gave St. Louis a chance to beat them. Sure enough they did.
In the end it was not enough. The Los Angeles Angels blew everyone away with the offer Pujols set out to get. Albert now leaves a city where he is a legend even if he never got another hit. He leaves his community. He leaves against his family's preference. He got the contract he was looking for. But what does he leave behind?
For the last 11 years, the "Red Sea" parted for this great player. But now the King of Cardinal Nation has left his throne. The Cardinals and their fans are surely upset by their loss, but they must regroup quickly.
This winter was supposed to be a celebration for the Cardinals, coming off their 11th World Series championship. But it has been nothing but bad news since. First, future Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa retires, and now Pujols is gone. After LaRussa's departure, the Cardinals hired Mike Matheny. The fans supported the decision with enthusiasm, even with candidates like fan favorite Jose Oquendo and two-time world champion Terry Francona. Now they must rally around their current team and any newcomers.But who might those newcomers be?
One option is Prince Fielder at first base. Fielder can produce like Pujols, and maybe even more due to his youth. While the Cardinals are expected to move Lance Berkman to first base and put Allen Craig in the outfield, Fielder would allow roles to stay put.
But he may not be the smartest option. He might fit as a replacement, but his price tag may be too high. Pujols was worth the money to the Cardinals because he is a part of history. Fielder is just a free agent. The Cardinals might be better suited to sign a couple other players and re-sign current players like Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina.
One name that came up before the weekend was shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Rollins has been a Philadelphia Phillies icon for the last 11 years. While Rollins and the Phillies are reportedly close on a deal, nothing is done and Rollins has not been too happy with his market so far.
The Cardinals could easily jump in and change things for him, but Rollins is older, 33 years old to be exact. In recent years, he has been a major injury concern. But he does fit what the Cardinals need. The Birds are without a shortstop and have been looking for a top leadoff man for a few years. Rollins' production combined with their current lineup would definitely ease the pain of Pujols being gone, statistically and as a name.
The other name being mentioned is outfielder Carlos Beltran. Cardinals fans already know Beltran well. He went from being the "Cardinals killer" to the guy who Wainwright struck out in 06. Beltran is going to be 35 years old in April and has, like Rollins, been an injury risk the past couple years.
Many wonder if he can still play center field. The Cardinals have not had a solid center fielder since Jim Edmonds in 2007. Rick Ankiel was inconsistent, Colby Rasmus was traded and Jon Jay can never seem to lock down the job. When Allen Craig comes back from a knee surgery, Beltran would most likely be in center every day.
If he can stay healthy, he would be a nice compliment to the Cardinals' already potent lineup. With what is being referred to by Jon Heyman of MLB Network as a "very thin market" for Beltran, the Cardinals may not have to do much to snag the former All-Star.
Both Rollins and Beltran are older and not what they once were, but with the players the Cardinals already have, they would not have to be the center of the offense. In the World Series, Pujols was a huge factor in Game 3. But the only hit he had the rest of the series came in the ninth inning of Game 6. This shows that the Birds' offense can get it done without him. Players like Rollins and Beltran would only be adding to that.
But there are internal factors that must be assessed in this process as well. Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman have been top-tier players before. Holliday's problem is his health at times. Berkman is someone who many thought would retire soon. That could still be an option in the near future. There is no guarantee that he will be able to reproduce his 2011 campaign.
If that is the case, the Cards must be prepared to find a solution when the time comes. But do not be fooled by their age or injuries, these two guys can carry this team for the near future. There is a reason Holliday was signed for so long, and Berkman is a Houston legend. They just have to stay healthy and productive.
Add postseason hero David Freese to the mix. If he gains power as his career progresses, he could be a Mike Lowell-type player, hitting for 20-plus home run power while getting clutch extra base hits. He already showed that sort of talent in the 2011 postseason, winning both the NLCS and World Series MVP Awards. Also being a St. Louis native has caused fans to flock to him. Cardinals fans want the hometown boy to succeed. Hopefully he can handle that pressure. If he can, he could be a stud.
The other name that people are learning is that of Allen Craig. Craig served as a utility player in 2011, mostly due to his lack of a natural position. He played every position on the diamond last season except shortstop and catcher. He has settled into the outfield nicely and has the ability to be a solid bat in the lineup. Once he returns from knee surgery, he will be an everyday starter for the Red Birds.
Finally, do not leave catcher Yadier Molina off the list. Molina may be a stud catcher, but he has a bat too. He hit a career high 14 home runs this season and 32 doubles. That is excellent production for the guy behind the plate. These current players prove that Pujols was not the only reason the Cardinals have been successful in recent years.
Of course losing Albert Pujols is a big deal and the loss of an icon will be painful. The fans will always love him, even if they do not say it in the coming weeks. But the team must find ways to fill the void in the lineup. New players will be found, and the fans must welcome those guys with open arms. Only then can the healing process begin. Once everyone can look past the loss, the title defense will start.