MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

No quick fix for Cards to replace Pujols

Justice: No quick fix for replacing Pujols

No quick fix for Cards to replace Pujols
There are few things a general manager cherishes more than free advice from a know-nothing columnist. Hey, John Mozeliak, I'm happy to help.

From the moment Albert Pujols decided to sign with the Angels, Mozeliak and the Cardinals have had quite a few people telling them how they should replace baseball's best player. Sign this guy, trade that guy.

First things first. The Cardinals aren't going to "replace" Albert Pujols. OK, let's phrase that another way. They're not going to "replace" his production.

There have been very few players in history as good as Pujols, and unless the Cardinals sign Prince Fielder -- and that's not likely to happen -- they're not going to come close to finding another Albert.

There are still plenty of ways for Mozeliak to construct a competitive team without Pujols, but the Cardinals will be different.

Former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa once said that teams had to change their group dynamics each and every season because they changed anyway due to age, economics, etc. He saw his job as getting that year's group to focus on the task at hand, and the challenge was different every year.

There's no way of knowing what the Cardinals' clubhouse will be like without Pujols. He wasn't a leader in the traditional way that fans think of leaders.

He wasn't the guy who gave speeches or was always on the top step of the dugout. But his mere presence impacted everyone.

There was a comfort level in being in the same dugout with him and knowing he was the focus of the other team's game plan. In that way, he made life easier for everyone.

So there are questions Mozeliak can't answer for many months. How did Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday and others benefit from being in a lineup with Albert Pujols? Did they get more pitches to hit? Will they be as productive without Pujols? As good as some of the hitters around Pujols were last season, they may look a lot different without him.

Nevertheless, Cardinals Nation is eager to see how Mozeliak will configure his roster in the post-Albert era in St. Louis.

Now here's the portion of the column Mo has been waiting for.

He doesn't have to do anything. In fact, there's a good case to be made that he shouldn't do anything.

There are players Mozeliak would like to have, most notably Carlos Beltran. When he's healthy, Beltran is still an impact player, one of those rare players who can win games in the field or at the plate.

But he's also 34 years old and has missed 199 games the last three seasons. To guarantee him more than one year could be the kind of gamble Mozeliak is unwilling to take. (Michael Cuddyer is another interesting option, depending on how the market plays out.)

The Cardinals have already filled one need with the re-signing of shortstop Rafael Furcal. Without another move, the club is good enough to stay in contention just as it is.

Regardless of whether Pujols re-signed or not, the Cardinals were going to need Allen Craig, David Freese and Jon Jay to be productive in 2012.

Craig emerged in a huge way in 2011, hitting .327 with five home runs and 12 RBIs in September. He hit four postseason home runs and was so good that he became La Russa's best card to play in the late innings.

Craig is recovering from right knee surgery and questionable for Opening Day. Beltran's presence would lessen the pressure on Craig to come in and have an immediate impact.

But Beltran's presence would likely prevent Craig from getting a chance to play every day, a chance he seemed to have earned after the way he played down the stretch this past season.

Mozeliak could focus instead on strengthening his bench and adding bullpen depth. He would then still have financial flexibility to let the season play out and assess his needs at the non-waiver Trade Deadline.

There doesn't appear to be another National League Central team capable of running away with the division in 2012. The Pirates, Cubs and Astros are all in various states of reconstruction, and the Brewers aren't sure what they have until the Ryan Braun and Fielder situations play out.

The Reds seem likely to contend, but they may not be strong enough to bury the Cardinals before the Trade Deadline.

The Cardinals made a very tough call in drawing a line during negotiations with Pujols. Had they matched the offer the Angels made, they felt it would limit their ability to fill the roster around him.

In the end, the Cardinals gambled that the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts. They're now doing the same thing in assessing how to move forward.

Sometimes the best move is no move at all. That's not a popular thing with fans, but if the Cardinals end up in the same place next fall, everyone goes home happy.

To let Pujols walk was one of the toughest decisions any franchise has made. Now, the Cardinals are tempted to do something to appease fans.

But the Cardinals haven't won 18 National League pennants without making a few tough decisions along the way. There's no advice like free advice. Right, Mo?

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.