Since Pujols' departure, business as usual for Cards

Since Pujols' departure, business as usual for Cards

Since Pujols' departure, business as usual for Cards

OAKLAND -- Albert Pujols' legacy as a Cardinal changed on Dec. 8, 2011, the day he embraced the Angels' overtures and bid adieu to the opportunity to ensure that his career would play out in one setting.

It was a departure that could have shaken the Cardinals' organization, especially considering the timing. Future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa had stepped down only weeks earlier. Famed pitching coach Dave Duncan would soon do the same.

The Cardinals were losing their three-hole hitter, the franchise's face and the Majors' best bat since 2001, the year Pujols debuted and laid claim to the Rookie of the Year Award. He'd win three Most Valuable Player awards over the next eight seasons and would lead the Cardinals to a pair of world championships.

Yet that departure, as seismic and divisive and jarring as it may have been at the time, has done anything but push this organization off course.

"When he left the team, you felt like, 'Wow, we let the best guy go,'" said catcher Yadier Molina, who remains close with Pujols. "But at the same time, there are a bunch of guys here who want to be successful and try to win, too. We're going to win no matter what."

And indeed, they have.

As St. Louis prepares to oppose Pujols for the first time since he packed up his Cardinals uniform for good, it can do so plenty pleased with where the organization has gone and what it has accomplished since learning it would be moving forward without No. 5.

Last year, the Cardinals sneaked into the postseason as the second National League Wild Card entrant and advanced to the NL Championship Series, falling one game short of a return trip to the World Series. This season, they've raced out to 49 wins -- one of only two teams in the NL to reach that total by the halfway point in the season.

"I think it's attributed to a lot of different things," manager Mike Matheny said of the run of continued success. "We have just a core group of people around here, a very talented group. It's a compliment to Albert that he was part of setting that trend and keeping that tradition going. I think he influenced many guys that don't even realize they were influenced by him."

Former teammates do say that Pujols' work ethic was infectious. And it took no urging for younger players to realize the potential impact of studying one of the best.

From Pujols, David Freese said he absorbed lessons on how to deal with outside demands, something that he experienced around the time of Pujols' exit. Allen Craig, now the Cardinals' first baseman of present and future, specifically observed Pujols' interactions with infield coach Jose Oquendo, watching how the perennial All-Star would adjust his positioning based on different circumstances.

Pujols was in many ways a coach without such title or desired recognition.

"Thinking back to my first big league camp, probably the coolest thing about being there was I got to take ground balls with Albert, talk with him and just watch how he went about his business and how he worked," Craig said. "I saw what he did, what he had to say and I just tried to be a sponge.

"It came full circle for me. I was a kid in high school and college watching him play when he was with the Cardinals. Then I got to meet him and interact with him in Spring Training, then be on his team, then win the World Series. It was really special to spend that time with Albert."

No greater an impact did Pujols have in the Cardinals' clubhouse than in the mentorship he offered Molina. The two became fast friends, using that relationship to challenge the other to be great. Molina saw in Pujols the player that he wanted to be -- and so he asked and he watched.

"You just want to try and catch something that is going to help you," Molina said. "Finally, I did. Finally."

What Molina gleaned from his former teammate has helped him evolve into one of the game's best hitters. A .268 hitter with 41 homers through his first seven Major League seasons, Molina has hit .318 with 42 homers since the start of 2011. He's on track this year to make a run at the NL MVP Award and batting title.

"I see things that Albert did that naturally kind of transferred over to Yadi -- just never giving away at-bats, the relentless wanting to play every day," Matheny said. "I think it was just osmosis in the time spent together. Yadi and Albert were just really close friends and still are. You just can't help but have that infiltration of what you know and how you go about your business."

The handprints Pujols left behind in St. Louis, however, may have been less recognizable if not for the organization's ability to eliminate the tremors of his departure by filling the void with other, equally capable replacements. The Cardinals' pursuit of Carlos Beltran was the team's first counter move, one made in direct response to Pujols leaving. Two weeks after Pujols was introduced as an Angel, Beltran signed a two-year deal.

Beltran's arrival gave the Cardinals a fresh middle-of-the-order bat to plug into the lineup. And at $13 million a season -- compared to the annual average value of Pujols' base contract with the Angels of $24 million -- Beltran's production has been a bargain.

Since the start of his tenure in St. Louis, Beltran has a slash line of .282/.347/.514 with 51 homers and 147 RBIs. Pujols' numbers -- a .274/.336/.486 slash line, 43 homers, 154 RBIs -- during that same stretch with the Angels are no better.

"The front office knows what they're doing," Freese said. "The magnitude of losing Albert Pujols can affect not only the team, but the city. But you have confidence in Allen Craig stepping in. You grab a guy like Carlos. And you use the rest of your Minor League system to keep the train moving. That's a testament to how well put together the organization is."

Beltran was only one piece in the new-look lineup. Pujols' departure opened the door for Craig to get more playing time, and Lance Berkman's injury-plagued 2012 season only expedited Craig's ascension to becoming an everyday player. He's seized that opportunity, too, becoming one of the best run producers in the league. Without Pujols in the picture, Matt Adams also inched up the depth chart.

"The organization has a pretty strong foundation and has had that for a number of years," Craig said. "I feel like we've done a great job since Albert left of bringing in new guys who win. We've had a lot of young guys step up and obviously, Carlos has helped. He was that transition."

Though the Cardinals were willing to dig deep into their pockets to retain Pujols -- reportedly offering the first baseman $220 million for another decade of his services -- the money saved provides the club with future financial wiggle room.

While general manager John Mozeliak said the contract extensions signed by Molina (five years, $75 million) and Adam Wainwright (five years, $97.5 million) over the past 17 months were not directly linked to those savings, the added financial flexibility certainly helped.

From afar, Pujols has watched it all transpire.

"It's a little bit different, because usually I'm rooting for them, but now I'm going to root against them for the next three days," Pujols said in Houston on Sunday. "I still follow them real close. I'm pretty good friends with almost half the guys. Those are guys we had great success with. It was a [heck] of a run."

The run hasn't ended. It has simply continued on without him.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.