Over the first five seasons of Albert Pujols' career -- a half-decade that yielded a Rookie of the Year trophy, batting title, and MVP -- the hero of Memphis' 2000 Pacific Coast League championship run missed a total of 20 games. With an injury to his right oblique muscle suffered June 3rd, Prince Albert will likely exceed that total this month alone. He's the best hitter in the game, the reigning National League Most Valuable Player, so replacing Pujols is next to impossible for the St. Louis Cardinals. What to do? With a nod to the number Pujols wears on his back, here are five keys to life without "The Machine."
With a loss of great power comes great responsibility. (Apologies to Spider-Man.) With a player as talented as Pujols, it's easy for a team -- or a team's fans -- to wait around for the next game-winning heroics. Now is a rare opportunity for St. Louis' supporting cast to earn their own game-winning stripes. Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa will likely use a committee of first basemen during Pujols' absence, making decisions based on who might be hot, the opposing pitcher, even the health of his other players (Gold Glove centerfielder Jim Edmonds -- nursing his own abdominal injury -- played first base in a win over the Cubs the day after Pujols went down). Scott Spiezio has been a pleasant offensive surprise off the bench, and he's a winner, having played with Cardinal shortstop David Eckstein for the 2002 world champion Anaheim Angels. When a game is on the line this month, each Cardinal needs to avoid the temptation to find Pujols in the dugout, and rather look in the mirror.
The three P's: pitching, pitching, and pitching. With or without Pujols, the Cardinals' starting pitching has been sub-par for a few weeks now. Ace Chris Carpenter has pitched with little run support and some back trouble, but got knocked around by Cincinnati last week. Mark Mulder (5.20 ERA through Sunday), Jason Marquis (4.88), and Jeff Suppan (5.35) will all be free agents at season's end, and yet look as though a contract extension is the furthest thing from their minds. With Pujols out, St. Louis will have to win some games 3-2 or 4-3. This is going to require their starters taking the mound like there's no margin for error. If improvement isn't shown over the next few weeks, look for St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty to deal Mulder or Marquis for an outfielder.
Juan support. Over his first two months as a Cardinal, rightfielder Juan Encarnacion has been a borderline bust, especially when you consider the fat three-year contract he signed to play for St. Louis. He's barely hitting .200 with runners in scoring position, the most damning stat you can offer for a middle-of-the-lineup corner outfielder. Unless general manager Walt Jocketty swings a deal for a new run-producing hitter to play leftfield (or right, Juan), Encarnacion has to realize whatever potential he offers . . . now.
Impact from the "little guys." We can't exactly call a man who stands 6'5" and weighs 210 pounds little, but Chris Duncan will be one of the supporting players necessary to fill offensive gaps while Pujols rehabs. A few other former Memphis Redbirds -- So Taguchi, John Rodriguez, and Hector Luna to name three -- must play like they belong in The Show. Here's one way of looking at the Pujols injury. If he misses 20 games, there are between 80 and 100 at bats up for grabs. You think these reserves wouldn't fight for this kind of opportunity? Time to capitalize, boys.
Remember 2005. However dramatic Pujols' absence is made by those of us in the media, it still doesn't measure up to the void St. Louis found in its lineup last year when Scott Rolen, Larry Walker, and Reggie Sanders all missed significant time . . . together. That Cardinal team won 100 games and reached the National League Championship Series. The National League is, frankly, watered down in 2006. If St. Louis can play .500 baseball during Pujols' stay on the disabled list (they're 3-5 through Sunday), they'll be in contention for a playoff berth upon his return, even if it's as late as mid-July. And what better way for Pujols to earn a second MVP trophy than by returning to the lineup and leading another charge toward the World Series?