When the news broke that Albert Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim this past offseason for 10 years and $254 million, it sent shockwaves through the baseball world. Of course, those waves emanated by far the most in St. Louis, where with the stroke of a pen, their hometown hero they had cherished for 11 uber-productive years was gone. The decision for owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and GM John Mozeliak to let Pujols walk was not an easy one, but was one that most Cardinals fans begrudgingly understood, as giving a 32-year-old player–who several around baseball believe to be even older than that–a historically lucrative ten-year deal just didn’t make financial sense, even for a player of Pujols’s caliber, as it likely would have handicapped the Cardinals’ efforts to build the rest of a championship-contending roster in the years to come.
Two weeks later, the Cardinals announced the signing of a different veteran free agent bat– one that came with a far lower price tag (slightly over 1/10th of Pujols’s new contract, to be exact), and far less attention. Carlos Beltran was that bat, and for two years and $26 million, the soon-to-be 35-year-old outfielder was now a Cardinal. While much the media built the Beltran signing up to be the Cardinals’ official “replacement” for Pujols, the Cardinals backed off that notion, admitting that replacing Pujols’s production would have been impossible. However, Mozeliak and the front office contended that Beltran would be a potent bat to add to the lineup, and with every other key piece to the 2011 World Series team returning, and Adam Wainwright (sidelined all of 2011) coming back as well, the Cardinals would once again be strong contenders.
As good as a player as he’s been most of his career, Beltran was far from a sure thing when the Cardinals signed him. Yes, Beltran’s contract was a pittance compared to what Pujols received from the Angels, but $13 million per year is still not pocket change by any means. There was definitely still a risk in paying that sum to a guy on the back end of his career, who has been known to be fairly injury-prone. That added to the fact that, while undeservedly, people would be comparing him to Pujols all season long, would create a lot of pressure for Beltran.
Now, almost all the way through July, Beltran has shown no regard for that pressure and has been every bit and more of what the Cardinals expected him to be when they signed him. Not only has he been a beacon of durability, playing in 96 of the team’s 102 games, but he has also produced at a career-best–or dare I say Pujolsian–level. He currently is sitting at an outstanding .282/.358/.524 clip, with 23 homers and 73 RBI. Just in case anyone is counting, Pujols is at .277/.344/.484, with 18 dingers and 63 RBI. Granted, Albert had an atrocious start to the 2012 season, from which he has rebounded nicely, but deep into the season, it’s Beltran who has shocked everyone by having the much better season so far. And here I was, blaming others for comparing the two players…
Beltran has quickly drawn the adoration of Cardinals fans for the great offensive season he is having (with strong defense in right field as well), but you can rest assured that the one person who is smiling the most about Beltran’s success besides Beltran himself is DeWitt Jr. Losing a decade-long face of the franchise–no matter the specific terms–is never going to go over very well PR-wise with a fan base. But when you can bring in a player on the cheap (comparatively) who significantly out-performs that former franchise player, it takes out a huge amount of the sting for the fans, which has got to make the owner quite pleased.
Only time will tell whether Beltran will maintain his statistical edge over Pujols as the season goes on. Cardinal fans aren’t going to forget about Pujols either way, but the fact is Beltran is putting up one heck of a season, and Cardinals fans should be thrilled he was brought to St. Louis. Who knows where they would be without him?