Concerns Loom for the Cardinals

Nick GassContributor IFebruary 18, 2010

DENVER - SEPTEMBER 26:  (L-R) Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals celebrate clinching the National League Central Division after defeating the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on September 26, 2009 in Denver, Colorado. The Cardinals defeated the Rockies 6-3.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The St. Louis Cardinals ended 2009 on a dismal note, dropping 11 of their last 13 games, including a swift NLDS sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers. This season, the Cardinals are the odds-on favorite to win the National League Central for the first time in at least three years. The stakes are relatively high for this team, making an offseason rife with moves a cause for cautious optimism in the Gateway City. One of many problems on the horizon: Matt Holliday’s hefty contract and its implications for the future of Albert Pujols in St. Louis.

            Signing Matt Holliday to a massive seven-year, $120 million deal seemed like the right thing to do, but it makes Holliday the highest-paid player on the team. Such a move could prove problematic when it comes to renegotiating with Albert Pujols, who has shied away from declaring his intentions after his current contract with St. Louis expires. Let’s be frank: Matt Holliday is not a player of Pujols’ caliber. Compare these stats by El Hombre to these by Holiday. Looking at the off-the-field honors alone should convince even the most ardent Holliday fan that he’s not worth nearly as much as Albert.

            Pujols’ current deal, signed in February 2004, is for seven years and $100 million, with a possibility for $111 million if the Cardinals exercise his 2011 option. The Cardinals’ 2009 payroll ranked thirteenth overall in the majors, sandwiched between Atlanta and San Francisco, both larger markets than St. Louis. Simply put, it is unsustainable to keep both of them at such a high price.            

Certainly, Holliday fills a necessary role with the team, and his numbers are quite impressive. He hit .353 in 63 games with St. Louis in 2009 with a .419 on-base percentage. By comparison, Pujols hit .327 in 160 games with a .443 OBP. The difference is negligible, but Pujols has a world championship under his belt, while Holliday does not.

Pujols’ experience and leadership over the past decade in St. Louis make him an invaluable asset—a player to be treasured and paid the most in the sport. It may look like the Cardinals value Holliday more with a larger contract, and that is a problem.

It seems as if the Cardinals are outstripping their means to win another championship in 2010. There is no doubt that the fans in St. Louis would love another World Series championship, but at what cost are the Cardinals willing to sacrifice their long-term success for a shot at their eleventh championship?

The Cardinals’ farm system looks far worse than it did a year ago, but drafting pitcher Shelby Miller looks like a step in the right direction. The point here is that the Cardinals are not the Yankees, nor will they ever be. (Nor should they ever be, Cardinals fans will tell you.) Maybe it’s in the team’s best interest to take a cue from the Rays, whose homegrown talent propelled them to a pennant in 2008 and a respectable 2009.

  Cardinals fans are, for the most part, patient Midwesterners, but a disturbing “win now, at any cost” trend has surfaced since the 2006 title. I can hear it at Busch Stadium, where fans have taken to more vocal criticism of the team. People don’t want to wait another 24 years like they had to wait after 1982’s championship.

A article published earlier this month featured a digitally altered portrait of Pujols in Yankee pinstripes, causing quite a stir amongst anxious Cardinals fans. If this fantasy somehow comes to fruition, Cardinals fans can be certain that the wait for an eleventh championship will be even longer than expected.