On Sunday, during an otherwise normal-looking defensive play, Albert Pujols attempted a scoop and had his arm collide with Wilson Betemit's charging body. Pujols immediately crumpled to the ground in pain, and on Monday the word's out that Pujols has a small fracture, and will miss four to six weeks. When he officially goes on the disabled list, it will mark just the third trip to the DL of his 11-year career.
It isn't hard to see how this is going to be a blow to the Cardinals. Albert Pujols is Albert Pujols. He's one of the greatest hitters of all time. The Cardinals are currently tied with the Brewers atop the NL Central, and will now have to move forward without their #3 hitter for a considerable length of time. The Cardinals are built around a core of stars, and they've now seen Pujols get hurt, and Matt Holliday get hurt, and Adam Wainwright get really hurt. This isn't the way they drew it up.
But there's a good chance this won't be as devastating as it sounds. When you hear "Albert Pujols hurt," your instinct is to think "oh man the Cardinals are screwed." Pujols, though, has posted just an .855 OPS this season, and while he's been red-hot lately, this is still a team that's reached first place with Pujols performing below his usual level. Pujols' absence means that Lance Berkman will slide to first and Jon Jay and Andrew Brown will pick up the slack in right field. Jay and Brown are both capable hitters, and so the Cardinals' offense may not suffer too much. Note that David Freese is due back from the DL soon, too. As weird as it is to think about, the Cardinals could still run out a pretty good lineup even without their Hall-of-Fame first baseman.
We'll see how Pujols recovers. We'll see how long he's out, and whether he's 100%, or anything close to 100%, when he comes back. Injuries of this nature have been known to inhibit offensive performance before. But if Pujols misses, say, six weeks, and comes back mostly himself, the Cardinals should be able to survive his injury just fine. Or at least, if they fall apart, they'll likely fall apart for other reasons.
More interesting, perhaps, than the short-term consequences of Pujols' injury are the potential consequences down the road. Pujols and the Cardinals famously could not come to a contract extension agreement before the season, meaning that Pujols was set to become a free agent this fall. And there was a lot of talk about whether Pujols would receive the biggest contract in baseball history. Now, though, that outcome looks incredibly unlikely, as a 31-year-old Pujols will be coming off a season that saw him get injured and perform below his established level.
Pujols, of course, will still cash in, especially if he comes back looking good down the stretch. But he won't cash in to the same degree, because there will be more question marks than there were last spring. If not a red flag, Pujols' 2011 is at least a yellow one.
One wonders if Pujols' 2011 makes him more or less likely to re-sign with St. Louis. It should make him more affordable. It should in some way reduce his demands. If the Cardinals come out of this convinced that Pujols still has plenty left in the tank, they should be more able to find some common ground. In that regard you could make the argument that Pujols' injury might even be a good thing for the city and the organization.
That Albert Pujols has a forearm fracture is big, big news, with the Cardinals in the midst of a pennant race. The team, though, should get past this - especially given that Pujols hasn't been himself - and if Pujols makes a good recovery, there may yet be plenty of sunshine in the Cardinals' future.