No guarantees with Pujols injury

If Albert Pujols misses only four to six weeks, then his injury might not be that big a deal.

Pujols would return around Aug. 1, giving him time to lift the Cardinals to the postseason and reinforce his own free-agent value.

The problem is A) we don’t know if Pujols will indeed return from a non-displaced fracture of his left radius (forearm) that quickly and B) if lingering effects from the injury will diminish his offensive performance.

Wrist/forearm injuries are notoriously tricky for hitters, and this one is to Pujols’ bottom hand. I don’t want to be alarmist — the injury is a small fracture, and Pujols will not require surgery. But to expect him to return as the same hitter right away — and, for that matter, the rest of the season — well, it’s just not guaranteed.

Obviously, this is a major blow to the Cardinals, who will replace Pujols by moving Lance Berkman to first base and going with an outfield of Jon Jay, Colby Rasmus and Matt Holliday. Their offense, second in the NL in runs, still will be potent, particularly with third baseman David Freese seemingly close to returning from a broken left hand. But the way the Cardinals were constructed, they need their offense to be elite.

The team’s pitching has been increasingly shaky — the staff’s 5.05 ERA in June ranks next-to-last in the NL. This might simply qualify as a bad stretch, and the club almost certainly will add a reliever before the July 31 non-waiver deadline. Alas, the Cardinals are not losing the Pujols who struggled for the first two months of the season. They’re losing the real thing.

Pujols, 31, has returned to form in recent weeks, batting .343/.439/.814 in 70 at-bats since May 29. He was on a 38-homer, 100-RBI pace when his injury occurred, and his .855 OPS ranked 20th in the NL — with a bullet. Just when the old Albert reappeared, the old Albert is gone.

So, will all this affect his free-agent value? My guess is no. Yes, Pujols gambled by turning down $200 million or so from the Cardinals before the season started. But frankly, the only way the injury will damage his position in the marketplace is if it affects his long-term ability as a hitter. And does anyone really see that happening?

Interested teams will bid on Pujols based on his past achievements, his future potential and the dramatic impact he might make on their franchise. Maybe Pujols won’t get $300 million. Maybe he would not have gotten $300 million, anyway. But he will get paid as long as he comes back strong at some point this season.

His injury does not threaten his career. It does not even threaten his season. If he misses four to six weeks, then returns to form, then no big deal. If this turns out to be something else — something worse — then it’s a different story.

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