Pujols’ departure a blessing in disguise

It’s a great day for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Yes, Albert Pujols is an eminent player. Yes, Cardinals fans feel heartsick right now. Yes, a unique opportunity in baseball history — the chance for Pujols to succeed Stan Musial as the Cardinals’ franchise icon — has been lost forever.

In the immediate aftermath of this morning’s bulletin — Pujols to the Angels for between $250 million and $260 million over 10 years — Cardinals officials mastered the Mr. Yuk face. But give them time. They will come around. This is excellent news for the Cardinals’ long-term, on-field health.

Don’t get me wrong: Pujols is probably the game’s best hitter. He should retain that title for several more seasons. The Cardinals, in the near term, would have been better with him than without him.

But objectively speaking, a 10-year contract for Pujols in the National League would have been a catastrophe. Pujols turns 32 next month. The 40-homer, 110-RBI seasons will continue for a while — but not into perpetuity. In St. Louis, without the therapeutic benefit of DH days, there’s an excellent chance this contract would have gone rogue on the backstretch.

Cardinals fans would have had to watch Albert become A-Rod 2.0. And that might happen, anyway, although the Angels can do more to preserve his legs and back in the American League.

Under his new contract, Pujols will play four seasons at 38 or older. Over the last six years, according to STATS LLC, only two position players made All-Star teams when beginning a season at those ages. One was the worn-down Barry Bonds, the beneficiary of a courtesy vote in San Francisco during his farewell season of 2007.

Let’s not forget an important detail in all of this: The Cardinals just won the World Series. Co-ace Adam Wainwright is coming back from arm surgery. They have Lance Berkman to play first base or right field, depending on where general manager John Mozeliak decides to add a bat. They have All-Star run producers in Berkman and Matt Holliday, along with a rising star in David Freese. The bullpen is deep. They should win the weakened NL Central.

So, spare me the LeBron James comparisons. LeBron left the Cavaliers without a championship or a sufficient amount of talent to put a competitive team on the court. Pujols committed neither of those sins in St. Louis. He won two championships for the city. He is leaving a strong clubhouse behind. Sure, he’s turning his back on a city’s unconditional love. For that, some will see him as a villain. But the World Series DVDs will ease the pain.

To declare the Cardinals a ruined franchise is to ignore an important piece of recent baseball history: Alex Rodriguez left the Seattle Mariners for the Texas Rangers during a winter meetings at this very same hotel 11 years ago. His 10-year, $252 million contract was almost identical to the one Pujols has received. The Mariners were supposedly doomed. Well, all they did the following season was win an AL-record 116 games.

St. Louis fans have every right to feel bitter today. They should grieve the loss of a superstar who fit their city so well. But if the pity party goes on for too long, I’ll criticize their lack of perspective. They should consider themselves fortunate to have seen 11 of the greatest seasons in baseball history, during which they celebrated two World Series championships. If they’re feeling down, they should call their friends in Cleveland and ask if they would have taken that bargain with James, Manny Ramirez, or the other stars who left.

The Cardinals may have a homespun fan base, but free agency isn’t foreign to them. The concept dates to Curt Flood more than 40 years ago. The organization survived when Flood left. It should thrive now.

If anything, Cardinals fans ought to think big about the possibilities Mozeliak has in front of him. Should he go after Prince Fielder? How about Carlos Beltran? Maybe Jason Kubel or Michael Cuddyer, free agents who received a principled baseball education from the Minnesota Twins? With the right moves, folks in St. Louis can dream — credibly — about a reunion with Pujols and the Angels in the 2012 World Series.

But just to be safe, perhaps the Major League Baseball schedule-makers should arrange an Angels-Cardinals series at Busch Stadium in 2013. By then, Cardinals fans may be able to appreciate the blessing they received on Dec. 8, 2011.