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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Post-Pujols, Cards still as good as any in NL

Justice: Cards still as good as any in NL

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Post-Pujols, Cards still as good as any in NL

MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

DALLAS -- Once the shock wears off, the St. Louis Cardinals will get back to doing the things they've almost always done.

That is, they'll win. In 2012. Write it down. Is there a National League team better than the Cardinals?

OK, let's get to that part of this story in a moment.

First, let's look at the decision the Cardinals made. They attempted to re-sign Albert Pujols. Boy did they try.

They put a nine-year, $198-million offer on the table last spring and increased it this week. But the thing they didn't do is every bit as difficult as the thing they did.

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It's the thing good organizations do, and it's sometimes incredibly difficult. The Cardinals had to assign a value to Pujols, and that's not easy in a business in which emotion frequently frames decisions.

To ignore the noise of fans, talk-show hosts, etc., requires discipline many organizations don't have. In the wake of Pujols agreeing to a 10-year deal with the Angels worth between $250 million and $260 million, there'll be a storm of second-guessing about how the Cardinals handled the negotiations.

In the end, though, the Cardinals would not give him a blank contract. They did increase their original offer, but they apparently declined to guarantee a 10th year of the deal, when Pujols will be 41.

That 10th year simply didn't make sense for the Cardinals. Based on 2011, they're just not certain how many great years he has left.

So they drew a line. From the beginning, they said they could afford a $110-million payroll. They may have moved on that a bit in the hopes of trading some pitching later, but they were unwilling to go for 10 years and $250 million.

How badly are they hurt? Let's not sugarcoat it. They've just said goodbye to baseball's best player. He has been a rock of consistency during his 11 years, making 30-plus home runs and 100-plus RBIs look easy.

Every player in that lineup -- from Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman to Yadier Molina and David Freese -- has benefited from playing with Pujols.

Opposing pitchers measure their innings by where they are in the batting order in relation to Pujols. In short, he changes everything.

In a city where the Cardinals are the hot topic on talk radio almost every day of the year, Pujols was on his way to being mentioned in the same breath as the great Stan Musial.

That's why some of us never thought Pujols would change teams. The Cardinals may have wondered if Pujols might feel that way, too, if in the end he would want his legacy to be with one team.

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Now that conversation is over, and general manager John Mozeliak will attempt to fill one of the largest holes any general manager has ever had to fill. Let's be clear that there's no scenario in which the Cardinals are better off without Pujols, but plenty of other general managers would still like to have Mozeliak's cards to play.

They know that for all of Pujols' greatness, there was a downside to signing him. He was going to take up such a large portion of that $110-million payroll that he was going to limit every other thing the Cardinals could do.

Just ask Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. A decade ago, he was telling reporters that signing a player like Alex Rodriguez made no sense for some markets.

At the time, he was general manager of the Rangers. He said he couldn't build a complete team if he splurged on A-Rod.

Incredibly, a few days later, Tom Hicks -- then the owner of the Rangers -- signed A-Rod to a then-breathtaking $250-million deal. Melvin ended up getting fired when Rodriguez didn't deliver a championship on his own.

This week, Melvin said he was surprised more attention wasn't paid to the downside of mega-deals.

"You have to keep in mind what your club is going to look like two or three years down the road,'' he said.

His team is in the middle of that same debate in attempting to re-sign Prince Fielder.

"So that's why we're just trying to be disciplined enough to know if you do something, it's not about winning headlines for two days and then being a bad ballclub for three years and trying to get rid of players,'' he said.

The Cardinals wanted Pujols. Badly. They tried to re-sign him. Now, though, they've got the financial flexibility to fill holes and put a competitive team on the field.

Is there an NL team better that the Cardinals? Right now. Today.

They'll once more have Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter at the top of one of baseball's best rotations. They'll have Jason Motte at the back of a deep bullpen.

Who wouldn't want a lineup that has Berkman, Holliday, Molina and Freese, who won the World Series Most Valuable Player Award?

If Mozeliak signs, say, Carlos Beltran and moves Berkman to first base, the Cardinals will score plenty of runs.

The Phillies? Yes, you can make the argument they're better than the Cardinals -- great rotation, deep lineup, outstanding manager.

But the Phillies aren't without issues. They have no idea when Ryan Howard will be available or who will pitch the innings in front of Jonathan Papelbon.

The Brewers? There's a dynamic rotation and terrific closer. There's Ryan Braun in the middle of the lineup that may or may not have Fielder.

The Marlins? There's plenty to like with Jose Reyes at the top of the order and Josh Johnson back at the front of the rotation. Mark Buehrle is a great, great addition -- a tough, hard-nosed, pitcher who'll be a leader on the field and off. New closer Heath Bell is a lot like that, too.

Even if the Marlins can't somehow convince Hanley Ramirez to accept the switch to third base, it'll be a great summer of baseball in South Florida.

But the Cardinals are very much in the mix. They'll be different without Tony La Russa and Pujols, but they've still got the basic elements of a good organization and a good team.

That's the thing they have to cling to as they look at a future without Pujols. The Cardinals won before he got there, and they've got a great shot to win after him.

It'll take some time to grasp a post-Albert era in St. Louis, but the Cardinals knew there was this chance when this process started. They're as prepared as any team could be for how it played out. Great organizations endure, and they're still one of the best.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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