Coming into the season, the general view is that Albert Pujols leaving St. Louis to head to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim was probably bad news for the Cardinals and good news for the rest of the National League Central.  After all, Albert Pujols was almost unarguably the best offensive player in baseball over the past decade.

I will avoid debate regarding the level of decrease the Cardinals will face in 2012 as a result of transitioning from Pujols at first base and Lance Berkman in right field to Berkman at first and Carlos Beltran in right field because I am honestly not very concerned with 2012.  I expect the Cubs to be bad in 2012, hovering in the 70-75 win area they have occupied the last two seasons.  In 2013, I expect the Cubs to “compete” in the NL Central in 2013, by which I mean that they will be within five or six games of first place at the All Star Break and finish around .500.  I expect the Cubs to actually be competitive with a legitimate shot to win the NL Central in 2014.

Let’s look at the landscape of the NL Central in 2014: the Brewers will probably have lost a significant amount of their starting rotation (including possibly Zack Greinke) and do not have the prospects or money to replace the players they are going to lose.  The Reds will almost certainly have lost Joey Votto sometime in the prior calendar year, and will probably be looking to rebuild around Devin Mesoraco.  I will believe the Pirates are going to put it all together when they actually put it all together.  And the Astros are further behind the Cubs, although they should be coming closer two years from now.

Now envision the contract Albert Pujols would have taken from the Cardinals had he been willing to give a hometown discount.  Let’s say he had been willing to take $22 million per year for eight years.  Between Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, the Cardinals would have $39 million, about 40% of their average payroll over the last several years, committed to two players who will be 34 years old in 2014.

Instead, the Cardinals have only $24.75 million committed towards 2014: Holliday’s $17 million and Jaime Garcia for $7.75 million.  Add to that a front office that has been one of the consistently strongest in baseball and one of baseball’s highest rated farm system, and the Cardinals may be able to retool from a team that relies on older vets Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran and Chris Carpenter very quickly.

If there is one team that I truly despise, it is the Cardinals.  But they are also the team I most respect and fear.  If I see the Brewers five games behind the Cubs in mid-August, I am pretty confident the Cubs will maintain the gap.  If I see the Cardinals five games back, I get nervous.  The Cardinals are the Yankees of the National League.  They are the team that turns other team’s has beens into Cy Young award winners.  They are the team that drafts a pudgy third baseman in the thirteenth round of the draft and winds up with Albert Pujols.

I would have loved to see the Cardinals bogged down in massive contracts to two aging veterans through the majority of the decade.  But while having to fight it out with a Cardinals team that has all of its pieces in tact may be more difficult, it is equally true that it will mean more to also beat a Cardinals team at full strength instead of feasting on the eventually inevitable husks of two aging former superstars if Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are able to build a team that reaches the promised land.

**I wrote everything above here on Sunday evening, but thought an update was necessary due to the news that Yadier Molina is about to sign a 5 year, $70-$75 million contract extension with the Cardinals.  Molina has been one of the best catchers in baseball over the last five seasons, including probably being the best defensive catcher in baseball over that period.  While I would generally avoid a contract that pays a catcher big dollars through the season where he will turn 35, the Molina brothers have done a good job of being able to stay behind the plate into their mid-30s.  

And if the Cardinals had signed Albert Pujols this offseason, there is almost no conceivable way they would have been able to keep Yadier Molina after 2012.

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Noah Eisner is a Chicago attorney living in the western suburbs with his wife and son (and impending daughter). When he isn’t practicing law or entertaining a toddler, Noah follows Cubs baseball with a focus on the farm system and sabermetric analysis. His Cubs-related ramblings can be followed on Twitter @Noah_Eisner.