News broke on Monday that Albert Pujols would be out four to six weeks with a fractured forearm. A popular thought among Brewers fans and some local media yesterday was that this injury gives the Brewers an opening to take control of the National League Central.
I’m not so sure. There’s no doubt that losing Pujols will hurt the Cardinals’ lineup, but the question is how much.
Pujols is a Hall of Fame talent who is merely playing like an All-Star this season. When he went down, he was hitting .279/.355/.500 despite a BABIP of just .253 — nearly 70 points below his career BABIP of .321. Despite the “down” year, that’s still some very good production out of first base. Luckily for the Cards, Pujols will presumably be replaced at first by Lance Berkman, who’s been even better to this point — he’s hitting .308/.421/.601. Berkman has been worth 2.5 fWAR, compared to Pujols’ 2.3, and that’s with some terrible outfield defense weighing his numbers down.
Of course, Berkman was already in the lineup with Pujols, so we can’t really say he’s the one replacing Albert’s bat. That distinction will likely belong to Jon Jay as he moves into full-time outfield duty while Berkman mans first. Jay is no Pujols, but in limited ABs this year, he hasn’t been a slouch, either. In 179 PAs, he’s posted a .313/.364/.436 line. That’s aided by a BABIP of .370, but even if/when those offensive numbers start to fall with everyday duty, his defense in right field should at least be an improvement over Berkman’s. It’s not crazy to think that at least defensively, the Cards will break even (if not improve slightly) with Berkman at first and Jay in right.
How many wins will losing Pujols cost the Cardinals, though? That’s the toughest question to answer, but it’s also the one that affects the Brewers the most. It’s hard to peg down an exact number, but if you go by fWAR alone, Pujols has been worth about 1.4 wins more than Jay over the course of a full season. Admittedly, this is a crude way to make a comparison, but when you break that down into a 4-6 week stretch, you’re talking a difference of less than a win.
Things change a little bit if the newly-called-up Mark Hamilton gets a bulk of the starts in the outfield. Hamilton was hitting the cover off the ball for Triple A Memphis, but that was in only 27 games. His previous cups of coffee in the majors haven’t produced good results, but in six minor league seasons, he’s hit .281/.366/.480. He likely would provide more pop in the lineup than Jay, but his value to the big league club is still relatively unknown. It’s entirely possible he hits enough to be just as valuable as Jay, but it’s also possible he plays at replacement level.
The Cardinals still have very good pitching. Their offense, even without Pujols, will still be above average. And the Cardinals are only half of the equation — the Brewers still need to capitalize and win their own games, which they’ve struggled to do while St. Louis has been on its most recent cold streak. The Brewers will spend a good chunk of Pujols’ recovery time trying to survive their murderous Interleague slate, and the All-Star Break accounts for another near-week of recovery time for Albert.
And, lest anyone forget, Joe Strauss reminded everyone yesterday that if Pujols does return by August 1st — the 6th week in that “4-6 weeks” timeframe — the Cards and Brewers play head-to-head 9 times in August. Even if the Brewers can build up a nice lead on St. Louis during the time Pujols is out, that can disappear in a hurry with a few series losses.
Could the Pujols injury be beneficial to the Brewers? Sure. But it’s far from a guarantee.