Albert Pujols should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. His future plaque in Cooperstown should feature a St. Louis Cardinals cap. He should have a statue outside of Busch Stadium. His No. 5 should be retired and preserved on the left field wall. And if retirement becomes his plan now that the Angels have designated for assignment one of the greatest right-handed hitters ever, the Cardinals should absolutely find some way to make it possible for him to retire while wearing the birds on the bat.
If at any point during the rest of this column you think I’m misunderstanding, underestimating or insulting the greatness of Pujols, please do me a favor — stop and reread that first paragraph.
Now, let’s discuss the topic St. Louis will be obsessing over for days.
I’ll play the role of the bad guy.
Cardinals fans — and apparently Yadier Molina, according to his latest Instagram post — want to know.
Could a Pujols-Cardinals reunion be in the works?
I asked the Cardinals front office on Thursday, after the big news in California.
They didn’t rush to shoot down the idea, like the White Sox did to USA Today. They didn’t wink or nudge, either. They abstained, at least for now.
Ongoing within the organization is the conversation taking place on radio airwaves and in family text message threads.
Should the Cardinals bring back Pujols?
Are they a better baseball team if they do?
If the reunion is for celebratory purposes only, sure. Why not? Bring back Pujols for a big retirement party in September. Let him go out with the team that got the best of him, 11 seasons of dominance unlike anything that has been witnessed here before.
Anything beyond that could be problematic for multiple reasons, none of them related to the very small amount of money it would take to fund the hope-driven experiment.
The biggest reason to steer clear is the same reason the Angels cut ties prematurely from the 10-year, $240 million deal that still owed Pujols $30 million entering this final season. If Pujols wanted to retire, he would have done so with the Angels. He doesn’t want to retire. He wants to keep playing. He wants to keep chasing those records, none bigger left on his to-do list than 700 home runs he trails by 33. Pujols was especially frustrated about being benched by manager Joe Maddon on Wednesday against Tampa Bay pitcher Ryan Yarbrough, a southpaw he had success against in the past. Things came to a head shortly after that.
“The guy wants to play,” Maddon said in a press conference Thursday. “He wants to be on the field. He does not want to be a bench player of any kind.”
Yet as of Wednesday, Pujols was averaging .198 with a .250 on-base percentage and a .372 slugging percentage through 86 at-bats this season.
See the rub?
The Machine sounds like a man still on a mission. I’m having trouble seeing how that mission could align with the first-place Cardinals’ mission of turning an 18-14 start into winning the National League Central and then some. Unless something changes. More on that in a moment.
The Cardinals don’t have a designated hitter spot for Pujols. The NL didn’t adopt the rule this season after playing with it last season. Paul Goldschmidt is at first base, where Pujols mostly plays when he’s not a designated hitter. Nolan Arenado is at third base, where Pujols spent time during one game this season. Pujols has not played outfield, where he broke in with the Cardinals, since 2003. If he’s determined to start, he has no home here.
But what about the bench, some of you want to know.
What if Pujols decides he’s happy primarily pinch-hitting for the Cardinals and competing for the DH assignment when it comes up against AL teams? What if he accepts the role in St. Louis he rejected with the Angels? What if the Cardinals decide they are willing to find a place for him on the roster even if it means eating a contract, or changing their tune about needing to give young players, like outfielder Lane Thomas, more chances? Let’s play that out a bit.
Pujols has zero hits in five pinch-hit chances since 2019. Too small of a sample size to analyze. But he’s averaged .188 with a .243 on-base percentage and a .339 slugging percentage in 165 at-bats as a designated hitter during that same span. Not good. That’s an on-base plus slugging percentage of .582. The average National League OPS for pinch-hitters since the start of 2019 reads .694. So even if you assume Pujols would be as good of a pinch-hitter as he has been a designated hitter, he falls far short of average over the past two-plus seasons. And that assumption is generous, considering pinch-hitting is, well, really hard.
Simply put, there is no recent evidence — other than hope — that suggests Pujols would be an average right-handed bat off the bench for the Redbirds. Then again, the Cardinals don’t currently have a right-handed hitter who has more than two pinch-hits for the team this season. If Pujols is willing to be a bench bat, and the Cardinals are desperate to convince potentially hesitant fans to come to the ballpark as pandemic restrictions lift, there is a marketing upside to consider. That feels kind of sad to me. Maybe I’m in the minority there.
You know how people complain about how Angels superstar Mike Trout playing in those late West Coast games robs people from seeing his greatness? It’s been the same for the decline of Pujols, whose hitting prowess has eroded year by year and injury by injury since he left St. Louis. A return would make the difference impossible to ignore.
Pujols has averaged .240 with a .289 on-base percentage and a .405 slugging percentage since 2017. His on-base percentage as an Angel (.311) is now lower than his batting average with the Cardinals (.328). If this turns into the end of his playing career, he won’t retire as a .300 hitter (.298). A total of 168 major leaguers have tallied more than 600 at-bats since the start of the 2019 season. The 35-year-old Matt Carpenter (.689) and the 41-year-old Pujols (.707) can both be found in the list’s bottom-20 when sorted by on-base plus slugging percentage. Cardinals fans aren’t exactly jumping for joy when Carpenter comes to bat. How long would they cheer Pujols?
The fond memories Pujols stirred during his trip here with the Angels in 2019 felt like closure after his free-agent departure. Such magic would be hard to recreate night in and night out. Some of the same fans who called for Pujols’ return would inevitably start ripping the front office for chasing the sepia-toned past instead of prioritizing a 12th championship if Pujols failed.
When the best argument for something is nostalgia, it’s not a great argument.
And unless Pujols is willing to come off the bench, and the Cardinals are willing to admit they’re making a marketing move, there isn’t really much to talk about.