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Late Sunday night, Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals agreed to a deal that will bring the future Hall of Famer back to St. Louis after 10 seasons soaking up the sun in Los Angeles.
The Cardinals are certainly an organization known for its loyalty, especially to those players whom Cardinals fans love. Yadier Molina is back for his 19th and final major league season with the team. Adam Wainwright is back for his 17th season. Now comes the reunion with Pujols, the future Hall of Famer who led the Cardinals to a World Series title in his last season with the club in 2011.
In a time when front offices are often cold and calculating in their evaluation of players, this move has a distinctly emotional component to it. It feels like it’s for the fans as much as the organization. The direct analogy would be when the Mariners brought a 39-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. back in 2009, when he was a shell of the superstar player he was during his younger days in Seattle.
The same, of course, can be said for Pujols, now 42 years old and strictly a part-time player. The difference was the Mariners were coming off a 101-loss season in 2008 and viewed Griffey as a drawing card. The Cardinals are trying to win.
And maybe Pujols actually can help. His career appeared over after the Angels released him when he was hitting .198/.250/.372 on May 13. Four days later, however, the Dodgers signed him, looking for a right-handed bat after a string of injuries hit their roster. Pujols hit a respectable .254/.299/.460 for the Dodgers, starting 37 games at first base and coming off the bench. He especially mashed lefties, finishing the season hitting .294/.336/.603 against left-handed pitching.
That player can help the Cardinals in a DH role, probably sharing duties with offseason addition Corey Dickerson, and give new manager Oliver Marmol a late-game pinch-hitting option. Pujols was essentially useless against righties (.180/.233/.266) in 2021 and there is hardly a guarantee he’ll produce like he did last season against lefties given a less-than-stellar .235/.288/.453 line against them from 2018 to 2020, but there is little harm in finding out. The reported $2.5 million deal has basically zero risk in today’s game, and Dodgers teammates raved about his presence in the clubhouse, so there’s added benefit to having him around.
Of course, there is one risk: What if Pujols really is done, as he appeared to be with the Angels? When Griffey returned to the Mariners in 2009, he was fine. Not great, but playable, with a 97 OPS+. The Mariners even had a surprising season, winning 85 games. But then they brought him back for 2010 and he played 33 games, hitting .184 without a home run. Everyone kept waiting for that one last moment, but Griffey started just once in his final 15 days with the team before finally choosing to walk away. How do the Cardinals handle Pujols if a similar situation develops? Will he, like Griffey, avoid becoming a distraction and call it quits if he feels like he’s not contributing? It could become a tricky situation. Or what happens if Pujols is struggling and Juan Yepez is raking in the minors? Again, this is a team trying to contend.
The cold-and-calculating assessment suggests there’s no room for emotional decisions — especially since the Cardinals have a young player in line to get a chance at the DH role. Yepez, a right-handed-hitting first baseman, hit .286/.383/.586 in the minors (mostly at Triple-A) with 27 home runs in 367 at-bats and a very reasonable 19% strikeout rate. The Cardinals have also had a couple weeks to evaluate Yepez. Maybe they don’t think he’s ready to contribute, although 21 spring training plate appearances is hardly evidence of anything.
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It would seem difficult to fit both Pujols and Yepez on the roster — although Yepez did play a little third base and corner outfield in the minors. But if the Cardinals presumably carry 13 position players and Dickerson is the regular DH, that leaves a four-man bench of Pujols, a backup catcher (Ali Sanchez or Andrew Knizner), Edmundo Sosa or Paul DeJong (whoever doesn’t start at shortstop) and probably outfielder Lars Nootbaar. Top prospect Nolan Gorman is a good bet to begin the season in Triple-A, although he could certainly eventually push Tommy Edman aside at second base later in the season. Teams are allowed to carry 28 players in April due to the shortened spring training, so it’s possible they carry an extra position player, especially since Marmol has expressed the desire to be more flexible in his lineups than Mike Shildt, who preferred a set lineup. Maybe that gives space to both Pujols and Yepez on the roster, with Pujols serving as the perfect mentor for the 24-year-old Venezuelan.
When a move like this is made, I like to see how the player fits in against division rivals. Here are some of the lefty starters in the NL Central who Pujols could end up starting against:
Brewers: Eric Lauer, Aaron Ashby (and Josh Hader and Brent Suter in relief)
Reds: Mike Minor
Cubs: Wade Miley, Drew Smyly
Pirates: Jose Quintana
It’s not like the NL Central is loaded with lefty starters. Of course, the Braves (Max Fried, the bullpen), Dodgers (Julio Urias, Clayton Kershaw, Danny Duffy, Andrew Heaney) and Giants (Carlos Rodon, Alex Wood) are loaded with lefties, and those are the teams the Cardinals will have to get past to make a deep run into October.
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Pujols is chasing some big milestones. He’s 21 home runs away from becoming the fourth player to hit 700 (and 17 away from tying Alex Rodriguez at 696). That’s the big one, although Pujols told ESPN last September that “I’m not chasing anything.” He could pass Willie Mays and Stan Musial on the total bases list, after which he would trail only Henry Aaron. He’s 12th on the all-time hits list, and just 19 away from moving past Eddie Collins and then Paul Molitor into 10th.
Mostly though, it seems like Pujols just wants to keep playing baseball. The Cardinals open at home against the Pirates on April 7. Pujols won’t have much time to get ready, but you have to think he’ll be in the lineup alongside old pals Molina and Wainwright. He’ll get a huge ovation from Redbird Nation. Griffey homered in his first game back with the Mariners. Wouldn’t it be something if Pujols hit one out?
Source: ESPN MLB