The curiosity bubbled for more than a week. The debates were friendly. The what-if speculation was fascinating and fun. Albert Pujols was available. But was he feasible?
Is it possible for Pujols to sign with the Cardinals and come home? Or perhaps we were simply wishcasting, hoping for a baseball movie. Simply imagining a fanciful storyline of the hero returning to his place of origin.
The question is officially irrelevant, now that The Machine is making the drive from Anaheim to Los Angeles, presumably on the Santa Ana Freeway. Dumped by the Angels. The halo was removed, and retrieved by the Dodgers.
The Pujols-Dodgers match makes sense. It materialized out of necessity. He needed a job. An injury-afflicted team needed a poultice for its fragmented offense. The Dodgers required depth. Pujols required a stage. It’s a deal.
We’ll see if Pujols can recharge at age 41, his fraying wires relinked for a chance to be part of another pennant winner and World Series champion. But that can’t be the only motivation for Pujols to keep going on legs made weary by competing in nearly 3,000 MLB games.
Pride is on the line, and Pujols’ competitive engine remains at full speed. The Dodgers offer Pujols the opportunity to embarrass the Angels. And depending on the frequency of at-bats, Pujols can resume his chase of career home run No. 700. He needs 33, almost certainly unreachable in 2021. But what if the Dodgers ask Pujols to stick around, for 2022? Well, that’s an enormous longshot, but don’t tell Pujols that.
That’s his dream, to keep playing ball.
We still have ours — but the reunification is on hold.
And that’s OK.
Pujols will be tangled up in blue for a while. There will be a St. Louis homecoming some day, but not in 2021, unless you’re counting the Dodgers-Cardinals three-game series at Busch Stadium, scheduled for Sept 7-9.
This Meet Me In St. Louis reverie — Pujols reappearing in the Birds on the Bat — can play out in other ways. This full-circle journey will be a lesser version, but it’s better this way. He can return when he’s at peace with the completion of his career. If all parties really want to go for the theater, Albert can return for one final game, or a last at-bat.
And he’ll have many opportunities to come back and say hello. His franchise Hall of Fame induction. His presence as an opening-day deity in a red jacket. Perhaps even coaching or instructing. There is time to work through all of this, but it will happen.
I doubt that many if any fans are having a tantrum over the Cardinals’ decision to take a pass on Pujols. But just in case, let’s go through this …
1–If there was a decision here, it was made by Pujols. It wasn’t made by the Cardinals.
2–It was made by Pujols because he wants to play. The Dodgers are hurting. They have openings. They have at-bats to offer. Perhaps this role will change as the Dodgers become healthier, but for now Pujols can go in there swinging.
3–As we know, the Cardinals do not have a meaningful job for Pujols. Yeah, he could have been a primary pinch-hitter on a mediocre bench,, and make spot starts at first base. But again: Pujols wants more than that. A lot more. He’s emphatic. This is his goal, and he gets to choose where he wants to go. And if he’s determined to be written into a lineup enough times to avoid being viewed as a carnival attraction, the Dodgers can accommodate him. At least for a while.
4–Had Pujols sat and waited in vain for an attractive offer to come his way, he may have been more willing to accept a limited role in St. Louis. And if he had to settle for a small role, then why not do that here instead of shambling off to some hopeless-loser franchise that wants to draw attention (and fans) by making him the modern-day equivalent of Babe Ruth playing his final days for the sad-sack Boston Braves? But the situation never advanced to that regrettable stage. A great franchise, the Dodgers, wanted Pujols. And because of present circumstances they could keep him busier than most teams.
5–What, did we expect the Cardinals to tell Pujols to come on over, and take his old job for the remainder of the season, because they planned to bench or trade Paul Goldschmidt? He’s their first baseman. And he plays. And plays. And plays. There is no Goldy time-share at the first-base residence. Since the start of the 2012 season only one first baseman, Eric Hosmer, has played in more games than Goldy. He’s under contract at $26 million a year through 2024.
Look, I realize that you know all of that. But I’m just trying to underline — to the point of excess — the fundamental issue here. Playing time. I’m being annoying about it, and even I don’t know why … maybe I’m writing this to myself, because I kinda thought there was a way for Pujols and the Cardinals to work something out. And there might have been … at least until the Dodgers posted up.
6–Without a DH in the National League, Pujols has to play first base — or sit except for pinch-hitting gigs. The same principle applies to the Dodgers, so what’s the difference? Plenty. The Dodgers already were shorthanded before getting hit with the latest major blow: losing star shortstop Corey Seager to a fractured hand. He’ll miss at least a month, maybe six weeks.
Pujols gives LA manager Dave Roberts an immediate option at first base. The Dodgers will likely move first baseman Max Muncy to second base, sliding former top prospect Gavin Lux from 2B to shortstop. The shortstop position will likely turn into a loose platoon, using Lux and Chris Taylor . Lux has a .111 career average in limited at-bats vs. lefty pitchers, and Taylor has a career .804 OPS against LHP.
The Dodgers are missing former MVP first baseman-outfielder Cody Bellinger (a leg hairline fracture), power-hitting corner infielder-outfielder Edwin Rijos (shoulder surgery), infielder-outfielder Zach McKinstry (strained oblique) and outfielder A.J. Pollock (hamstring.)
With the roster is so thin on position players, the Dodgers had a busy weekend, adding Pujols and former Tampa Bay corner infielder (and left fielder) Yoshi Tsutsugo.
The Dodgers sought more power from the right side, and rookies Sheldon Neuse and D.J. Peters haven’t provided it. Enter Pujols.
7–Pujols figures to start at first base when the opponent starts a LH pitcher. And he should add value as a pinch-hitter vs. lefties. I don’t need to go back into Pujols’ offensive collapse; it’s old news. But since the start of the 2019 season Pujols has 13 doubles, 16 homers and a .490 slugging percentage in 275 PA against LHP. Pujols had three homers and a .593 slug for the Angels this season in his 28 at-bats vs. lefties.
8–Pujols pays attention to all things baseball. He’s probably taken note of the success of Dodgers’ president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman in identifying aging stars that had something left to help the Dodgers. Friedman’s most notable acquisitions in this category were second baseman Chase Utley and third baseman David Freese.
If Friedman is confident in Pujols, then Pujols should be happy. Friedman — arguably the best in the business at evaluating talent — wanted him. Part of that could be Pujols’ increases in average exit-velocity and hard-hit rate this season.
9–Pujols had another incentive: by joining the Dodgers he didn’t have to disrupt his family. They can remain in Orange County for the remainder of the season. Angels manager Joe Maddon made that point to reporters Saturday.
“I would imagine being close to home would have some benefit there,” Maddon said. “I don’t know exactly what the conversations were like, but I do wish him well. His family is right there, so it makes sense. If you get that opportunity closer to home, take it.”
10–I assume Pujols likes the idea of joining a team that has multiple Cy Young winners and MVPs on its roster. Starting pitchers Clayton Kershaw (three) and Trevor Bauer (one) have Cy Youngs. Kershaw, Bellinger and outfielder Mookie Betts have won league MVP awards. Seager was the World Series MVP last year. And Bellinger, Chris Taylor and Justin Turner have won an NLCS MVP award. Pujols and his three league MVPs (plus many other awards) brings more silver and gold to the Dodgers.
Pujols and the Cardinals didn’t reconnect, but that happy occasion will come later. I think about what it would have been like to witness the potential downside of Pujols-Cardinals in 2021. Albert not getting many at-bats. Not getting much done. Or just doing poorly, period.
It’s easy to think of the glory days shared by Pujols and the Cardinals and the fans. It’s human nature to want that back, as impractical and unlikely as it seems. And if Pujols had returned, the early days of his STL comeback would be happy and heartfelt and exciting. And then, most likely, cold reality would set in. And that starts with the original problem for which there is no work-around: a proud man and the lack of playing time.
When a cherished player turns old and can’t be the full and younger version of himself, the combination of precious memories and unrealistic expectations can lead to something worse than mutual disappointment.
The thought of seeing Pujols turn angry and disillusioned is difficult to contemplate. Just the possibility of a fading Pujols becoming the object of disdain in St. Louis is sad to think about. Sometimes it’s best to accept the verity of the here and now, letting it rest for a while, and being confident and content with the precious moments to come.
Thanks for reading …
Please check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.