No matter how hard Angels owner Arte Moreno tries to spin it, his irrational impulse purchase of free-agent first baseman Albert Pujols was a flop.
Moreno swooped in with a 10-year, $240 million offer and charmed Pujols after the Cardinal icon became embittered over salty contract negotiations to remain in St. Louis. Pujols reacted emotionally, turned down the $200 million-plus pitched by the Cardinals, and signed away a chance to play his entire career in a city that loved him. He left an adoring fan base that would support him unconditionally.
Sometimes it comes down to a business decision.
And sometimes those business decisions go wrong and become expensive, epic mistakes.
For much of his time in Anaheim, Pujols was out of place with a chronically mediocre franchise. Much of his decline phase was unseen in the shadows of a late-night baseball outpost. The Angels are not the Dodgers, and never will be. And despite Moreno’s naive vision, Pujols couldn’t change that.
Angels fans were polite to Pujols and supported his charitable foundation. But let’s be real here: unless Pujols was nearing a historic career milestone for hits or home runs, his national profile subsided. And even when Pujols reached 3,000 hits, or slammed home-run number 500 or 600, the national media mostly dwelled on Pujols’ 11 seasons of glory-days baseball in St. Louis.
The fans in Orange County cheered him, but the legend from St. Louis wasn’t their guy. Moreno didn’t rest. He wasn’t about to give up. He just went out there again, in December 2015, in search of yet another aging, declining big-name player.
The Angels proceeded to throw a five-year $125 million contract on Josh Hamilton, the occasionally interested outfielder. Hamilton lasted less than two years for the Halos, who agreed to eat nearly $75 million of the remaining contract to ship him back to Texas.
Thankfully for the Angels and all fans of major league baseball, Mike Trout arrived for his first full season with the Angels in 2012, just as Pujols was settling in for his first year. Trout became the game’s best all-around player and a feel-good presence for the Anaheim franchise. The charismatic Shohei Otani signed with the Angels in 2018, and that made Pujols even less of a factor from a marketing and performance standpoint.
After the anger over his free-agent departure subsided, Pujols and Cardinals fans found peace. He remained a revered figure in St. Louis — still the face of the Cardinals’ franchise, but only in exile. That was reaffirmed when the Angels visited Busch Stadium in June of 2019 for a three-day Pujols Festival. This was an unforgettable and emotional celebration for Pujols and his people.
The St. Louis homecoming probably helped keep Albert’s mind on more pleasant memories. The move to Anaheim hadn’t gone so well.
It wasn’t Pujols’ fault. The decision to leave can be questioned, but the Angels failed to back their Pujols investment by building a winner. When you still can’t win after lavishing $240 million on Pujols, and drafting and developing Trout … well, the cluelessness is staggering.
And the blame goes to Moreno and the Angels for the failure to realize that Pujols, 32, would age quickly as a player. There were signs of that in 2011, Pujols’ final year with the Cardinals. Either that, or they knew the Pujols collapse was inevitable and just didn’t care about wasting more money. The contract was a millstone.
In Pujols’ first nine seasons of the 10-year agreement, the Angels had six losing records and made the playoffs one time only, in 2014. They never won a postseason game with the Pujols-Trout tandem. And with a .486 winning percentage through Monday, the Angels could be headed to their seventh losing record in 10 years.
Hey, at least the Halos made the big move to kick Pujols out. Yeah, that will fix the team’s 5.53 ERA, the worst in the majors.
Losing Pujols wasn’t exactly a fun and pleasing development, but the Cardinals came out of it just fine. And when you compare post-Pujols St. Louis to the Pujols-employed Anaheim, it’s laughable.
Since their first season (2012) without Pujols, the Cardinals have the third-best winning percentage in the majors. They’ve reached the postseason six times in nine years, capturing the NL pennant in 2013, winning 100 games in 2015, competing in the NLCS four times, and winning 25 postseason games.
Moreno’s Angels have spent approximately $236 million more on player payroll than Bill DeWitt’s Cardinals since the start of the 2012 campaign.
In the 2021 franchise value listing by Forbes, the Cardinals were 7th at $2.245 billion — two places ahead of the Angels ($2.025 billion.)
The Cards can be overly pragmatic, but their consistent philosophy and long-range planning have produced terrific baseball over the last 26 years. Unlike Moreno, DeWitt believes in building a strong farm system that constantly produces a deep supply of home-grown pitching. Unlike Moreno and so many other MLB owners, he doesn’t pursue vanity signings in free agency.
And while DeWitt made a good offer, he didn’t match Moreno’s bid for Pujols. That was an uncomfortable decision — but the right one.
The Cardinals paid Pujols $111 million for 11 remarkable seasons. They benefitted from 11 of the most prolific years by a player in MLB history at an annual average salary of $10 million.
Based on the salary context of the times, I don’t know if there’s ever been a better value.
Pujols had accrued 81.4 WAR for his first 10 seasons. The only position player to top that during the first 10 seasons of a career was Ted Williams (82.6 WAR.)
In his first 10 seasons as a Cardinal, Pujols hit over .300, blasted more than 30 homers and drove in 100+ runs in each of the 10 years. Babe Ruth is the only player in baseball history to do that more than 10 times. But Pujols is the only player to do it for 10 consecutive seasons.
Moreno paid Pujols $24 million a year for three good seasons, a couple of slightly-above average seasons, and five below-average years.
Using OPS+ — the league average is 100 — Pujols averaged 170 OPS+ over 11 seasons as a Cardinal. In Anaheim, Pujols never got anywhere near 170 OPS+ in one season — let alone 10. He posted his best OPS+ (138) in 2012, and the downturn continued from there. Over his final nine seasons as an Angel, Pujols had a 103 OPS+ that barely exceeded the league average. And over his final five seasons with Anaheim, Pujols came in at 15 percent below league average with an OPS+ of 85.
After the Angels released Pujols, Bill Shaikin wrote a harsh but accurate analysis for the Los Angeles Times:
“In the end, the Angels cut a guy batting .198. No big deal. And that, unfortunately, is the legacy of Albert Pujols with the Angels: No big deal.”
Shaikin cited an old Moreno quote from the day Pujols signed with the Angeles: “I’m a marketing guy,” Moreno said. “I just thought, ‘What does it mean to our fans to bring a player of this caliber here?’ ”
Shaikin’s response was delivered in the post-Pujols column: “In the end, it meant almost nothing … Pujols has been practically invisible, and not just this year.”
The 10 years with the Angels brought Pujols’ career numbers down. At the time he left St. Louis, Pujols had a career batting average of .328 with a .420 OBP and .617 slug. On the day he was released by the Angels, Pujols’ career numbers rested at a .299 average, .376 OBP and .545 slug. Albert’s career OPS dropped 116 points — down to .921 — during his time with the Angels.
Albert Pujols’ place in baseball history is secure. He’s a three-time MVP, 10-time All-Star, two-time World Series champion, one of the greatest right handed hitters of all time. He’s fifth on the all-time leaders chart for career homers, and only Ruth and Henry Aaron have more career RBIs.
Pujols, 41, is a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer. The lost Arte Moreno years change nothing. A long time from now, the St. Louis years will be the only years that people will remember about The Great Pujols.
Thanks for reading …
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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.