The Angels Finally Bite the Bullet by Cutting Albert Pujols

The news was as abrupt as a mid-afternoon tweet, and yet long overdue: On Thursday, the Angels designated Albert Pujols for assignment. The 41-year-old Pujols is a no-doubt Hall of Famer, one of four players to attain the dual milestones of 3,000 hits and 600 home runs. But he’s now a month into his fifth season of sub-replacement level production, an impediment to improving a team that needs all the help it can get to overcome a league-worst defense as it scrambles to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

Mired in a 7-for-43 slump on a 13–17 team, Pujols is hitting just .198/.250/.372 with five homers and a 75 wRC+ in 92 plate appearances and making $30 million in the final season of the 10-year, $240 million deal that he signed following a remarkable 11-year run with the Cardinals. With his body unable to withstand a litany of leg and foot injuries — hamstrings, knees, plantar fasciitis — his megadeal provided little bang for the buck. Where he made nine All-Star teams and won three MVP awards as well as the NL Rookie of the Year award in St. Louis while helping the Cardinals to three pennants and two championships, he never approached such levels in Anaheim. As an Angel, he made just one All-Star team, finished no higher than 17th in the MVP voting, and was swept out of his lone playoff appearance.

This isn’t a move that the Angels have taken lightly, and it owes plenty to the pressures on new general manager Perry Minasian, who was hired last November, as well as the development of Jared Walsh and the continued health and presence of Shohei Ohtani. Walsh, a first baseman who has taken over most of the duties in right field since Dexter Fowler suffered a season-ending ACL tear on April 9, has hit for a 166 wRC+ in 222 PA since the start of last season. Ohtani, who this year has been available to serve as the designated hitter on days before and after his starts (which the Angels were reluctant to let him do previously), has hit for a 169 wRC+ with a major league-high 10 homers in 118 PA.

By moving Walsh to first base, his natural position (he gave up pitching after a spring 2020 arm injury), the Angels will have to cobble together a plan in right from the likes of Taylor Ward, Juan Lagares, and Jon Jay, at least in the short term. Prospects Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh* are on the way: the former had a rough debut last year and needs more minor league seasoning; the latter is rehabbing a shoulder labrum injury that he suffered at the alternate site last summer. With the defense in shambles, swapping Pujols — and for the last two games, struggling leftfielder Justin Upton — out for better glove men who might not be worse offensively is a worthwhile risk.

* How to Tell Your Angels Prospects Apart: Jared Walsh is the two-way guy, Brandon Marsh is the center field guy whose power has yet to develop, and Brandon Walsh is the waiter at the Peach Pit.

Minasian said on Thursday that discussions about making a change had been taking place within the baseball operations department over the past couple of weeks. The situation came to a head when when Pujols was frustrated at being left out of Joe Maddon’s lineup on Wednesday after the manager had promised him consistent playing time. Minasian and club president John Carpino met with Pujols after the game, and the slugger told them he still considers himself an everyday player, not a part-timer, and that he wanted to continue his career.

“Albert is not a bench player,” said Minasian. “Him being on the bench would not do him any good, and would not do the team any good. He’s as motivated as he’s ever been. If the situation was different and there were at-bats for him to play here, it would be different.”

Hence the amicable but unceremonious move, which will lead to Pujols’ release after he passes through waivers. The Angels will eat the remainder of his salary, minus only the league minimum if he should land with another team. Pujols still has a 10-year, $10 million personal services contract with the team after he retires; this move does not affect that agreement.

As noted, the Angels haven’t been to the playoffs since 2014 and also haven’t posted a record above .500 since ’15. A good chunk of their lack of success owes to Pujols’ precipitous decline and the difficulty of pushing aside an all-time great who takes up a considerable chunk of the payroll, has the ear of team owner Arte Moreno, and has been heavily involved in the community through numerous charities as well as the Pujols Family Foundation. Moreno, for his part, lavished praise on Pujols in the press release announcing the move:

“The Angels Organization proudly signed Albert Pujols in 2011, and are honored that he has worn an Angels jersey for nearly half of his Hall-of-Fame Career. Albert’s historical accomplishments, both on and off the field, serve as an inspiration to athletes everywhere, and his actions define what it means to be a true Superstar. Since his Rookie of the Year Season in 2001, Albert and his wife Deidre have generously given their time and resources to countless charities throughout the world. We are thankful to the entire Pujols Family.”

Still, the numbers don’t lie when it comes to Pujols’ stay in Anaheim, particularly the past five seasons:

The Decline and Fall of Albert Pujols
2001-11 Cardinals 7433 2073 445 .328 .420 .617 167 81.3 86.6
2012-16 Angels 3119 752 146 .266 .325 .474 119 9.0 14.8
2017-21 Angels 1934 428 76 .240 .289 .405 84 -3.3 -2.0
Totals 12486 3253 667 .298 .376 .545 142 87.0 99.4

A powerful but bad-bodied 13th-round pick out of Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1999, Pujols rocketed up three levels in his lone minor league season and was in the majors by 2001. He made the All-Star team, placed fourth in the NL MVP voting, and was a unanimous NL Rookie of the Year on the strength of a 37-homer, 130 RBI debut during which he hit .329/.403/.610. Over the course of his time in St. Louis, he averaged 40 homers, 121 RBIs and 7.4 WAR, w0n a batting title (2003), led the league in slugging percentage, wRC+ and WAR three times (2006, ’08, and ’09), and finished among the top three in a slash stat 19 times. His wRC+ in that period was bettered only by Barry Bonds‘ 208, albeit in more than twice the number of plate appearances.

Pujols added exceptional defense to that incredible offense. Though he came up as a third baseman and dabbled in the outfield corners early in his career, he settled in at first base, where he was a true asset, totaling a major league-high 60.8 UZR at the position from 2002 (when the metric was introduced) through ’11. Meanwhile, he hit a combined .330/.439/.607 with 18 homers in 74 postseason games, helping the Cardinals to seven playoff berths with a pennant in 2004 and championships in ’06 and ’11. In Game 3 of the 2011 World Series, he became the third player ever to homer three times in a Series game.

Pujols became a free agent after that thriller of a World Series. The Marlins, eager to make a splash as they moved into their new ballpark and rebranded, offered him a 10-year, $200 million deal. The Cardinals, hoping to retain him, offered 10 years and $220 million. But it was the Angels, who had lost ground to the Rangers in the AL West in their previous two seasons after making six trips to the playoffs in eight years, who came in with the winning bid.

The move did not serve Pujols well. Though he hit as many as 40 homers as an Angel and topped 30 two other times, he maxed out with a 133 wRC+ and 3.3 WAR in 2012, numbers far below even his least productive year in St. Louis. Thanks to the arrival of Mike Trout, who won AL Rookie of the Year honors and should have been the MVP as well, Pujols never even led the team in WAR. He went just 2-for-12 in the team’s three-game Division Series sweep at the hands of the Royals in 2014. Aside from winning the AL West that year, only once did the Angels even finish second during his tenure.

The playoff drought is not all Pujols’ fault, by any means. Though the Angels hit the jackpot in their 2009 draft, landing not only Trout but also Garrett Richards, Randal Grichuk, the too-quickly traded Patrick Corbin, and the late Tyler Skaggs, they’ve fared poorly by that route since then. The only pick they’ve made who has produced even 10.0 WAR at the major league level since that bumper crop is 2011 fourth-round pick Mike Clevinger, all of it for other teams, as the Angels traded him to Cleveland in ’14 for the immortal Vinnie Pestano. David Fletcher, their 2015 sixth-round pick, has been their most successful player to stick around, producing 6.8 WAR. Meanwhile, the team has struggled to keep its starting pitchers — homegrown or acquired via trades and free agency — healthy and productive and has done poorly with the big free-agent deals of Josh Hamilton and Upton. The Angels did convince Ohtani to sign with them when he was posted by the NPB’s Nippon Ham Fighters in December 2017 and retained Trout via a massive 12-year, $426.5 million extension in March ’19, but the bottom line is that the roster hasn’t been talented enough to withstand such a major sinkhole in the lineup.

Pujols did generate some highlights as an Angel, mainly by reaching milestones. On April 22, 2014, he became the 26th player to reach 500 home runs. On June 3, 2017, he became the ninth player to reach 600 homers. On May 4, 2018, he became the 32nd player to reach 3,000 hits, joining Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Alex Rodriguez as the only players to attain both that milestone and 600 homers, though as I noted at the time, he was in worse shape than any of the players who preceded him to 3,000 hits as measured by combined WAR in that season and the previous one.

On August 14, 2019, he collected his 3,167th hit, surpassing Adrián Beltré to become the all-time leader among players born outside of the United States. On September 18, 2020, he hit his 661st (and 662nd) home run, surpassing Mays for the fifth spot on the all-time list.

Pujols is still fifth, 29 homers behind Rodriguez and 33 short of joining Bonds, Aaron, and Babe Ruth as the only players to hit 700 — a goal he still has, albeit one that doesn’t look at all realistic. Meanwhile, Pujols is 14th on the all-time hit list with 3,253. As The Athletic’s Jayson Stark noted, he’s two hits behind Eddie Murray, the only player above him who spent the bulk of his career at first base as well.

Additionally, Pujols is third in career RBIs (2,112) behind only Aaron and Ruth, fifth in total bases (5,955, 21 behind Bonds for fourth) and doubles (669), 13th in plate appearances (12,486) and at-bats (10,925), 15th in runs (1,852), and 16th in games played (2,886). His 99.4 bWAR — alas, he fell below 100 with -0.6 in 2020–21 — is 21st among all position players and second among first basemen behind only Lou Gehrig. His 61.7 peak WAR and 80.6 JAWS are both second at the position behind Gehrig as well. He’s one of three post-World War II infielders with a JAWS above 80, with Rodriguez and Mike Schmidt the others.

Could he continue to play elsewhere? To be fair, Pujols’ Statcast numbers are a fair bet better than his actual ones, producing an expected batting average of .273, an expected slugging percentage of .543, and an xwOBA of .359, 90 points ahead of his actual wOBA. His 9.6% barrel rate is his highest mark in the Statcast era, and his 90.5 mph average exit velocity is his best since 2016. Still, it’s tough to envision a general manager putting much faith in the early-season numbers of a 41-year-old given all that has preceded them.

A few ideas do come to mind, for as weird as it would be to see Pujols put on one more uniform at the tail end of his career. The Reds just lost Joey Votto for perhaps a month due to a fractured left thumb and have otherwise started only utilityman Alex Blandino at first base this year. Seven teams have gotten -0.4 WAR or worse from their first basemen, and two of those, the Orioles and Tigers, are in that same boat at DH, but it’s not hard to rule out many of these teams. The Yankees have Luke Voit coming back. The Tigers will eventually need to go this route with Miguel Cabrera, who’s splitting time at first and DH. The Orioles should be giving Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle as much playing time as possible. The White Sox have the Tony La Russa connection, but they also have José Abreu under contract long-term, plus hot-hitting Yermín Mercedes at DH. Pujols could buy time in the minors or at the alternate site for Seattle’s Evan White, Boston’s Bobby Dalbec, or Milwaukee’s Keston Hiura, and he probably can’t be worse than the Cleveland trio that has hit .183/.262/.237 with -0.6 WAR, but it’s still difficult to envision any of these moves.

Thursday marked the 90th birthday of Willie Mays, and thanks to a tweet that came through my feed less than 10 minutes before the Pujols news, I was reminded of my one encounter with the Hall of Fame centerfielder. Sometime in the early 1980s in Salt Lake City, I stood in line at a grocery store-sponsored food expo waiting to get an autograph from Mays. In my hand was my lone baseball card of the man, a 1973 Topps card handed down from an older cousin, memorializing not Mays’ glory days with the Giants but his dubious career-ending tenure with the Mets. A disinterested Mays didn’t even make eye contact when it was my turn; he just stared into the middle distance while signing the small cardboard reminder that time takes its toll on even the very best — an immutable law in sports and beyond.

Pujols’ rough ride in Anaheim lasted much longer than Mays’ time with the Mets, and Halos fans can be forgiven if he’s not exactly their favorite. That doesn’t diminish the fact that an inner-circle Hall of Famer might be forced to hang up his spikes after a remarkable career, but the time has come.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

I think Jay just disproved Betteridge’s law of headlines.