The Dodgers’ Addition of Albert Pujols Didn’t Make Sense Until…

It’s always a strange thing to see an all-time great donning an unfamiliar uniform at the tail end of his career. Even if the sights of Willie Mays in Mets pinstripes or Hank Aaron wearing a Brewers pullover — to say nothing of Babe Ruth as a Brave — predate your time as a viewer, they probably produce a double-take. Examples such as Ken Griffey Jr. in White Sox garb, Mike Piazza in A’s green and gold (or Padres blue and sand), or Randy Johnson in Giants black and orange might be more recent, but those sights are no less alien. Which brings us to Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The 41-year-old Pujols, a future Hall of Famer who is one of four players to attain the dual milestones of 3,000 hits and 600 home runs, was designated for assignment by the Angels last week. Not surprisingly, given that he was hitting just .198/.250/.372 while still due the bulk of this year’s $30 million salary, he cleared waivers, thus sticking the Angels for the lion’s share of that amount. After clearing waivers, he reportedly drew interest from three or four teams, but while it was easy to spitball a few possible destinations — the Cardinals given his status as franchise icon, the Reds because they’d just lost Joey Votto to a broken thumb, the White Sox because they’re managed by Tony La Russa, the Marlins because they could use an attendance bump — nobody saw the Dodgers as contenders for his services. Yet on Saturday afternoon, the Los Angeles Times‘ Jorge Castillo reported that the defending champions had signed Pujols to a major league deal for the remainder of the season. They’ll pay him the minimum salary while the Angels pick up the rest of the tab.

In a vacuum, the move was something of a head scratcher, but the Dodgers are amid an incessant wave of injuries that on the offensive side had already claimed center fielder Cody Bellinger, superutilityman Zach McKinstry, and infielder Edwin Ríos, and kept growing over the weekend. On Friday, left fielder AJ Pollock reaggravated a left hamstring injury that had limited him to three plate appearances in a week, and on Saturday, just hours after the Pujols news broke, so too did the fifth metacarpal in Corey Seager’s right hand, via a pitch from the Marlins’ Ross Detwiler. Given all the moving parts among the Dodgers’ multiposition players, the injury opens up a lane for Pujols to get some playing time, but whether he can improve upon his meager production to date is another story.

The Dodgers don’t have anybody likely to produce at the level of Seager while fulfilling his role. Even with the 27-year-old shortstop going through a power outage — two extra-base hits and a .304 SLG in his past 66 PA — his .265/.361/.422 line still equates to a 121 wRC+. The good news is that he won’t need surgery, but the early estimate on his absence is that he’ll be out at least a month. A lineup that hasn’t been whole since Bellinger suffered a fractured left fibula on April 5 will have to wait that much longer.

While Seager is sidelined, the Dodgers plan to give Gavin Lux the bulk of the playing time at shortstop, with Chris Taylor getting some starts against lefties. The 23-year-old Lux has yet to live up to the promise that rocketed him to the second spot on our Top 100 Prospects list heading into last year, a season in which he showed up late to summer camp for undisclosed reasons, struggled on both sides of the ball, spent half the season at the alternate site, and hit for a 63 wRC+ in just 69 plate appearances. This year, he’s hit just .231/.274/.317 in 113 PA, though he’s been a bit better since the calendar flipped to May (.292/.346/.396 in 52 PA), most notably clubbing a go-ahead three-run homer on May 11 against the Mariners. That was just the second ball he barreled all season, though it came two days after the first, so charitably we could say he’s trending in the right direction.

Lux has now hit for just a 71 wRC+ in 264 career PA spread over three partial seasons; splits-wise, that translates to a 91 wRC+ in 215 PA against righties and an unfathomable -14 wRC+ (.109/.143/.174) in 49 PA against lefties. The question is whether he can hold up his end of a platoon while playing a more difficult defensive position; while scouts believe he has the athleticism, range, and pure arm strength for shortstop, he’s battled the yips before, and most of his errors have been throwing ones, so this bears watching.

Taylor, the Dodgers’ everyday superutilityman, is no stranger to shortstop, having made 133 starts there since coming to the Dodgers in 2016, including 15 last year and one this year. He can hold his own at the position defensively and is one of the Dodgers’ core hitters, batting .288/.425/.483 (155 wRC+) so far this year. With Bellinger out, he’s played mainly center field this year, starting 23 games there; if he’s in the infield — either in place of Lux at shortstop or alongside him at second, where he’s started five times — that likely means Mookie Betts in center field and a lesser hitter in right. Adding to the Dodgers’ headaches is that Taylor was scratched from Sunday’s lineup just before first pitch due to right wrist soreness. Stay tuned.

If Lux is at shortstop, the Dodgers have the option to go with Taylor, Max Muncy, or Sheldon Neuse at second base. While the burly Muncy doesn’t look much like a second baseman, he’s put up 6 DRS and 0.1 UZR in 886.1 innings there since joining the Dodgers, thanks in part to good positioning. Neusy, like Muncy a product of the A’s system, is a 26-year-old righty who has hit just .179/.179/.333 with two homers but no walks in 39 PA. He might be the guy squeezed off the roster once the dust settles.

Given this litany, the best fit for Pujols is to start at first base against lefties when Taylor’s at shortstop and Muncy’s at second. The righty-swinging Pujols has fared much better against southpaws in recent years, hitting .253/.295/.490 (105 wRC+) in 275 PA against lefties since the start of 2019, compared to .225/.290/.375 (77 wRC+) in 525 PA against righties. Obviously, in his heyday he was capable of much, much better than that, and given the timing of his addition relative to Seager’s injury, this alignment wasn’t explicitly in the plan, but at a time when the Dodgers are trying to plug a couple of major holes, this comes down to a bet that Pujols can hit lefties better than Lux.

That seems likely, and it’s worth noting that despite his meager slash line, Pujols has swung the bat a bit better according to Statcast. On his 73 batted ball events, he’s posted an expected batting average of .265, an expected slugging percentage of .513, and an xwOBA of .348 (compared to a wOBA of .269). Granted, on a major league-wide basis, hitters are seven points of batting average, 22 points of slugging percentage, and 11 points of wOBA short of their expected numbers, but at least there’s a sliver of optimism that Pujols has more life in his bat. If nothing else, he could help the Dodgers improve upon the 78 wRC+ (.196/.286/.357, with a major league-leading 46.0% strikeout rate) they’ve gotten from their pinch-hitters this season.

With the 33-year-old Pollock going down for at least a couple of weeks, the Dodgers have lost yet another solid contributor; he’s hitting .277/.333/.457 (116 wRC+). While Matt Beaty will get the bulk of the playing time in his absence, the Dodgers do have one more bat to add to this mix, namely Yoshi Tsutsugo, whom they acquired from the Rays on Saturday in exchange for a player to be named later or cash considerations. The 29-year-old lefty-swinging Tsutsugo spent parts of 10 seasons with the Yokohama BayStars of the Japanese Pacific League before being posted. He signed a two-year, $12 million deal with the Rays, but struggled mightily, batting just .187/.292/.336 in 373 PA; this year, he’s hit just .167/.244/.218 without a homer in 87 PA. His big problem since coming over is that he’s been unable to adjust to the higher velocity of major league pitching. Against all four-seam fastballs, he’s hit .167, slugged .284, and produced just a.274 wOBA with a 10.8% swinging strike rate. Given his ability to play both corner infield positions as well as some outfield, the Dodgers can hope he’ll fill the shoes of Ríos, who was lost for the year due to surgery to repair a torn right labrum after going just 3-for-51, that after hitting for a particularly potent 152 wRC+ in 139 PA over the previous two seasons.

As noted, it’s a lot of moving parts, and while Pujols is in the mix, he’s not nearly as central to it as Lux and Taylor are, as if the Dodgers needed more worries. Still, the sight of him in Dodger blue is likely to be a jarring one, though it’s part of a long tradition of sorts. Last year, for reasons I can’t quite recall, I came up with a list of Dodgers late-career “legends” — great players who spent a relatively short and in many cases fruitless time with the team at or near the tail ends of their time in the majors. Tweaking it slightly to shoehorn a couple extra players into the conversation:

Dodgers Late-Career “Legends”
Pos Player Year Age G PA wRC+ WAR G PA wRC+ WAR
C Gary Carter* 1991 37 101 280 102 1.4 2295 9019 116 69.4
1B Jim Thome* 2009 38 17 17 21 -0.1 2543 10313 145 69.1
2B Willie Randolph 1989-90 34-35 171 746 108 4.4 2202 9461 109 62.0
3B Ken Boyer 1968-69 37-38 108 279 112 0.9 2034 8268 116 54.8
SS Mark Belanger 1982 38 54 57 63 0.0 2016 6602 71 34.9
LF Rickey Henderson* 2003 44 30 84 77 0.1 3081 13346 132 106.3
CF Kenny Lofton 2006 39 129 522 101 1.0 2103 9235 109 62.4
RF Frank Robinson* 1972 36 103 405 134 2.7 2808 11743 153 104.0
UT Michael Young 2013 36 21 53 98 -0.1 1970 8612 104 25.3
Pos Player Year Age IP ERA FIP WAR IP ERA FIP WAR
RHP Greg Maddux* 2006, ’08 40, 42 114.1 3.94 3.95 1.9 5008.1 3.16 3.26 116.7
RHP Juan Marichal* 1975 37 6.0 13.50 9.09 -0.3 3507.1 2.89 3.04 61.2
LHP David Wells 2007 44 38.2 5.12 4.64 0.4 3439.0 4.13 3.99 58.3
CL Hoyt Wilhelm* 1972 49 43.0 3.14 2.93 0.2 2254.1 2.52 3.06 27.3
* = Hall of Famer. Blue shading = final team of career.

Even with a list that’s confined to the expansion era, with the exception of Belanger and Young that’s a list of players who are at least worthy of long Hall of Fame debates if not enshrinement. As you can see, such additions became something of an annual tradition during the Ned Colletti era. Thome and Young were August 31 acquisitions who looked like plausible World Series DH candidates, albeit for trips that never arrived. Likewise, Maddux was traded for on July 31, 2006 and August 19, 2008, while Wells was picked up off the waiver pile in August ’07. The rest joined the Dodgers earlier in the season, and often at its outset. Randolph was the only player among these who truly thrived as a Dodger, and while I could have instead included Chase Utley at second, the latter played 386 games with the team, a much longer stint than any of the above. Beyond Randolph, Robinson was pretty good as well in his first year away from the Orioles. Belanger, his longtime Baltimore teammate, is represented above but first baseman Boog Powell just missed this list, though his stats (10-for-41, all singles, in 1977) are forever embedded in a useless fold of my brain.

That list was a fun exercise that was accompanied by entries for the Angels, Athletics, Blue Jays, Braves (multiple ones), Giants, Mets, Pirates, Royals, Tigers, White Sox, and perhaps others. If you feel like taking a stab at a version in the comments, by all means go ahead.

In the end, I don’t think the Dodgers-Pujols experiment will endure. Bellinger could go on a rehab assignment this week, and while first base isn’t his primary position anymore, he could still be in the mix. The injuries of Pollock and Seager, annoying as they are, aren’t season-enders, and unless Pujols is producing, at some point the roster reckoning will come. I still think he winds up taking his final cuts in September as a Cardinal, which will look a whole lot more familiar than what we’re about to witness.





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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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phinsfanuk
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phinsfanuk

Was that swipe at the marlins necessary?!

Maggie25
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Maggie25

Was that even a swipe really? Did I miss something?

MikeD
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MikeD

I didn’t even notice a swipe? Went back and read what Jay wrote, and I still didn’t see a swipe.