Maybe Albert Pujols will deliver a productive farewell tour with the Cardinals. Maybe he won’t.
But the Pujols signing is guaranteed to deliver a big win on two fronts: marketing and player development.
Baseball’s stupid lockout shut down the Cardinals’ sales machine during the offseason. There was no Winter Warmup to prime the merchandising pump. Spring training, another big sales opportunity, was disrupted too.
It was easy to imagine some light crowds at Busch Stadium early on this season, just as we saw during the first several weeks after pandemic restrictions were lifted.
So signing Pujols for modest money was a brilliant play from a business standpoint. The Cardinals have an amazing history, and their fans are a nostalgic bunch.
The franchise already prepared to market the heck out of Yadier Molina for his final season and Adam Wainwright for another twilight year campaign. Now the Cardinals can add the beloved Pujols to that push.
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Albert’s return gives fans closure on one of the unhappiest developments in modern times for the franchise: Albert’s ill-fated decision to bolt to SoCal for a negligible financial gain. His return gives fans a chance to relive his epic run in the STL, a glorious period rivaled only by Whiteyball in the 1980s and the Bob Gibson/Lou Brock Era in the 1960s.
Cardinals Nation rejoiced Monday. So did folks elsewhere in the game who know Pujols and the franchise well.
“I’m ecstatic for him,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa told USA Today. “I’m ecstatic for the organization.”
Pujols is as proud as any athlete, ever. He does not accept failure. This is why he made himself into a Hall of Fame hitting machine.
This is why he was able to pivot last season, transforming himself into a team-first role player for the Los Angeles Dodgers after his ugly demise with the Los Angeles Angels.
This is why he whipped himself into better shape for this season, eager to continue that role somewhere for one more campaign. Now that somewhere is here, where the presence of Wainwright and Molina will help him ease back into a leadership role that would have been difficult to assume elsewhere.
Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol plans on surgical player deployment this year, moving the team away from the color-by-numbers approach Mike Shildt used last season while trying to keep veterans comfortable in assigned roles.
Marmol will put Pujols into positions to succeed. He will give Albert every chance to make this work with favorable matchups.
In the meantime the franchise will benefit on the player development side. Baseball’s stupid lockout disrupted spring training, a critical training opportunity for top Cardinals hitting prospects Nolan Gorman and Juan Yepez.
Neither excelled in the condensed training following the lockout. The arrival of Pujols, following the addition of Corey Dickerson, should allow Gorman and Yepez to get regular at-bats at the Triple-A level this season while they continue their growth.
Gorman saw his on-base plus slugging percentage drop from .862 at Springfield last season to .785 when he stepped up to Memphis. Then an injury derailed his opportunity to progress in the Arizona Fall League.
Yepez fared better with his graduation to Triple A – delivering a .971 OPS – and he tore up the AFL as well. He appeared ready for the next step.
But last season was his first professional campaign with notable power production. More time at Memphis will allow him to reaffirm his ability to drive the ball and do damage.
These two should be ready to assume major roles when the Cardinals undergo their scheduled youth movement in 2023. Perhaps catcher Ivan Herrera will be ready too, but that’s a story for another day.
Here is what folks are writing about the Pujols signing:
Mike DiGiovanna, Los Angeles Times: “The Cardinals are a much different team than the one Pujols left more than a decade ago, but there are a couple of familiar faces on the roster. Yadier Molina, the Cardinals catcher since 2004, and pitcher Adam Wainwright, who is starting his 17th season in St. Louis, played with Pujols during his first run with the team. After his eight-year, $111-million contract with the Cardinals expired, Pujols stunned the baseball world by signing a 10-year, $240-million deal with the Angels at the winter meetings in December 2011. Though Pujols notched his 3,000th hit and 500th and 600th homers as an Angel, his tenure in Anaheim was a disappointment, marked by a dramatic drop in production, a series of lower-body injuries, one meager postseason appearance in 2014 and zero playoff wins. Pujols hit .256 with a .758 OPS, 222 homers and 783 RBIs in 1,181 games with the Angels and was designated for assignment — and then released — last May after hitting .198 with a .622 OPS, five homers and 12 RBIs in his first 24 games of the 2021 season. The Dodgers, their roster depleted by injuries and their bench in need of a right-handed bat, signed Pujols on May 15, believing he could boost their chances of repeating as World Series champions. Pujols hit .254 with a .759 OPS, 12 homers and 38 RBIs in 85 games for the Dodgers, including a .303 average, .953 OPS, 10 homers and 28 RBIs against left-handed pitchers and a .378 average with two homers and 10 RBIs as a pinch-hitter. He had five hits in 17 playoff at-bats but fell short in his bid for another championship ring, the Dodgers losing to the Atlanta Braves in a six-game NL Championship Series.”
Matt Snyder, CBSSports.com: “As can be seen from the stat line, he’s still capable of hitting home runs at a high rate, but that’s about the extent of his usefulness these days. In looking at the Cardinals’ roster, Pujols could fit as a platoon designated hitter, matching up with lefty-swinging Corey Dickerson. Pujols hit .294/.336/.603 with 13 homers in 136 at-bats against left-handers last year, so it makes good enough on-field baseball sense. There is, of course, also the sentimental factor here. Pujols was drafted by the Cardinals in 1999 (a 13th-round pick, in one of the all-time great draft heists). He debuted in 2001, winning Rookie of the Year, making the All-Star team and finishing fourth in NL MVP voting at age 21. Pujols would win three MVPs in his 11 seasons with the Cardinals, finishing second four times and winning two World Series rings. He led the league in WAR five times, runs five times, OPS three times, slugging three times, total bases four times, home runs twice and once in the following: Hits, doubles, RBI, average, on-base percentage. This was a Hall of Fame career crammed into 11 seasons. Only Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby and Bob Gibson accumulated more WAR with the Cardinals. In the history of the storied franchise, Pujols also ranks third in runs, fifth in hits, second in total bases, second in doubles, second in home runs (Musial really prevented a lot of firsts, by the way), second in RBI, second in walks and second in OPS.”
David Schoenfield, ESPN.com: “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.”
Tom Gatto, The Sporting News: “This isn’t a ‘retire as a Cardinal’ deal or a way to hold a farewell tour, although Pujols is at the point where his next DFA/release/free agency could trigger the end of his career. He’s coming back to St. Louis to help win another championship with the franchise. He, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright were around for the team’s World Series titles in 2006 and 2011; all three could be in the Opening Day lineup April 7 against the Pirates at Busch. And if Pujols is in the lineup, he’ll most likely be the designated hitter against Bucs left-hander Jose Quintana. St. Louis is reuniting with Pujols because it doesn’t appear sold on prospect Juan Yepez handling a DH platoon with left-handed hitters Corey Dickerson and Lars Nootbaar.”
“I loved having him here. That’s the way his career should end.”
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, on Pujols signing with the Cardinals.