The argument for the St. Louis Cardinals signing Albert Pujols is entirely sentimental. There is a reason that Albert Pujols was never seriously tied to another Major League Baseball team this off-season—his value is entirely based on what he did over a decade ago for the team which signed him. He is the slowest runner in Major League Baseball (and possibly in organized professional baseball, though I would have to dig in a bit deeper there). He is unplayable at any defensive position other than first base, a spot where the same guy started all but nine games last season for the Cardinals. Offensively, he is allegedly a destroyer of left-handed pitching, but since 2017 he has been below-average against southpaws by wRC+.

Analyzing Albert Pujols as a baseball player seems besides the point, and among the true believers of his return, treating it as a baseball transaction is the behavior of an irredeemable crank. Of course, the assumption that Cardinals fans will tolerate poor play from a franchise great isn’t based on reality—Matt Carpenter, who should be a first-ballot Cardinals Hall of Famer assuming his candidacy doesn’t conflict with that of Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, or Adam Wainwright, garnered some boos during his final season.

The frustrations with Carpenter, who unlike Pujols was never expected to start in even a platoon role, were rooted in the circumstances of the team—the Cardinals spent most of 2021 barely outside a playoff position and if Carpenter were instead replaced by a better player, even a merely passable one, that could make the difference between October baseball and being shut out. The Cardinals, before signing Pujols, were seen by most projection systems and neutral prognosticators as a good team capable of a playoff berth but not likely to win the National League Central. Signing a 42 year-old who projects to be a sub-Replacement Level player and thus likely supplanting Juan Yepez or Lars Nootbaar from the team’s bench makes those odds some amount lower.

Albert Pujols was 35% below league-average at the plate during his time last season with the Los Angeles Angels—this is “we’d consider benching a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop if he hit this poorly” levels of awfulness. Even for his post-prime Angels career, which for the first few years wasn’t nearly the calamity that bitter Cardinals fans wished it would be, it was unusually bad. For each of the last five seasons, Albert Pujols was a below-average hitter. It was one thing for the Angels, who despite employing Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani were never seriously competing for a postseason spot, to trot out Pujols, but what are the Cardinals going to do if he is holding back the team? This isn’t Ty Wigginton, a perfectly nice man who the Cardinals easily cut without incident after he played poorly off the bench in 2013. Sure, they could cut Pujols loose, but the potential damage in the clubhouse could be disastrous.

The situation as it regards Pujols is not close to the looming retirement tours of Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. Wainwright gave the Cardinals over 200 innings with an ERA barely over three last season. Molina, though diminished, was still a playable catcher in 2021 and is still likely the team’s most MLB-ready catcher to start the 2022 season. The inevitable comparison from this off-season will be to the Kansas City Royals re-upping with Zack Greinke, but Greinke is not far removed from being a good MLB pitcher, and even if things go haywire on an individual level for Greinke, the Royals are unlikely to contend for the postseason.

Evaluating this signing through the prism of statistics is not a reasonable approach—whatever cherry-picked data is used to justify it (his solid wRC+ against lefties, his first truly great one since 2012 in a career not especially noted for strong handedness platoon splits) is rarely offered as the primary reason to sign him but rather a retrofitted justification that it won’t be that bad. But for a team that is meant to be viewed as a serious contender, a signing which by any objective measure spits in the face of this goal will likely have negative consequences. I suspect that my quantity of baseball watching this season will not change dramatically, but if it did, the team falling out of contention would be the surest way to activate apathy.

I saw Albert Pujols play eleven of the greatest seasons of baseball I have ever seen, and it has been a relief that I did not have to watch his last ten seasons, the best of which were materially weaker than his worst Cardinals ones and the worst of which made him among the sport’s worst players. I am terrified that the greatest Cardinal of my lifetime is now being activated as a shiny object to distract St. Louis from the fact that ownership is investing less money into the 2022 payroll than they did in 2021.

Signing Albert Pujols is simply not a thing baseball teams serious about anything other than selling merchandise do. The $2.5 million he will reportedly be paid is a non-factor—the Cardinals will make that money back in PR alone (heck, I might need to invest in an upgrade to my has-seen-better-days #5 jersey). None of his shortcomings mean you shouldn’t enjoy the sentimentality involved—I won’t pretend I won’t be glued to my TV on Opening Day to see the reception he receives. But it is more than reasonable to fear that the negatives—keeping an almost certainly better and certainly more important long-term investment in Juan Yepez mired in professional purgatory, the potential backlash if and when Pujols does not suddenly turn back into the Pujols we last saw everyday eleven years ago, that we will look back at the Albert Pujols retirement tour as an albatross that kept the team from achieving its fullest potential—will outweigh the positives.

4 thoughts on “A borderline playoff team is worse now

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