(KMOV.com) — I can't speak for everyone, but for myself, I’ve come to realize the extent to which I took sports for granted before the coronavirus pandemic. Spring arrives, and so does baseball. That's the way it works. But not this year.
While in this sports-less state of quarantine, your mind tends to wander. You catch yourself thinking about the past, nostalgic about the memorable moments in sports that you've seen throughout your life—eager for a time when you can form new such memories.
On Sunday, I read an article that really got my mind reeling about sports memories from the past—and it led to a marvelous hypothetical for the future. In the article, Albert Pujols told ESPN that he isn't necessarily guaranteed to retire from playing baseball following the expiration of his current contract with the Los Angeles Angels in 2021. The Angels lured Pujols away from St. Louis with a 10-year, $240 million contract following the 2011 season. His production with the Halos hasn't been nearly what it was with the Cardinals, as Pujols' numbers have diminished with age.
This led me to wonder... What if Pujols decides he does, in fact, want to keep playing beyond 2021—but the Angels decide they're ready to move on from him?
And it hit me. One last ride in St. Louis for Albert Pujols. How fitting, how perfect would that be?
Full disclosure: this kind of article doesn't happen in a regular baseball season. I'm probably writing and reflecting upon the Cardinals series against Milwaukee that wrapped up Sunday, focused on analyzing the club after the first month-plus of the season.
As it stands in a pandemic world, I've got some time on my hands. So let's dissect this insane idea for all it's worth—perhaps a little more than it’s worth.
Firstly, why an Albert reunion with the Redbirds works.
Like Pujols, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina also spoke recently to ESPN about his playing future, backtracking on his previous statement that he would sign a new contract with the Cardinals or he would ride off into the sunset and retire following the 2020 season. Coronavirus has rendered 2020 a pretty anticlimactic season from which to ride off into retirement, leading to Molina's change of heart, he said. At this point, he just wants to keep playing—whether or not it's with the Cardinals.
Of course, Yadi's preference remains to end his career in St. Louis. As he sees it, the ball is in the Cardinals’ mitt. He wants to play for two more years following 2020; whether the Cardinals can find an agreeable dollar amount for such an extension with their franchise catcher remains to be seen.
For the sake of this conversation, let's assume it happens. I haven't the faintest idea of the numbers that will be thrown back and forth between Molina's agent and the Cardinals, but with Yadi earning $20 million annually on his current deal, I'll assume the player won't want a significant reduction from that total. That's not to say the metrics would support Molina being valued at such an AAV moving forward, but knowing the residual value of Molina's continued presence to the organization despite decreased production, it doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility that the he'd want something in the neighborhood of $10 million to $15 million per year on an extension for 2021 and 2022. Pure speculation, but let's say Yadi re-ups for two years and $24 million with some Gold Glove incentives as a kicker.
For the pandemic-induced fantasy world in which I'm operating for this article, that's step one to a Pujols return to St. Louis. Albert and Yadi are two peas in a pod—it wouldn't surprise me to see the duo team up in LA if the Cardinals decide to pass on a new deal for Molina for next year. If the Cardinals lock up Yadi, though... Does that get Albert thinking?
Look, I can be objective and analytical. The Cardinals lucked out when the Angels outbid them for Pujols. The contract has been a bust from a production standpoint. But how many emotional wrongs would be righted by one last ride for Albert in the Gateway City? I don't know the man, but I do wonder if he'd feel the same. If you recall the standing ovation he received after a home run as a visiting player at Busch Stadium last year, you'd agree that the home fans in St. Louis would welcome his return with open arms.
Would the Cardinals front office do the same?
Perhaps the answer to that question is the reason it doesn't work. The circumstances surrounding Pujols' exit from St. Louis weren't ideal. There was a degree of friction between the club and the player. I'm not here to litigate which side was at fault, if anyone. It's honestly not important, other than to wonder whether the bygones would be bygones if a discussion regarding a return might materialize. I'm not qualified to suggest with any authority that either side would be amenable to such an arrangement—if any lingering bad blood could be eased, though, it could be a perfect storm for some nostalgic bliss.
This is especially true when you consider that the arrival of the universal designated hitter is likely by the year in question, 2022. I personally prefer the National League style of play—more pinch-hitting, more double switches, more managerial strategy—but I'm resigned to the fact that the DH is coming to an NL ballpark near you.
Now, from a baseball perspective, the Cardinals don’t have a need for Albert Pujols in 2020—they certainly won't need him in 2022. According to Baseball Reference, he was worth only 0.5 WAR in 2019. Per FanGraphs, he was below replacement level at -0.4 WAR. This conversation is about sentiment, not on-field value—and for some fans, that renders this entire discussion completely ridiculous.
The objective for the Cardinals should be to win baseball games; spending money and a roster spot on a storybook ending for the over-the-hill superstar who left in 2011 doesn’t fit within that model. I understand that perspective, totally.
I just can’t bring myself to buy into it, personally. And considering the probable presence of the DH in the NL by the time this half-baked idea could come to fruition, Pujols’ lack of versatility could conceivably be hidden within that role. Let him DH for the majority of home games, giving the crowd at Busch Stadium a regular opportunity to see Albert in action. For the bulk of the road games, he’s probably a bench bat reserved for a pinch-hitting role in situations where a strikeout simply won’t do. Even with his sharp performance drop over the years, Pujols has still never struck out more than 93 times in a season. He did so only 68 times in 2019. Even if his offensive output is below league-average, there's still that.
Would adding Albert Pujols make the Cardinals better in 2022? Almost certainly not. Would it make the club a lot more interesting? A lot more fun? I tend to think so.
I don’t know what kind of salary he would command. I don’t know if the Cardinals would even entertain the concept. The whole thing is probably insane.
But in the midst of a sports hiatus that has me deciding my Korean Baseball Organization fandom based on the brand of cell phone I use, imagining an Albert Pujols encore with the Cardinals is a nice way to pass the time.
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