Not just nostalgia: Pujols reunion gives Cards experience, production

March 28th, 2022

JUPITER, Fla. -- While there’s a certain level of nostalgia that will undoubtedly stir when Albert Pujols tugs on a Cardinals jersey and steps into the box at Busch Stadium, his return to the franchise he previously led to two World Series titles ultimately came down to the experience level and veteran savvy he can provide as a DH and pinch-hitter, manager Oliver Marmol said.

While the Cardinals were initially all in on one of their youthful internal candidates winning the DH job, Marmol said on Monday that Pujols’ imminent return to the franchise with which he starred from 2001-11 came about because of what the veteran slugger can give St. Louis as an experienced hitter in late-game, high-leverage situations.

The Cardinals signed Corey Dickerson early in free agency to do that from the left side of the plate. Now, Pujols -- who walked onto the field at Roger Dean Stadium between innings on Monday in his familiar No. 5 jersey -- will fill that role as a righty bopper and a feared bat off the bench late in games.

“At the end of the day, when you look at that DH spot, do you need a veteran presence? No. Is it helpful? Yes,” said Marmol, who believes Pujols will have no problem getting ready in time for Opening Day on April 7 at Busch Stadium against the Pirates. “When you are asking somebody to basically take four pinch-hit at-bats -- that’s basically what it is -- it’s something that’s learned, and experience helps.

“I had a great conversation with Dickerson [Monday] morning regarding putting someone who hasn’t done it in that [DH] position, and it’s a tough ask,” Marmol added. “So in terms of us having a veteran presence, and someone who has done it from the DH spot, [the Pujols’ addition] helps, absolutely.”

Pujols, who agreed to a one-year deal on Sunday night, will almost certainly finish his career in the same place it started in 1999, when the Cardinals drafted the promising slugger in the 13th round. Two years later, Pujols played his way onto the Major League roster and had 11 of the finest seasons in the rich history of the Cardinals.

In addition to hitting .300 and at least 30 home runs every year for a 10-season stretch, Pujols led the Cardinals to championships in 2006 and ’11, captured three NL MVP awards and made nine All-Star teams.

With four-time Gold Glove first baseman Paul Goldschmidt entrenched at first base, Pujols’ future with the Cardinals will be as a late-inning pinch-hitter and as a DH, now that the position is universal throughout baseball.

Cardinals team president John Mozeliak and Marmol talked repeatedly early in Spring Training about internal candidates such as Juan Yepez, Nolan Gorman and Lars Nootbaar getting the first shots at winning the DH job. However, all three struggled to establish much footing, and they all might end up in Triple-A Memphis with Pujols’ arrival. Yepez was a late switch from DH to left field in Monday’s 2-1 loss the Astros.

Marmol is a rookie manager, but he’s in his 15th year with the Cardinals organization, and he knows full well of the lore of Pujols in St. Louis. From their friendship, Marmol says he knows something else for certain about Pujols: Even at 42 years of age, the slugger still has plenty of pop to offer.

“Oh, he’s got something left,” Marmol said with conviction on Monday morning. “He’s got more than something left. Albert wants to play this year because he can help a team win. He wants to finish well, and I believe he will do that.”

Pujols left the Cardinals not long after his second championship with the franchise in 2011 to sign a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Angels. However, his time there was nowhere near as productive as it was with the Cardinals, and the franchise designated him for assignment in May of 2021. Pujols eventually signed with the Dodgers, for whom he hit .254 and 12 home runs in 85 games.

With the addition of Pujols, the Cardinals will have three players on the 40-man roster older than the 35-year-old Marmol. When catcher Yadier Molina turns 40 in June, he will join fellow 40-something players Adam Wainwright and Pujols. It will be the first time St. Louis has three players at least 40 years of age since 1996, when Ozzie Smith, Dennis Eckersley and Rick Honeycutt were on the roster.

Prior to the Cardinals facing the Dodgers in the NL Wild Card Game last fall, Marmol and Pujols shared an embrace that spoke to their friendship. When Molina had a FaceTime call with Pujols on Monday morning in the Cardinals’ clubhouse, Marmol and bench coach Skip Schumaker -- a former teammate of Pujols -- joined in and shared laughs.

“Adding someone like that is crazy important for what he does for that clubhouse, outside of his skill set,” Marmol said. “A ton of respect for him -- it goes both ways. He’s a good friend, a good leader, he does things right. I respect the heck out of that guy. What he brings to a clubhouse is hard to match.”