JUPITER, Fla. -- While Albert Pujols’ feel-good return to the Cardinals tugged at the heart strings -- both for the nostalgic future Hall of Famer and a fan base that cheered him on when he played in St. Louis and elsewhere -- there also is a high expectation that the once-feared slugger can bring some run production and lineup protection to the DH spot.
Succeeding as a DH is far more complex than some in baseball might realize, so the Cardinals decided to turn to the 42-year-old Pujols for the job because of the wealth and depth of his experience and his long history of battling in the batter’s box.
Pujols, a Cardinal from 2001-11 when he won three NL MVP Awards and led the franchise to two World Series titles, will wear his familiar No. 5 in St. Louis, but he will no longer be patrolling first base defensively. Four-time Gold Glove winner Paul Goldschmidt has that job, meaning Pujols will spend most of his time as a DH or a pinch-hitter in late-game, high-leverage situations. DH is a job that he is very familiar with from his time with the Angels. Also, in the past Pujols was able to turn to some Hall of Fame-level contemporaries for pointers on how to handle the often-tricky position.
“Early on, when I was at DH several times, I had to call David Ortiz to walk me through everything and help me out. I talked to Edgar Martinez when I went to Seattle, so I’m pretty comfortable doing it,” Pujols said. “It’s something you have to have the mindset for, and you have to train yourself for. It’s not something that’s easy, but when you know it’s your job to be ready, it helps. You have to find a little routine to prepare yourself.”
Cardinals president John Mozeliak and manager Oliver Marmol went into Spring Training hoping one of the organization’s young internal candidates -- Lars Nootbaar, Nolan Gorman or Juan Yepez -- could fill the DH role. When those players struggled, the organization shifted gears and turned to a familiar face. A career .297 hitter, Pujols has 679 home runs, 2,150 RBIs and 3,301 hits. He needs 18 homers to pass Alex Rodriguez for fourth all time and 21 to join Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth as the only players to reach 700.
“When you look at the DH spot, do you need a veteran presence? No. Is it helpful? Yes,” said Marmol, who believes Pujols will have no problem getting ready for Opening Day. “When you are asking somebody to take four pinch-hit at-bats -- that’s basically what it is -- it’s something that’s learned, and experience helps.”
Marmol concluded that the Cardinals needed experience in the DH slot after a conversation with Corey Dickerson, a veteran the team signed to serve as the left-handed-hitting DH option. Pujols was last a full-time DH for the Angels in 2017 -- prior to the arrival of Shohei Ohtani -- and he hit .241 with 23 home runs and 101 RBIs in 593 at-bats that season.
If Pujols can even closely resemble the feared presence he was during his Cardinals heyday, he could hit as high as fifth in the order. Such a scenario could provide St. Louis with two potentially beneficial results. First, it would allow the franchise to elevate rising star Dylan Carlson to the leadoff spot, where the Cardinals struggled for consistent production last season. Also, Pujols’ pop could potentially provide protection for middle-of-the-order boppers Tyler O’Neill, Nolan Arenado and Goldschmidt.
“The guy just knows how to win, and he’s been a winner his whole career,” said pitching coach Mike Maddux, someone around baseball long enough to vividly remember Pujols’ prime. “I’m sure there are guys in our clubhouse who have played Wiffle Ball while emulating Albert Pujols. His character and production resonate. And when you see him step into that batter’s box, you see a champion.”
Pujols said his dream would be to end his career in St. Louis as a champion for a third time. As nostalgic as he is about returning to the Cardinals -- and excited to be playing alongside Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright again -- Pujols’ only goal is to try to win the World Series, he stressed. To accomplish that, Pujols said he’ll serve in any role the team needs.
“It’s all about trying to help this ballclub win games,” said Pujols, who hit .378 with two home runs and 10 RBIs as a pinch-hitter for the Dodgers last season. “That’s all I’m trying to do, and nothing is going to distract me. Whether I’m playing first base when Goldschmidt needs a day off, or I’m at DH, I’ll be ready to go. My job is to be in the locker room, [Marmol] makes the lineup and [Bill DeWitt Jr. and Mozeliak] make the calls. My job is to be ready when my name is called.”