What if Pujols had stayed in St. Louis?

November 30th, 2020

Welcome to What If?, a new occasional feature in which we look at a major moment in baseball history and try to track what would have happened if the moment would have went differently than it did. Today’s What If? scenario: What if Albert Pujols had never left the Cardinals?

The way the story is told now, the St. Louis Cardinals were so wise, so forward-thinking for resisting the temptation to re-sign Albert Pujols to a big contract for the last decade of his career. This narrative makes sense. After all, the Cardinals have been good ever since Pujols left, in no small part because of their financial flexibility, while the Angels have been hamstrung by paying a superstar contract to an aging, beloved-but-no-longer-effective slugger deep into his career. So smart, those Cardinals!

But that’s not really how it went down. The Cardinals wanted Pujols to return. They had, in fact, reconstructed their entire organization in order to be able to afford to pay Pujols the money he wanted. (One of the main reasons Jeff Luhnow was brought to St. Louis in the first place was to revamp the farm system so the Cardinals could redirect away money they might have paid veterans toward Pujols.) They were devastated when Pujols left; Cardinals team president John Mozeliak said he was “stunned” to lose him.

Which makes one wonder: What would have happened if Pujols had stayed? What would have been had the Angels not signed Pujols to a 10-year deal that ends after the 2021 season? Here are 10 ways the world might have been different had Pujols signed with St. Louis and not Los Angeles way back in 2011.

1. Pujols goes down as the greatest Cardinal ever, setting all his records with the team.
During Pujols’ time as a Cardinal, he was so closely associated with Stan Musial, the franchise’s North Star, that he was even granted Musial's nickname, albeit in Spanish: "El Hombre." (Tellingly, Pujols requested this nickname no longer be used when he signed with the Angels.) Cardinals fans commonly commented on their cosmic luck: Somehow, this franchise had been graced with two once-in-a-generation, lifelong Cardinals. Fans prepared themselves for a never-ending debate: Pujols or Musial? Pujols’ leaving ended that instantly and deprived us of that eternal barroom discussion.

Pujols’ numbers, with the fall that’s happened since he joined the Angels, aren’t quite where Musial’s were; Pujols is ahead of him in power categories, but Musial’s better at everything else, including winning three World Series to Pujols’ two. But Pujols’ numbers at the time he left St. Louis were far better than Musial’s, and if you go under the belief that Pujols’ decline would have been more staggered had he stayed in St. Louis -- a big assumption, but not necessarily an unreasonable one -- they’re likely much closer. Pujols’ feat of staying in one city his whole career would have been far rarer, and thus more powerful, in his era than in Musial’s -- and, notably, all of Pujols’ milestones (3,000 hits, 600 homers and 2,000 RBIs) would have happened in St. Louis. At the very least, the question of “The Greatest Cardinal Ever” would be forever unsettled.

2. Carlos Beltrán never signs with the Cardinals and his Hall of Fame case is weaker.
When the Cardinals picked themselves up off the floor after Pujols’ exit, they looked around for any sort of impact bat to fill the gaping hole he left in the lineup. Carlos Beltrán had just come off a resurgent season in the final year of his massive contract with the Mets, who had traded him to San Francisco at the Deadline. He was about to turn 35 years old and widely considered a risk, considering his history of injuries. The Cardinals got him on a reasonable two-year deal and watched him put up two of the best seasons of his career, including a 2013 season in which he reached his first World Series.

Beltrán rode that resurgence to four more years in the Majors, including 2017, when he finally won his elusive World Series title and left little doubt that he’ll be enshrined in Cooperstown. Is it possible that Beltrán doesn’t find as perfect a fit as he did in St. Louis and ends up being unable to extend his career? It’s certainly possible!

3. Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina do not end their career as Cardinals.
This current offseason is full of intrigue and worry that Wainwright and Molina, two All-Stars who inherited the "Lifelong Cardinal" mantle from Pujols, could leave St. Louis for the final years of their careers. It’s up in the air whether that will happen, but if the Cardinals had signed Pujols to a gigantic deal, it’s difficult to see how the club would have been able to find the cash to keep paying Wainwright and Molina all these years. The Cardinals used much of the money they saved by not paying Pujols to give Wainwright a five-year, $97.5 million extension in 2014 and Molina a five-year, $75 million contract in '12 (plus a three-year, $60 million contract in '17).

There is no way they could have kept both players had Pujols re-signed. Wainwright, in particular, feels like he would have left at some point; would he have spent much of this decade back with Atlanta, his hometown team?

4. The Angels build their team around Mike Trout, who they now realize is their real star.
When the Angels signed Pujols, they thought they were getting the best player in baseball; he’d won two of the last four NL MVP Awards, after all, finishing second in 2010 and fifth in '11. It turns out, they did have the best player in baseball -- they just didn’t know it yet. Trout had been dreadful in his 40-game cameo at the end of 2011, and while the Angels still had plenty of faith, one had to wonder if it would take him a while to become an All-Star.

Instead, in Pujols’ first season, Trout exploded, making it clear that we were witnessing a superstar whose peak could rival Pujols' peak. If the Angels don’t sign Pujols, then Trout emerges, the club can -- at least theoretically -- be more judicious with its spending, making Trout (on a rookie deal) its centerpiece rather than Pujols (owed $30 million in the final year of his 10-year deal). Had Pujols hit free agency after the 2012 season, rather than after '11, would the Angels, now having Trout established as a star, have been so desperate to sign him?

5. The Angels don’t sign Josh Hamilton.
The biggest mistake of the Trout era in Anaheim, other than maybe signing Pujols himself for so long, was the five-year, $125 million deal the Angels gave Josh Hamilton a year after signing Pujols and after Trout had emerged as a superstar. A large part of the appeal of signing Hamilton was that you could pair him with Pujols; even Trout, when the Angels signed Hamilton, tweeted, “Wow.” But the Hamilton signing turned out to be a disaster. He only played two seasons with the Angels, hitting 31 homers in 240 uninspired games. Hamilton, who was tormented by personal demons, was out of baseball two years before the contract had even expired. Do the Angels push so hard to bring in Hamilton if they aren’t so enticed by the idea of batting him behind Pujols? It seems unlikely.

6. The Cardinals stave off the Cubs' charge in 2014 and '15.
Beltrán helped keep the Cardinals afloat and was a lineup centerpiece who at least vaguely resembled Pujols for the first two years after Pujols’ departure. But after he left, the Cardinals lacked that linchpin for their offense, and they specifically lacked it at first base, particularly after Allen Craig, who was meant to be Pujols’ first-base replacement, fell apart with injuries. You can make a strong case the one thing the Cardinals were missing in 2014 and especially '15 was a first baseman. The 2015 season, of course, is the year the Cardinals finally relented to the Cubs’ onslaught, losing to them in the NLDS -- to this day the only postseason series the two have ever played. Do the Cardinals fare better in 2015 and '16 -- two of Pujols’ better seasons with the Angels, for what it’s worth -- if they still have Pujols?

7. Paul Goldschmidt is a Yankee.
The Cardinals finally relented to fans’ frustrations that they had no lineup centerpiece by trading for Paul Goldschmidt after the 2018 season. That’s obviously a move they would have never made if Pujols were still on the team making $25-plus million a year, which makes it more likely Goldschmidt ended up with the Yankees, a team that had always desired him and would have had an opening for a first baseman. Of course, that means …

8. Luke Voit is traded long before the Yankees ever get a shot at him.
The Cardinals offloaded Voit at the Deadline in 2018, largely because they were already looking for a big name in the offseason (Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado were the primary candidates) and would have to move Matt Carpenter to first or third accordingly, leaving no spot for Voit. But that whole calculus would have been entirely different if Pujols had been around; Voit would have been blocked his entire career. And it’s not like the Cardinals had ever given Voit much play anyway: He hit five homers in 70 games over parts of two seasons. But the Yankees, willing to try anything at first, traded for him … and now he’s a two-buttons-down folk hero. But Voit would have gone somewhere else, long before, had Pujols still been around.

9. Trout wins a playoff game.
It is not fair to say that Pujols has been entirely a drain on Trout. The Angels have signed other big contracts since Pujols', first off, so it’s not like they’ve been entirely restrained financially. And Pujols, while he hasn’t matched his Cardinals production, has still hit 217 homers in Anaheim. But the past few years, in particular, Pujols has been a drag on the Angels’ lineup, and you can make a pretty strong argument that his 636 unproductive at-bats may have cost the team a playoff spot in 2017.

At the very least, you have to think, without Pujols’ struggles the past few years, and with money freed up to bring in some desperately needed pitching, the Angels would have been able to reach the playoffs at least once more, and maybe even multiple times. Instead, Trout, the greatest baseball player since Barry Bonds, has still never won a playoff game and will turn 30 in August.

10. Pujols retires beloved in St. Louis in a way he never will be in Anaheim.

This is the final year of Pujols’ contract, and it is an undeniable relief for the Angels. Their fans are still fond of Pujols, but they never adored him the way that Cardinals fans did. And how could they? Pujols’ inevitable decline would always have been handled more warmly and sympathetically in St. Louis than in Anaheim; he had 11 years of good will built up, as we saw with the emotional reaction of Pujols’ return to St. Louis in 2019.

Pujols is coming to the end of his Hall of Fame career. There is no question it would have been a more celebratory ending in St. Louis than it will be in Anaheim. But I guess we will never know.