It has been nearly a week since the Angels shocked the baseball world by designating future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols for assignment, several months before his 10-year, $240 million contract expired. It was a deeply unceremonious end for an inner-tier superstar, and many have been led to wonder if we have seen the last of Pujols, truly one of the greatest baseball players to ever live.
But since then there has been nothing but quiet. Nothing from teams saying they don’t have space for him (save for the White Sox publicly opting out, thanks to Yermín Mercedes), nothing from Pujols, nothing much at all. He hasn’t retired. He clearly still wants to play. So what’s going on? Is he licking his wounds from the Angels’ move? Is he negotiating? Is he waiting to see what need might pop up?
It is worth pointing out that while Pujols might not have been a fit for the Angels anymore, what with all the at-bats they had to juggle between him, Shohei Ohtani and Jared Walsh, there are teams that might work out a little better. It would probably require Pujols no longer demanding he be an everyday player, a contentious sticking point that was clearly an issue in Anaheim. But if he could accept a different role, and he still wants to chase down those milestones he’s been going after (and maybe try to win a third World Series), there are options for him. Here’s a rough guesstimate at five potential landing spots, in ascending order of likelihood. There might not be a perfect fit, but he might not yet be done, either. After all, Pujols does have a .878 OPS against lefties this year.
Cleveland could use all the offense it can get, and it could use it from the right side of the plate. Franmil Reyes would seem to have DH locked up, but wouldn’t a Pujols/Jake Bauers platoon at first base at least make a little bit of sense? Again, this is all based on the idea that Pujols would be willing to take a backseat role, which might be a big assumption, but if he’s looking for an instant drop into a division race, this would be a terrific way to get it.
This one has some serious implosion potential: After all, the Nats are in last place, with an even worse record than the Angels do. It’s possible they’re going to be sellers at the Trade Deadline -- hardly the situation Pujols wants. But, if he’s looking for a team that has shown a willingness to bring in veteran bats to try to get lightning to strike before it has to make some difficult decisions, the Nats are exactly that team. Particularly with the struggles of first baseman Josh Bell, who has struggled particularly against lefties throughout his career. The Nats need some sort of jolt … any sort of jolt. Could Pujols be that jolt? One doubts that Juan Soto would mind having the best Dominican hitter of all time as a teammate, either. (For what it’s worth: Pujols’ 1.153 OPS against the Nationals is the highest he has against any team.)
All right, so those two are stretches. Other stretches include the Yankees (if Luke Voit struggles coming back), the Red Sox (if Bobby Dalbec can’t make it work), the D-backs (Christian Walker is off to a terrible start) and the Rockies (heck, why not?). But really: There are only three teams that make much sense at all … and they’re all teams with which Pujols already has a connection.
3. White Sox
Yes, yes, the White Sox have already said they’re out: Skipper Tony La Russa, who managed Pujols for the first 11 years of his career, says there’s “no fit.” And he’s right. But a), there really isn’t any team that has an obvious fit for a 41-year-old fading slugger -- and yet here we all are still talking about it -- and b), Mercedes is a monster right now, but he’s still an unproven 28-year-old rookie who never walks, had just one at-bat in the bigs before this season and surely has pitchers all across the AL watching endless amounts of video, looking for holes in his swing. Will he be able to adjust? Remember, too, that one of the reasons he never broke through before this year was because he was often hurt: He could always get hurt. There might not be a fit on the South Side right now, but if a hole pops up, you don’t think TLR won’t immediately call Pujols?
Pujols, famously, went to community college in Kansas City, and he has obvious ties to the state of Missouri. He’s a former teammate of manager Mike Matheny, and he certainly seems to share the off-field sensibility of both the franchise and the ownership group. There’s a clear "full circle" team for Pujols to join, but if that one doesn’t bite, the Royals would scratch the same itch. And this would allow him both to DH occasionally and also make one last trip to Busch Stadium to soak in the love.
But honestly, why don’t we just eliminate the middle man here?
Look, the arguments against Pujols going to St. Louis aren’t hard to make. The Cardinals have a first baseman, and there is no DH slot for him. This is a team that’s going to be in a fierce playoff race that doesn’t have that much margin for error. It would be sad to see Pujols hit .178 anywhere, but it would be especially hard to see him do it here.
But ... Come on. There isn’t a Cardinals fan alive who saw Pujols play for St. Louis who doesn’t want to see him put on that No. 5 uniform again -- if just once. The fit also isn’t that out there. The Cardinals opened the season with a man named John Nogowski, a right-handed power hitter who can only play first base. It hasn’t worked out for Nagowski, who is on the injured list, but that the Cardinals would begin 2021 with a first-base-only right-handed power hitter on the roster is a sign they’re not completely opposed to the idea of having one now. And, no offense, but John Nagowski is no Albert Pujols.
Pujols would be joining a team with Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, with whom he has won multiple World Series rings, as well as Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, the sort of veterans he has always thrived being around. You don’t think those five just talking at the end of the dugout wouldn’t have tangible value? And if there is anything to be wrung out of Pujols, isn’t this the perfect situation to find it? For a team that has World Series aspirations, there has to be some value in the team’s best clutch hitter of all time (non-David Freese division), no?
It’s a bank shot, to be sure: It’s definitely an uncomfortable situation if Pujols can’t hit at all, you don’t want to mess too much with the chemistry of the team that has the best record in the National League, and you have to make sure Pujols is comfortable with exclusively playing the Nagowski role, something that his former manager Joe Maddon sure didn’t make it sound like Pujols was up for.
Yet what some might say is a tough fit, others might consider the fates aligning for the Pujols-Cardinals story to have one last perfect ending. Pujols can end his career playing in a Cardinals uniform, for a team that wants to win a championship. And Cardinals fans get to say goodbye to one of the true legends of one of the true historic franchises. I mean: How can you not be romantic about baseball? They have to make this happen, right?