End Of Albert Pujols' Angels Tenure Sad But Necessary
In a perfect world, legends go out on their own terms.
John Elway retired after winning his second of back-to-back Super Bowls. Ted Williams hit .316 in his last season and homered in his final at-bat. Ray Bourque hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time after the final game of his career.
Those are the moments everyone dreams of, from fans to front office officials and, especially, the players themselves. Sadly, they are more the exception than the rule.
For Albert Pujols and the Angels, it’s been clear for some time there would be no storybook ending.
The Angels designated Pujols for assignment on Thursday, ending his 10-year tenure with the club. He was batting .198 with a .250 on-base percentage and .372 slugging percentage, all the lowest marks of his career and the continuation of a long decline.
Pujols was arguably the best player in baseball when he signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels after the 2011 season, but the man known as “The Machine” never resembled his peak form in Anaheim.
Pujols has not had an above-average offensive season since 2016. The only category he has led the league in since 2010 is double plays grounded into, which he’s done three times. His .694 OPS the last five seasons ranks 237th out of 268 qualified players, just behind the recently non-tendered Albert Almora and recently DFA’d Rougned Odor.
With only one year left on Pujols’ contract and the Angels in last place in the American League West, new general manager Perry Minasian finally pulled the plug.
“From a baseball operations standpoint we had been discussing it over the last two weeks,” Minasian said. “Obviously I'm new to the job. It's been a month and having a chance to watch this club for a month, I felt more confident in my in my recommendation to ownership.”
There were some positive moments during Pujols’ time in Anaheim. He helped the Angels win a division title in 2014 and had a 40-run home season in 2015. He hit his 500th and 600th career home runs with the Angels, as well as his 3,000th hit.
But Pujols’ Angels tenure will mostly be remembered for the decline it represented from his halcyon days with the Cardinals. In 11 seasons in St. Louis, Pujols hit .328/.420/.617 with 445 home runs. In 10 seasons with the Angels, he hit .256/.311/.447 with 222 home runs.
Most regrettably, the Angels could have received that production at first base from homegrown alternatives and saved the money spent on Pujols to pursue upgrades elsewhere.
Mark Trumbo, a local product and homegrown all-star, and C.J. Cron, a first-round draft pick, were both traded away by the Angels due to Pujols’ presence. If the Angels had stuck with them as their first basemen, the club’s performance over the last decade may have looked very different.
Trumbo from 2012-16 and Cron from 2017 through this season combined to hit .252/.305/.474 with 229 home runs, a higher OPS and more homers than the Angels received from Pujols in the same time frame. They delivered that production for a combined $36.655 million—just over 15% of what the Angels paid Pujols.
The Angels wisely chose not to make the same mistake again with another homegrown first baseman. Jared Walsh entered Thursday batting .313 with 15 home runs, 48 RBI and a .980 OPS in 60 games dating back to last season. A natural first baseman, he’s played the majority of this season in right field while Pujols has been at first base, an arrangement that has contributed to the Angels ranking 29th in defensive runs saved as measured by The Fielding Bible.
Rather than keep the status quo and placate Pujols, who made it clear he did not see himself as a bench player, the Angels front office prioritized putting the best team on the field.
“This was more about Jared Walsh playing the right position (and) Shohei Ohtani being in the lineup on a daily basis,” Minasian said. “I mean for us now and moving forward, we feel like that's the best club we have, and it was about the organization moving forward.”
While an unceremonious end to his Angels tenure, Pujols’ legacy is secure. He is fifth all-time in home runs and one of only six players with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. He is arguably the greatest first baseman of all-time and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot. His rise from 13th-round pick to three-time MVP remains one of baseball’s greatest stories and the pre-eminent example that a player’s draft status does not dictate the career they are bound to have.
But for the Angels, trying to win and putting Pujols in the lineup everyday were no longer compatible. The decision to let him go wasn’t pleasant, but for the Angels to be the best team they can be, it was necessary.
“You always want a player to have a last hurrah,” team president John Carpino said. “Albert threw the decision back to us and then we made a decision from there. It never ends the way that you really want it to."