Ben Frederickson: Nothing wrong with imagining Pujols-Cards reunion, but reality would disappoint

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One Yadier Molina ESPN interview plus one Albert Pujols ESPN interview equals a juicy what-if about the two friends joining forces again.

Not in Anaheim, either.

Pujols, echoing Molina, said in a recent ESPN interview that he’s not necessarily done playing after his current contract ends.

Hypothetical wheels started turning in St. Louis. Say, what if the Cardinals brought Pujols back to finish his career?

My pal and Cardinals broadcaster Dan McLaughlin posed the question to listeners on his Scoops with Danny Mac radio show on WXOS (101. FM) on Monday.

My take?

Forget about it.

Pujols, 40, is forever a Cardinals legend. He’s a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. But right now, he’s an aging Angels slugger whose performance and injury history say he has been overpaid for much of the $240 million contract that lured him to California after he led the Cardinals to the 2011 World Series championship.

But wait, some might say. If Pujols really does keep playing after his current contract expires after the 2021 season, and he figures out a way out of the personal services contract that was supposed to start after it, it’s not like his next deal would be anything close to the contract he had before. Especially not after front offices feel the full financial impact of the coronavirus crunch. This could be as affordable as it is intriguing.

Plus, Pujols could become a better fit for the National League in the near future, as the league’s overdue adoption of the designated hitter is likely to happen in whatever format baseball adopts for its pandemic-shortened 2020 season. (Once it arrives, it’s not going away.)

But here’s the problem.

Well, there are a few problems.

Unlike Molina, the team’s defensive mastermind who still has the legacy argument on his side when it comes to the topic of an extension, Pujols would not factor into the Cardinals’ run-suppression obsession. Paul Goldschmidt, an annual Gold Glove candidate, is under contract at first base through the 2024 season. That means Pujols would be limited to DH only. But Pujols is no longer a very competitive option at DH.

Pujols’ batting line since the start of the 2017 season reads .243/.293/.407. That’s an on-base plus slugging percentage of .700.

Let’s compare these numbers the average American League designated hitter during the same time frame.

The AL’s DH position has averaged .247 with a .324 on-base percentage and a .442 slugging percentage since 2017. That’s an OPS of .766.

Here’s another way to look at it, sticking with that same three-season sample size.

Pujols and Matt Carpenter have the same average (.243) since 2017. Molina (.313) has a better on-base percentage than Pujols (.293). Dexter Fowler (.410) and Kolten Wong (.409) have slightly higher slugging percentages than Pujols (.407).

That doesn’t sound like a competitive DH.

None of this is mentioned to diminish Pujols’ accomplishments.

I bring it up, in part, to protect the ones he had here.

Pujols is one of the greatest hitters of all time, and his best seasons made him one of the best Cardinals of all time. His number should be retired by the Cardinals one day. His dedication to the St. Louis area, specifically the charitable work that he continued after his relocation, should be remembered and celebrated forever.

But the unbiased evidence suggests the fireworks still within Pujols’ reach — amazing milestones like 700 home runs and 3,500 hits — would not outweigh the duds. Cardinals fans would be reminded more of what Pujols is not than what he once was. That would be a jarring thing, considering he has not played regularly in front of them since he spent a decade-plus dropping their jaws.

One of the best things about Pujols’ departure — after the Cardinals not being on the hook for the declining years of his career — was that St. Louis never saw any rust on The Machine. His greatness was practically preserved in a time capsule. A reunion before retirement would break the seal too soon.

Pujols made a magical trip back to Busch Stadium for that Cardinals-Angels series last season, and it seemed to offer the player, the team and the fans some closure. Finally. He more than delivered, rewarding minutes-long standing ovations with four hits and a homer in 11 at-bats. It made you wonder if Pujols and the Cardinals wished they could turn back time. That doesn’t mean you try to do it. It was one series. A season would be different. A lot different.

Pujols made a business decision when he left the Cardinals. That approach is the best one to use when examining the notion, whether it becomes possible or not, of a Pujols-Cardinals reunion before retirement. What benefits the business of nostalgia is rarely best for the business of winning baseball games.

The Cardinals built a 30-foot tall replica of the Commissioner’s Trophy at Ballpark Village this offseason.

It should encourage them to win their next World Series, not relive their last.


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