The Angels' long commitment to Albert Pujols comes to a sudden, awkward end
By Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer
From the team’s perspective, a decade-long contract rarely makes sense in terms of on-field production. Almost no one, no matter how great, can sustain their peak performance so long in the modern game.
But, as Fernando Tatis Jr. said earlier this year, such deals are not just about on-field production. They’re statue contracts, conferring credibility and marketing ability onto the franchise. They’re statements of purpose, as exemplified by the Mets’ recent commitment to Francisco Lindor.
In signing Albert Pujols to a 10-year statue contract in December 2011, the Angels hoped to capture all those elements. Their owner, Arte Moreno, said as much the day he announced the deal at an Angel Stadium press conference.
The problem with the Angels’ union with one of the best ballplayers ever was that none of those goals came to fruition. Pujols declined more quickly than he or the team imagined. The Angels made one unsuccessful playoff appearance in nine tries. Twenty games into Pujols' tenure, Mike Trout arrived for good and supplanted him as the future subject of stonework.
Now, 29 games into his contract’s final year, the .198-hitting Pujols was cut by the Angels. The team did not want him to start anymore, and he did not want to become a bench player. To the team, that left only this option.
Team president John Carpino and new general manager Perry Minasian delivered the news to Pujols late Wednesday after he sat out of their loss to Tampa Bay in favor of journeyman Phil Gosselin. The club announced the news Thursday. Carpino said he did not anticipate the Angels assembling a goodbye ceremony.
"It never ends the way you really want it to," Carpino said.
But did it have to end like this?
On a deal that long, maybe. Pujols did not become the best by being realistic about what he could accomplish. He has always insisted on playing, and preferably playing first base. That caused friction, for instincts can only forestall so much aging. This year, it was clearer than ever that the Angels had superior options at first base and designated hitter. Minasian sought to frame this week’s decision as a vote of confidence in those players, Jared Walsh and Shohei Ohtani. There were no at-bats for Pujols, he said.
It’s not clear there will be at-bats for him elsewhere either, and it's likely that Pujols was approaching retirement anyway.
"Today is the first day of the last season of one of the most remarkable careers in sports!" his wife, Deidre, wrote on Instagram in February. "I’m talking about my husband … who since the time he was a child would eat, sleep, and breathe this sport. I have had the privilege to walk out 23 years of this baseball journey and it is with such a full heart that I speak a blessing over him as he finishes this good race!"
She later twice edited the post to clarify that she was referring to his Angels’ contract, not his career.
Whenever he retires, Pujols will be in the Hall of Fame five years later, as a certain first-ballot honoree. Such players are not often released. Tom Glavine was the last first-ballot Hall of Famer to be cut, in 2009. That, too, caused a stir, and Glavine, then 43, was on a non-guaranteed contract. The Angels still owe Pujols roughly $24 million for the rest of this season, and then, for personal services, $1 million each year for 10 years after his retirement.
That personal-services addendum to his contract, soon outlawed by MLB, made clear the Angels’ intentions to make Pujols an organizational ambassador, a statue player. Thursday’s news complicates that possibility, as did the unspectacular second act of his career.
Over his 10 seasons in Anaheim, Pujols hit .259 with a .311 on-base percentage and .447 slugging percentage. After adjusting for his home stadium, that .758 OPS was 8% better than the league average over that span. Over the 11 preceding seasons in St. Louis, Pujols hit .328 with a .420 on-base percentage and .617 slugging mark. He was, after Barry Bonds’ departure, the sport’s unquestioned best hitter, his 1.037 OPS some 70% better than average. His worst season with the Cardinals was better than his best season with the Angels.
Still, for much of his decline, Pujols found ways to be reasonably productive. As he approached 40, the Angels continued to hit him behind Trout, and he managed to find ways to drive him in at an above-average rate.
But the end came quick. Late last month, he started hitting seventh. In recent days, Maddon had told Pujols he’d be starting every day for a week. Then, Maddon said, "things changed" Wednesday, and he elected to not play Pujols that night. Hours later, his decade with the Angels was done, and his next decade was thrown into doubt.
Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He most recently covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic. Previously, he spent five years covering the Angels and Dodgers for the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Times. More previously, he covered his alma mater, USC, for ESPNLosAngeles.com. The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the Southern California suburbs. Follow him on twitter at @pedromoura.