So, this happened today to Albert Pujols, and it was a surprise to many Angel fans.
Nobody related to the team is going to say it out loud, but we can all do the math. Albert Pujols’ season is over. Recovery time is six to eight weeks, there’s only five weeks left in the season… you get it. For the third year in a row, the future Hall of Famer is going under the knife.
The surgery cuts short another ugly season for Pujols. He’ll finish at .245/.289/.411, and over his last two seasons, he’s hit at a lowly .243/.287/.397 clip, just a 85 OPS+ over his last 1134 plate appearances. Over at Baseball-Reference.com, if you sort by OPS+ the 200 major leaguers who have had at least 750 plate appearances the past two seasons, #1 is, of course, Mike Trout with a bullet. Pujols, on the other hand, is waaaaaay down at #185. If you sort by Wins Above Replacement, the only players that show lower than Pujols are barely warm bodies of Ian Desmond, Victor Martinez, and Chris Davis.
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That’s right, the greatest first baseman of the past eight decades is now among the half-dozen least valuable players in baseball. It’s an ugly end to a brilliant and storied career… except it’s not quite over. The Angels still owe Pujols the last three years of a massive ten-year contract he signed before the 2012 season, those seasons worth $28 million, $29 million and $30 million respectively. It’s an astonishing number, especially given the near-empty batting line Pujols is contributing.
“You don’t retire, the game retires you,” Pujols told the New York Times in an interview in early May. “You don’t choose to retire. The game lets you know when it’s time for you to walk out, and that’s how I look at it. The day that I feel I can’t compete anymore, it doesn’t matter how much money I’ve got left on my contract — that’s not the personality that I carry, that’s not who I am — I think it’s time to walk out.”
The Angels need to hope this is true. The Pujols who was so brilliant in St. Louis, the one who led the Cardinals to three World Series appearances and two championships, who posted an OPS over 1.000 so regularly he earned the nickname “The Machine,” that guy never showed up in Anaheim. Pujols’ time with the Angels has been marked by a dramatic decline in production and health. As the Angels’ flounder for another season, Pujols’ playing time as become an enormous burden to the team on the field, and his salary have become enormous burden off the field. At this point, the only thing that’ll let them off the hook is for Pujols to simply call it a career.
The Angels will have this winter to regroup for 2019. They’ll have to find bullpen arms that don’t suck and hope rotation starters have rehabbed back to full effectiveness. The one decision they won’t get to make will also be the one that’s out of their hands. What Albert Pujols decides to do — whether his pride will allow him to retire before his contract is up — is something only Pujols knows. Here’s hoping he holds his head up high, and walks away.