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Albert Pujols' Angels Tenure Ends with Both Sides Wondering What Could've Been

Abbey MastraccoContributor IMay 7, 2021

Los Angeles Angels' Albert Pujols stands in the dugout during a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners, Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Albert Pujols will be remembered for much more than his .198 batting average, but .198 will play an important role in his story when his career comes to a close. 

That number is what Pujols was hitting when the Los Angeles Angeles designated him for assignment on Thursday. It's not often a first-ballot Hall of Fame candidate is unceremoniously DFA'd. That transaction is reserved for scuffling four-A players or struggling veterans on the downside of their careers.

And sure, he might be a struggling veteran toward the end of his career, but he's not one of those veterans. He's Albert Pujols, one of the most feared hitters in baseball. One of the most prolific hitters of a generation. It's a transaction that seems beneath him. 

But that's exactly what happened to Pujols Thursday morning. The Los Angeles Angels released their reserve first baseman/designated hitter who was hitting just .198. He was in the final season of a 10-year, $240 million contract and has been about league-average or worse since 2016. 

"It never ends the way you want it to," Angels team president John Carpino told reporters in a Zoom press conference. "He handled it like a pro. But our goal yesterday, 10 years from yesterday and moving forward is always to respect the player, and especially someone of Albert's stature and someone with the greatness he's accomplished on the field and off the field. We just tried to give him the ultimate respect.

"However, as (manager Joe Maddon) said, this is baseball and this is how it happens sometimes." 

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Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press

Greatness fades, but the Angels don't want to fade from yet another playoff race. Outfielder Mike Trout took over for Pujols as the next generation's greatest hitter as the Machine's career started its downward trajectory. 

There were reports that Pujols was unhappy with Maddon sitting him against Tampa Bay Rays left-hander Ryan Yarbrough on Wednesday night, but Maddon disputed those claims.

What happened was this: Jared Walsh solidified first base, and Shohei Ohtani became indispensable as a DH. At 41, he wants to keep playing, but Pujols simply didn't fit into the larger picture, so there was a conversation between Carpino, Maddon, general manager Perry Minasian and Pujols on Wednesday night. It was decided that he would no longer be a member of the Angels organization.

As for who made the call, Minasian said it was a "baseball operations" decision. 

"This was more about Jared Walsh playing the right position and Shohei Ohtani being in the lineup on a daily basis," Minasian said. "Moving forward, we feel like that's the best club we have."

There is a desperate need to move forward and do so quickly. It's absurd that Trout is 30 years old and has only played in three postseason games, but unfortunately, that's part of a legacy that Pujols leaves behind in Anaheim. The Angels have won a grand total of zero playoff games since Pujols came to the Southland following his illustrious career with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Owner Arte Moreno wanted to be aggressive in building a contender after years of success. He bought the team in 2003—a year after the Angels won their first and only World Series in franchise history—and they were a perennial contender throughout the early aughts. The Angels won the AL West in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2009, but never reached the pinnacle, and Moreno wanted a big name and a powerful presence to help them get there.

Pujols provided name and that presence, joining the club with his massive payday in 2012. 

The Angels had a league-leading 98 wins in 2014 but were swept by the upstart Kansas City Royals in the ALDS. The problem was that the Angels' two high-profile, splashy free agents—Pujols and outfielder Josh Hamilton—were tying up most of the budget, and the club was unable to invest in starting pitching. It also didn't help that those two generally underperformed. 

The Angels had a messy ending with Hamilton. While rehabbing from an offseason shoulder surgery in 2015, he self-reported a relapse into substance abuse. Moreno made comments to the media saying he did not want Hamilton back on the team and removed all of his merchandise from the team store. The Angels then traded him back to the Texas Rangers, ending a sad chapter in team history. 

It's not quite as messy with Pujols, though some would say he still deserved better than a DFA. Former Boston Red Sox ace and fellow Dominican Republic native Pedro Martinez said the way the Angels released him was "shameful."

The Angels said that while Pujols expressed a "passionate" desire to keep playing, ultimately there was no major fallout. 

"There was no fight, no argument," Minasian said. "The conversation went back and forth. He expressed his feelings and we expressed ours. He understood where we stood on the situation, and things did not end bad. I gave him a big hug."

But Pujols' Angels legacy doesn't define his career just like that .198 batting average doesn't define him. 

Before he started to age and his legs got heavy, before the shift started gobbling up everything on the left side, Pujols was the master of the pull. That was part of what made him so great. He had a swing so pure it elicited a different noise when the bat struck the ball in the sweet spot. 

You knew when Pujols hit one out of the park. It sounded different. It felt different. 

As it stands right now, he's fifth in MLB history with 667 career home runs, 13th all-time in hits (3,253) and 21st all-time in WAR (99.4).

He slashed .328/.420/.617 and hit 445 home runs in 11 seasons with the Cardinals. He was nearly a career .300 hitter until a few hitless performances in recent games dropped his average down to .298.

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Pujols went from playing in the streets of Santo Domingo using limes for baseballs and milk cartons for gloves to winning three NL MVP Awards and three World Series titles. He's a nine-time All-Star, with his most recent appearance coming in 2015. 

As a teenager, he moved from the Dominican Republic to New York City and then to Independence, Missouri, outside of Kansas City. He hit a grand slam and turned an unassisted triple play in his first college game at Maple Woods Community College.

The team from across the state drafted him with the 402nd pick in the 1999 draft, marking the beginning of a historic career. Mark McGwire convinced Cardinals manager Tony La Russa to put him on the Opening Day roster in 2001, telling the manager that an omission might be "one of the worst moves you make in your career." Pujols rewarded that vote of confidence by winning that season's NL Rookie of the Year award. 

There is some speculation he might reunite with La Russa in Chicago with the White Sox or even head back to St. Louis. Signing Pujols, even for the league minimum, doesn't make a lot of sense for many teams, but it might for those two. 

The one team it doesn't make sense for anymore is the Angels. The club is on its third general manager since Pujols came to Orange County, and once again pitching is a problem. The Halos lost to the Rays 8-3 on Thursday night, doomed by an eighth-inning bullpen meltdown. The team is last in the AL West at 13-17 and has lost eight of its last 15 games.

The division could be in reach, but there is work to be done and stability needed with time running out.

Endings are sometimes painful. They come without warning. Sometimes players just know they are done. Sometimes teams just know they are done with players. 

Even if this isn't the end, it doesn't matter. What matters is the legacy Pujols leaves behind. 

"As an organization, we felt comfortable giving him that contract in 2011," Carpino said. "We never looked back on it. He's been here 10 years. What he accomplished, what he brought the brand, what him and his wife (Deidre) have done on and off the field, other athletes should emulate throughout their career. So we're really happy with the time we had him here."

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