By Robert Cunningham, Angelswin.com Senior Writer
So you are probably not going to like what the author has to say here.
The solution will not move around first base quickly.
You the reader will not enjoy this.
If you are not thinking about the movie “300” by this point, you have to think that Pujols might be thinking about how dangerously close he is to falling below a career .300 batting average heading into the 2019 season.
Now of course it is just a number. However, his entire contract is filled with event milestones and risers for hitting specific numbers. If he hits .245 again this season with just over 400 at-bat’s he will flirt with it for sure and Angels fans may not want to see another retired Angels player sitting at a career 299 in any category.
Age-related decline can suddenly and dramatically decrease performance (and has!), which begs the discussion about his total productivity.
For the last three seasons, Pujols has a 3-year running average of 93 wRC+ between first base and designated hitter. On top of that it is generally trending down. It is at this point that the reader should be reminded that in 2018, league average batter’s box production for first base and designated hitter were 109 and 117 wRC+, respectively.
It is difficult to have this discussion because Albert is a Hall of Fame-bound hitter and from all appearances and actions he is a tremendous human being who has helped hundreds if not thousands of children, teenagers and adults with Down Syndrome through the Pujols Family Foundation.
In addition to that, the foundation assists impoverished men, women, and children in Albert’s home country of the Dominican Republic and provides extraordinary experiences for children with special needs and life threatening illnesses. The good that this man and his wife Deidre do for their community is something that the entire city of Anaheim, both Los Angeles and Orange County, and Halos fans everywhere should celebrate, collectively.
Now certainly, Angels fans would love to see another World Series Championship and it is the author’s suspicion that Pujols wants nothing more than to bring one to Arte Moreno and the team. It would be foolish to assume that he is not fully aware that his ability to play baseball is becoming increasingly more difficult and that he is reaching critical mass in terms of his career coming to an end.
Whether Albert and the front office decide to press through the next three seasons, the front office makes a decision to designate him for assignment, both sides discuss an amicable, graceful buy-out, or Pujols goes the way of Ryne Sandberg or Gil Meche, Albert, Arte and Billy should have a plan in place now or in the near future to ensure a graceful retirement from the game that has given Albert and his family so much and, in turn, the communities of St. Louis, MO, Anaheim, CA, and many others.
So rather than dwell further on age-related baseball decline and the possibility we are seeing Albert’s last days on the field of play, let us celebrate the man, and his career 161 wRC+ in high leverage situations, because he has been clutch, not only in baseball, but for the thousands of people in the U.S., the Dominican Republic, and around the world that have benefited through the Pujols Family Foundation and Albert’s and Deidre’s time, dedication, compassion, and love.
Due to the fact that Ohtani will likely start the season at DH (unless his own health issues interfere), Albert will likely find himself at first base in a platoon with recently acquired Justin Bour. The latter has performed quite well against right-handed pitching over the last three years to the tune of a .270/.365/.504 slash line and a 130 wRC+, so Pujols, if he is not DH’ing, will be relegated to batting against LHP’s and pinch-hit appearances which may actually suit him, particularly with the game on the line. Below is Albert’s wRC+ in high leverage situations the last three years:
By adding Justin, the team has declared, in my opinion, that Albert’s full-time presence on the team is likely coming to an end. Basically the team will see how far Albert goes, how well he does, and evaluate his status after a month or two of play. Ohtani’s health will have a direct impact on how much Pujols plays in the early part of the season. It would not be unsurprising to see Eppler pursue a 1B option on a Minor League deal such as Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, or Mark Reynolds, for example as additional insurance.
If Albert is really struggling, I agree with the Orange County Register’s Jeff Fletcher that they will relegate Pujols to the disabled list, likely based on one of his past ailments, and go with Bour, Ward, or prospect Matt Thaiss.
However, if Pujols is able to perform at a reasonable rate of production I can see the Angels platooning him in about a 90/72 game split for the season based on a combination of his health and performance at the expense of playing time for Bour. Albert outperforming Bour seems unlikely to be honest but the Angels will give Pujols the benefit of the doubt if they are close numbers-wise.
In the end I do not think the Angels can afford expending a roster spot for Albert beyond 2019 or perhaps 2020. It is regrettable but the Angels need to put the best product on the field even if it means eating a large sum of money to do it, despite the feelings of one of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game, because, above all else, this is a team sport.
Hopefully Pujols, Moreno, and Eppler find a happy harmony moving forward that meets all of their needs in a respectful, kind, and collaborative manner as the Machine closes out his career whether in the near future or at the end of his contract.
In the next Section we will discuss Center Field.