JUPITER, Fla. — The Cardinals’ search for a way to maximize the brand new position of designated hitter has led to a reunion with one of the greatest hitters of all from their past.
Albert Pujols and the Cardinals are finalizing a one-year contract to bring the franchise icon back to St. Louis, multiple sources said late Sunday night. The agreement, first reported Sunday night by the Post-Dispatch, is pending a physical and will pay Pujols $2.5 million.
An inevitable first-ballot Hall of Famer, Pujols returns to St. Louis for the coda of a career that began with a stunning spring training and Rookie of the Year award in 2001, matched Stan Musial with three MVPs, and now brings him home 21 homers shy of 700 for his career. Pujols, 42, will have the opportunity to be the team’s righthanded-hitting DH against lefthanded starters or a deterrent off the bench against lefties in late innings.
The Cardinals imagine a similar role to the one Pujols had with the Los Angeles Dodgers this past season, and one manager Oliver Marmol has sought as he lets matchups guide his lineups.
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A member of the Cardinals’ front office declined comment.
The Cardinals had ongoing internal discussions this spring about how a reunion would work with the current roster and clubhouse, and conversations with Pujols’ representatives increased this past weekend. A team source acknowledged how Pujols would fit the roster and ignite nostalgia, joining his friend and longtime teammate Yadier Molina for the catcher’s farewell season. Two sources described Pujols’ eagerness to rejoin the Cardinals if offered.
Drafted by the Cardinals in 1999, Pujols hit his way into the opening day lineup on April 2, 2001, and began an unprecedented run of production to start a major-league career. In his first 10 seasons, he hit at least .300 with at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs each season, and he led the National League in average, homers, and RBIs for the 2000s, claiming a decade Triple Crown despite spotting the entire league a year. While with the Cardinals, Pujols won an MVP in 2005, 2008, and 2009, and he won two World Series championships. His last appearance as a Cardinal was celebrating the 2011 title, and that winter he left for the west coast, signing a 10-year, $240-million deal with the Angels.
Pujols was released by the Angels in May, a few months shy of the end of his contract. A Cardinals source said “the timing was off” for the team to sign him then, though internally they mused about bringing No. 5 back for an encore in the autumn of his career.
As recently as Sunday morning, officials with the Cardinals downplayed a match with Pujols because all spring they have consistently talked up their promise to prospects.
On Sunday morning, Post-Dispatch sports columnist Ben Frederickson asked Marmol if the team would consider adding a righthanded-hitting veteran, like Pujols, to the roster as they did a week ago with lefthanded-hitting outfielder Corey Dickerson.
Marmol stressed the team’s interest in rookie Juan Yepez.
“It is a front office question,” Marmol said. “I’ll answer it with (this): We’re wanting to give Yepez the most opportunity and see what we got there. Has he performed the way he’d like to? No. Is he carrying himself in a way that gives us the belief he can do a good job? Yes. We want to see as much of that as possible. We’ll see a decent amount of at-bats for him moving forward.”
Marmol scripted his lineup Sunday specifically because the Mets had Jacob deGrom, the two-time Cy Young Award winner, scheduled to throw three innings and Max Scherzer, a three-time winner, assigned to handle the final six innings. He said he wanted to see lefthanded-hitting Lars Nootbaar, at DH, against top gear-velocity righthanders, and watch how Yepez adjusted over the course of a game. The Mets’ pitching plan meant Marmol could assure at least three at-bats for each young hitter against the All-Stars.
“These are the type of guys you have to beat if you want to win the whole thing,” Marmol said.
Nootbaar went hitless in four at-bats, two each against deGrom and Scherzer, but he improved with each pass. Nootbaar worked his way back from an 0-2 count against deGrom to get it full in his second at-bat and the got under a pitch for a flyout to center. Yepez went zero-for-three but worked a walk in one of his three plate appearances against Scherzer. Marmol said that Yepez’s swing “was shorter, which was good to see.”
The 24-year-old righthander hit .286 with 27 homers and a .969 OPS in the minors this past season, including a .971 OPS in 92 games at Class AAA. This spring, he’s sweetened his on-base percentage with five walks but is three-for-16 with as many hits as strikeouts. The Cardinals like how his swing and analytics project in the majors, particularly against higher-velocity pitches.
Or, as Nootbaar called them, “hoppy heaters.”
The Cardinals’ envision using the NL’s new toy – the DH – as a matchup position, one that could change game to game based on the handedness and style of the opposing pitcher. Dickerson was signed to a one-year, $5-million this month to be the lefthanded-hitting complement. The Cardinals like Nootbaar against “hoppy heaters,” and they set up the roster this spring to get Yepez a long look at being the righthanded bat off the bench or at DH. Marmol has likened the use of the DH to the line-change lineup San Francisco used effectively – swapping multiple bats out of the lineup during a game to maximize matchups.
It’s how the Dodgers put Pujols in position to excel last season.
The Angels released Pujols in May, a few months shy of completing the 10-year, $240-million contract that brought him west from the Cardinals in 2011. He signed with the Dodgers and enjoyed targeted use as a righthanded-hitting option at first base and pinch-hitter. He finished the year with a .603 slugging percentage and a .939 OPS vs. lefties in 146 plate appearances. Ten of his 13 homers vs. lefties came in the 33 hits he had in those specific assignments with the Dodgers.
Pujols’ return will give the Cardinals’ three members of their 2006 championship team back in the clubhouse again: Molina, Pujols, and the closer on that team, Adam Wainwright, who is expected to start opening day. Skip Schumaker, a teammate with that trio for the 2011 World Series victory, is the team’s new bench coach.
While with the Cardinals, Pujols will have a chance to burnish the statistics that are bronze-ready for Cooperstown. A .297 career hitter, Pujols has 679 home runs, 2,150 RBIs, and 3,301 hits. He is among the all-time leaders in total bases, homers, RBIs and almost any statistic kept for the game’s most productive hitters, tracked by modern data or found on the back of baseball cards.
He starts the year 18 homers shy of surpassing Alex Rodriguez for fourth all-time in home runs.
Pujols would be behind only Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth.
Pujols’ No. 5 has not been worn since he left for the Angels as the Cardinals prepared for its eventual retirement, and there will be a statue of him outside of Busch Stadium someday.
But he has a few home games to play first.
Albert Pujols’ 2019 St. Louis reunion