ST. LOUIS — Albert Pujols left St. Louis on less than ideal terms back in 2011. Right after helping the Cardinals win their 11th World Series trophy, Pujols bolted west, exchanging his Redbird red for Los Angeles Angel red. Sadness ensued.
When he finally returned last summer, Cardinals fans gave him a weekend's worth of standing ovations. For 14 at-bats, Pujols couldn't see a pitch without the majority of a sold-out Busch Stadium crowd showering him with praise, thanking him for 11 wonderful seasons. A stretch from a player that fans, even young kids, may never see again in their lifetime.
What if he could really come back, though? Late last week, Pujols said that when his current 10-year contract runs out with the Angels, he's not sure if he will retire. Without confirming more baseball, Pujols left open the clear possibility that he was not simply going to hang up his jersey and clock out for extended gold outings during the summer. It turns out the shortened 2020 season(?) has changed more than a few minds of players entering reaching their 40th year of age.
Having just turned 40 in January, Pujols is the kind of guy who wouldn't let age determine his ending. If the baseball gods were civil enough, that finale would take place in St. Louis. He would be 42 years old as the 2022 season opened, but that doesn't mean there would be an empty seat at Busch. By coming back for one more ride in Cardinal Red, Pujols could right the only wrong in his entire career: leaving baseball heaven.
Logistically, people could poke holes in the scenario. Why spend money and time on a guy who collected a -0.6 WAR according to Fangraphs the past two seasons? What would Pujols have left? How much would he play? Where would he play? All these questions are in bounds and realistic assertions of a potential move and its cost.
But consider this. Pujols wouldn't ask for a ton of money to place a neat cherry on top of a sure-fire Hall of Fame career. At 42 years old, he wouldn't demand a starting job either. He could be a moderate bench bat to guard against an injury to Paul Goldschmidt or come out for a pinch-hitting appearance every night. This would be like having a celebrity along for the ride.
Remember this, the National League could have the designated hitter in place in two years. Would you really gasp at the thought of Pujols taking four at-bats every day as a DH for the Cardinals? I would hope not. WAR shortage or not, Pujols can still hit the long ball. He cranked 23 home runs last year for the Angels. He's never hit fewer than 17 home runs in a season and that came in a year where he only played in 99 games. Pujols can still hit the ball out of the park and if he were to assume a full DH role, I imagine the focus on offense could easily lead to a 20 home run season.
Pujols will be closing in on significant milestones if he came back for 2022. If he does not get it in 2021, Pujols could be swinging for home run No. 700 during his Cardinal swan song. There is also Hank Aaron's RBI total of 2,297 for Pujols to chase down. He would be close to 3,500 hits as well. There are reasons outside of WAR and games in the standings to bring back Pujols.
Sometimes, nostalgia and sentimentality should win. Like, when it has to do with one of the greatest Cardinals of all time. This isn't some guy who spent 3-5 years in St. Louis and was well-liked; Pujols hit a home run last summer at Busch Stadium in the wrong uniform and got a standing ovation. We are talking about that guy here. A legend.
Once again, before you gather the words to shame him for leaving, let me remind you that if free agency was in play back in Stan Musial's day, he may have left St. Louis too. One can never be sure. Pujols made a choice and has lived with it. While one could assume he'd make a different move if the situation in 2011 could get a do-over, Pujols recently stated that the Cardinals offer simply wasn't good enough. He went for the better deal and higher money total.
This time, I think the Cardinals wouldn't let that happen. John Mozeliak, who looked more stunned than any other time in his career as a Cardinal executive, could right one of his wrongs. Imagine the feeling of remorse leaving his body as Pujols walked back into his office to sign a contract to finish his career in St. Louis? I bet there would be a smile or two involved.
Also, if the Cardinals want some leverage in the Yadier Molina contract discussions, tell him Pujols could be coming back in 2022. Maybe Adam Wainwright did rediscover a new way to be effective for a few more seasons. He was one of the only pitchers who held up his end of the bargain in the Washington Nationals series. What if Pujols, Molina, and Wainwright all go out as Cardinals?
Pujols leaving St. Louis must be one of the sorest spots in Cardinal history. If he stays, a lot of things could have been different. Forget about 2016-2019. The Cardinals could have easily won another World Series or two with Pujols on the roster in 2012-15. I would take a 12th World Series for a few down years of Pujols baseball. I mean, how many titles have the Cardinals won since he left? Zero.
If Albert Pujols wants to keep playing after 2021, the Cardinals should make him an offer he can't refuse. Come back to where it all started, collect some milestones, sell A TON of merchandise, get standing ovations for 81 games, and deliver the proper ending to a one-of-a-kind career. The pros outweigh the cons here, especially if the DH is in play in both leagues. For a guy who is not a huge fan of the extra hitter in the lineup, bringing back AP5 makes me an immediate fan of the notion.
Bonus: Pujols in the lineup could finally force a Cardinal manager not to bat Molina above the 7th spot.
It may be too good to be true and I doubt it actually happens, but there are fewer roadblocks than you think. The service contract in Los Angeles can easily be voided if Pujols wants to keep playing. He would have free reign to sever that icing on the cake part of the Angles deal and continue his baseball journey elsewhere. Something like this would take a few moving parts, but I think it would be worth the trouble.
Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt Jr. have taken a few ill-fated gambles during their time as chief decision-makers in the Cardinals organization. They have taken bold risks and come up short. Bringing back Pujols wouldn't be a mistake. Any naysayers would be quietly clapping when Pujols put one onto Freese's Lawn out in center field with the birds on the bat spread across his chest. I'd bet a mortgage payment they would. The truth is it's easier to be the sly mind playing devil's advocate than the one who sees the business-savvy aspect of the return.
Nostalgia is one thing. Righting a wrong with a Cardinal legend is quite another.
Pujols left on sour terms back in 2011 after 11 otherworldly seasons. He could return 11 years later to put a fine stamp on his baseball career.
What do you think, Cardinal Nation?