ST. LOUIS — Nostalgia can make you do some dumb things. Valuing memories of the past over the needs of the present and future can be a slippery slope in the world of professional sports.
For example, if Albert Pujols had decided to sign to stay in St. Louis following the 2011 season, it would've felt nice, but his steep drop in production coupled with a ridiculous contract would've financially crippled the Cardinals for years. While watching Pujols go to California may have hurt Cardinals fans, there's no doubt it worked out for the franchise as a whole.
But in 2022, it's time to bookend one of the greatest careers in baseball history with the only ending that seems fitting. The Cardinals should bring Pujols back for one last ride alongside Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright.
Pujols is back in town with the Dodgers this week, and there's no doubt he's the main attraction. Busch Stadium hosted its largest crowd of the year in the opener to watch Pujols sit on the bench while Max Scherzer carved up a subpar Cardinals lineup. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts even got booed when he failed to pinch-hit Pujols in the ninth inning up by four runs, ignoring "We want Albert" chants from the crowd.
Pujols' return in 2019 proved that any wounds of him leaving for Anaheim had healed. But think of what an entire sendoff season in St. Louis would be like for the greatest hitter of his generation. 2022 provides that opportunity.
I started this commentary off by saying improving a team shouldn't be sacrificed for chasing nostalgia. But I truly believe, if they want to, the Cardinals can have the best of both worlds.
2021 has proved there are some glaring holes in the current construction of the team. They need multiple proven arms on the pitching staff, production at shortstop and another middle-of-the-order hitter either to emerge from within, or find his way to St. Louis.
Yes, they could still make the playoffs as the second wild card team, but this group of Cardinals has done little to inspire St. Louis to rally to the cause so far. The lagging attendance since Busch Stadium has gone to full capacity proves it.
There's work to be done, and that needs to be addressed first. But that doesn't mean you can't embrace what could be an incredible storyline as well in 2022.
Thirty-nine-year-old Yadier Molina is already signed on for 2022 in which he says will be his last season. Forty-year-old Adam Wainwright has been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball this year, so the odds seem favorable he'd be up for another go as well. Bringing back 41-year-old Albert Pujols in the right role for the right price would just feel... right.
Here's why it makes sense and isn't just a nostalgia-based move that hamstrings the club.
Ask anyone and their mother, it's about a guarantee that the designated hitter is coming to the National League in 2022. There's a place for him to play. You wouldn't have to somehow explain how he was taking at-bats away from Paul Goldschmidt and likely struggling to play an acceptable first base.
Pujols has proven with the Dodgers he still holds some value. He's statistically been one of the best hitters against lefties in all of baseball this season. He's hitting .301 with a .618 slugging percentage, .954 OPS and 12 home runs against lefties this year in 123 at-bats. Even if he's not starting, sit there with a straight face and tell me you'd rather see Paul DeJong, Jose Rondon, Matt Carpenter or Lars Nootbaar come to the plate in the late innings instead of Pujols right now. Call me crazy, but I don't think a team with World Series aspirations like the Dodgers would waste a roster spot on a guy who is not actively making their team better.
He also shouldn't cost almost anything at all in free agency. If Pujols really wants to keep playing and chasing 700 home runs, he'll do it for peanuts compared to what he's been used to. Or at least he should. An Albert Pujols signing shouldn't impede your ability to maneuver in all the other areas the team needs to make changes. If it does, something has gone horribly wrong.
Is signing Albert Pujols in free agency the move the Cardinals need to make to field a more competitive team in 2022? No, of course not. Does it make them any worse than they are now? No, of course not.
If the 2022 Cardinals sign Pujols and fail to field a better club I can't imagine anyone saying at the end of the year, "Man, that Albert Pujols signing was really the determining factor into why this team didn't make a playoff run." That's not going to happen.
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The front office should feel the heat to field a better team next year. They got their star in Nolan Arenado, now it's time to plug the glaring holes that still exist.
But there's a way to do that, and give fans a send-off nearly 20 years in the making. These are not mutually exclusive things.
When you think back on eras of Cardinals baseball there are always a few guys who defined that place in time for the club. Whether it was Brock and Gibson in the '60s or Ozzie and Willie in the '80s, every era has "their guys". Pujols, Molina and Wainwright are "those guys" for so many Cardinals fans.
There's going to be an opportunity to create a storybook ending for three careers that will always be linked. The Cardinals should figure out how to make it happen.
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