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Should the Angels Release Albert Pujols?

February 23, 2018
Albert Pujols’ 2017 season wasn’t the worst 100-RBI season in baseball history.
That is the silver lining on his season last year: Albert Pujols was pretty terrible, and he was historically terrible for a player counted on to produce at the center of a lineup, but he wasn’t the absolute worst player to ever collect one hundred runs-batted-in: 
Tony Batista
Joe Carter
Tony Batista
Albert Pujols
Vinny Castilla
Ruben Sierra
Joe Carter
Ray Pepper
Tony Armas
Jeff Francoeur
Judged by Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), Pujols’ 2017 season made him the fourth-worst hitter to crack the century mark for runs-batted-in. Or the fifth worst, if you want to slot Vinny Castilla above him.
The other players on this list don’t give us too much cause for optimism going forward. Tony Bautista was essentially finished as a major league player after his 2004 season. Joe Carter played one more year after 1997, bouncing between two teams and doing very little for either one. Ruben Sierra was twenty-seven years old when he joined this list: he had a better year at twenty-eight and then his career spiraled away. Ray Peppers collected 101 RBI in 1934, and just 60 more over the rest of his short playing career.
Jeff Francoeur, Tony Armas, and Vinny Castilla did manage to have productive years after their ugly 100-RBI seasons, but they had age on their side. Albert Pujols is thirty-eight years old, and he’s coming off four consecutive years of declining offensive production. In 2016 Pujols was a passable designated hitter. Last year he was a distance below replacement-level production. His daily presence in the middle of the lineup card cost the Angels wins.
That last sentence was tough to write, and I suspect that is it tough for many of you to read. Albert Pujols has been one of the very best players I’ve had the pleasure to watch, and he has been, over the arc of his career, one of the easiest players to root for. He has been great, and he has been a joy.
And it might be time for the Angels to release him outright.
Let’s be realistic. The Angels have three years left with Mike Trout. They have three years of Andrelton Simmons, a legitimate MVP candidate last year. To fill out their team, they have added Justin Upton and Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart and Chris Young, all talented players on the wrong side of thirty. They have a few years to see what they’re going to get out of Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs and Parker Bridwell. And, of course, the Angels won baseball’s version of the lottery when Shohei Ohtani opted to sign with them.
This is the Angels window. This is their chance, and while the presence of the Astros juggernaut is reason enough to scare any AL West team away from investing too heavily in a period of contention, the Angels are in a tricky position where they need to be doing everything they can to maximize the number of wins they can etch on the ledger this year, and next year.
And the very obvious place where they can improve their team is by getting better production at first base and DH.
The projections on Pujols going forward are fairly consistent: he will post an on-base percentage in the range of .300-.315 this year. He will have a slugging average in the range of .400. He will contribute negatively on the base paths, and nothing on defense.
It is very hard for a team expecting to contend to commit significant playing time to a player with those dimensions of skills. It is especially hard if you’re a team in a position like the one that the Angels are in: a good team stuck contending in a division with a great franchise. The Angels don’t have any kind of a cushion to play with: they have to win all the games that they can win.
And it is very difficult for a team to have a player of Albert Pujols’ credentials and cost and not play him. Albert Pujols is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, a player who was in the MVP conversation from the moment he hit the majors. He had 636 plate appearances last year, and all of those appearances came from the 3rd or 4th spot in the batting order. Angels Mike Scioscia hasn’t shown any sign that he realizes that Pujols’ presence in the middle of the order is a problem, because why would he? We’re talking about Albert Pujols, after all.
So the Angels are in a bind. They have a player that, by any objective measure, shouldn’t be given regular starts as a middle-of-the-order DH/1B. And they have a name whose career and contract make it extremely difficult for the team to part ways with him or reduce his playing time drastically.
It’s a difficult position for everyone involved, and I don’t want to be callous or glib about any of this. Albert Pujols has been a model citizen and a good teammate, and the Angels should do everything they can to honor their commitment to him. Running a baseball team shouldn’t ever be exclusively about the calculus of wins and losses: we are talking about human beings, after all, and we are talking about a game. There should be some space for sentiment.
But the Angels need to win now. They have less space for sentiment than any other team in baseball, not while the clock on Mike Trout is ticking. They have no room to fall victim to sunk-cost fallacies about what they owe on Pujols’ contract. The Angles are targeting a playoff run this year, and next year, and Albert Pujols doesn’t help them get any closer to that target. He lessens their chances.
It might be time for the Angels to let him go.
Dave Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at 

COMMENTS (31 Comments, most recent shown first)

Nail-head Allen.
5:07 PM Apr 18th
Marc Schneider
Yes, Pujols gets paid if the Angels release him. It's not like the NFL. If it wasn't for the money the Angels would owe, I'm sure they would already have released him.
12:00 PM Mar 6th
That long time contract was a big mistake. If they release him, does he still get paid? Perhaps they should ask him to be a player/coach. Hit part time and give the young players instruction. It has been a long time since he had a good year. He was great with the Cardinals.

Take Care,
Tom Nahigian
1:29 PM Mar 2nd
Allen Schade

Texeiras last 4 years were not great., a slash line of .221 / .308 /.420

and an average of about 90 games played per year.

Votto looks good now. But he has 6 more years on the deal. And my guess is that it won't look so good in the final 2, 3 or 4 years. Although I might be wrong.

I'm not saying that the deals never work out, I'm saying that, often, the last 2/3 or 3/4 of the deal it looks like Pujols' contract. And then, the club refuses to jettison the player because of the contract. And THAT hurts the club.
9:58 AM Feb 27th
There's another factor, as The Athletic just reminded me: Albert Pujols goes into the 2018 season with 2968 hits. The Angels will surely turn that into a serious PR bonanza, perhaps enough to offset some of the $5 million bonus he will receive when he reaches 3000.
10:07 AM Feb 26th
Marc Schneider
They aren't going to release Albert Pujols unless he collapses on his way to the batter's box. Releasing him would be telling the owner you made a really big, expensive mistake. The owner might blame others in the organization for allowing him to make this mistake. Those others may end up without jobs.

Not going to happen. There are too many people that need to cover their asses. So, every time Pujols hits a home run, the narrative will be, hey, he's still a pretty good hitter. I'm pretty sure that will be the narrative from the broadcasters. I remember when Jeff Francouer was with the Braves and being, well, Jeff Francouer. But he was hitting a fair number of home runs and getting "clutch" hits. The Braves broadcasters continually lambasted the criticism Jeff got every time he got a hit.
9:25 AM Feb 26th
Sorry, last post should have "lot better" after whole, and then a carriage return.
7:11 AM Feb 26th
One thing I don't agree with is this statement: "Angels Mike Scioscia hasn’t shown any sign that he realizes that Pujols’ presence in the middle of the order is a problem, because why would he? We’re talking about Albert Pujols, after all."

I am nearly certain that Mike Scioscia knows that having Albert Pujols playing every day at DH with a .600-and-something OPS is not a positive thing. But, he probably also knows:

- That batting order is relatively unimportant
- Keeping the clubhouse happy is fairly important
- His alternatives at DH/1B on his 25-man roster may not be a whole - It's the GM and owner who have to sign off on releasing Pujols and eating the rest of his contract.
7:10 AM Feb 26th
Yeah, unless the Cardinals want to pay Albert Pujols for a victory lap, it makes the most sense to me for the Angels to use Pjols as the DH on days that Shohei Ohtani pitches (if at all). Ohtani is probably the better hitter right now, so I would love to see the Angels let him hit. Come on, preserving his pitching health? That's more questionable than the value he would bring if he were allowed into the line-up on a regular basis.
3:00 PM Feb 25th
Will have to watch him is spring, he is further removed from his surgeries and for the first time did regular workouts in the offseason instead of physical therapy. The spring optimism narrative - his foot is better and his conditioning is better and he can be more productive. It doesn't cost anything to find out, to see him at the plate and at first in the spring.

If he looks better he is worth a shot. If not then releasing him is probably the best idea.
12:35 PM Feb 25th
Eh...some long-term deals for oldies have worked out. Raffy signed two five-year deals that were pretty big at the time, Age 29-33 and 34-38, and he was productive every single year.

Votto's ten-year deal, signed at 30, isn't looking like any kind of an albatross. Teixeira's eight-year deal (signed at 29) wasn't bad. Scherzer signed his seven-year deal at 30...that's looking like it'll work out for the Nats. Verlander hasn't been great since he signed his deal, but he's been good. Even Robbie Cano has generated approximately $130 million in value (FanGraphs math) in four years in Seattle...he's three good seasons away from making that a neutral deal. If you prefer BB-Ref WAR, he's probably been worth $150-160 in value added.

It's not that all deals are bad for 30+ players, or even that all longer-term contracts are bad. Many of them are bad...Miggy and Pujols and Zito...but it's not all of 'em. Some generate surplus value.
9:34 AM Feb 25th
Of course they should release him. That's the smart move. And the fair move. Is it fair to the rest of the organization to try to win the division with an anchor purposely tied around your neck?

The Angels' commitment to Pujols or any other player is limited to depositing checks in his account for the duration of his contract. His nice-guy, good-teammate qualities are factored into the amount of money and length of contract the Angels agreed to pay him.

What if he hits .170/.200/.300 this year? Will they keep him in the lineup or on the roster then for the whole year?

8:28 AM Feb 25th
I don't know for sure why Pujols' production has slipped so badly in recent years but I suspect it's all about his feet, his right foot in particular. From what I've read, he's been dealing with this since 2004 so the chronic injury may simply be catching up to him.

I had plantar faciitis once. It's an injury that produces horrible pain, you can barely stand. Over time, however, I've been able to overcome it. But I'm not a professional athlete.

From what I've read, Albert's version of plantar faciitis is far worse than anything I experienced but as Steve mentioned, this is the first off-season in awhile that he didn't need surgery on his right foot.

Pujols was a remarkable hitter in his prime. If he's healthier than he's been in years, he could be a comeback candidate.

What puzzles me, though, is the signing of Shohei Ohtani and his desire to be a two-way player. If the Angels follow through with that, it necessitates that Pujols will need to play first base a lot instead of being the team's DH. That seems like a really bad idea for a player with issues with injures to his feet.
3:11 AM Feb 25th
And of course, back in the real world, Anaheim just gave away their obvious on-roster replacement, presumably to make it easier to not bench/release Pujols.

Not that CJ Cron is much if anything more than mediocre, but he’s at least likely to be above replacement.
4:01 PM Feb 24th
Allen Schade
Great article Dave,,,

For me, this article emphasizes the biggest danger to giving out long term contracts to players on the wrong side of 30.

If Pujols was anyone else, he would be released, waived, traded, whatever.

But, because he's guaranteed the money, the team is reluctant to let him go, EVEN IF HES NOT PRODUCTIVE ANYMORE.

So, he takes up a roster spot and a lineup spot, keeping someone who actually might help the team from being on the team.

The Yankees went thru the same thing with Arod.

The Mariners probably will be in the same situation with Cano.

The Cubs with Darvish.

And the Yankees with Ellsbury.

This, to me, is the biggest reason NOT to sign players to anything more than 6 years. At most. And only to guys who reasonably can be expected to be productive at the end of the contract.
12:59 PM Feb 24th
Interestingly, Pujols always had one of the slowest bat speeds in the game. I can't find the numbers/source right now, but I remember someone looking into bat speed and finding out that Pujols had one of the slowest swings.
12:29 PM Feb 24th
Pujols' bat speed seems to be really slow. I saw him hit a three run homer last year but it seemed to me he had to start his swing early to hit the ball when it was in the zone. That makes him more of a guess hitter. He doesn't move like he use to, probably due to his feet. He was never real fast but Pujols you to have a quick first step and was an intelligent base runner. He lost the first quick step which use to help his fielding too.
10:06 AM Feb 24th
First off: Dave, always good to see your byline here. Hope the adjustment is proceeding apace and we'll see more of your articles and contributions to Reader Posts.

If you move Pujols down in the lineup, you remove what little value he still has, namely his production with RISP (he didn't drive in 100 runs all by himself). Reports are that he is in better health--no off-season surgery for the first time in years. I suspect the Angels will give him time to demonstrate that he has at least arrested the decline and, failing that, make tough decisions in May or June.

My biggest concern would be that he is taking DH at-bats away from Shohei Ohtani.
8:40 AM Feb 24th
I think that what matters, more than batting order slot, is the position where he is hitting. If he's posting a .700 OPS as a slick-fielding shortstop, you can live with it. If he's doing that in one of the DH/1B slots, that's a bigger cost.
8:04 AM Feb 24th
Is it really so important whether Pujols hits in the middle of the lineup or at the bottom? I thought that all the research seemed to indicate that lineup changes make only the slightest difference in team run production.

Answer (well... my answer): Perhaps for Pujols it does matter where he hits. Number four hitter, number one pitcher, closer... these things matter to some players. Analytically, it probably doesn’t make much difference. For a player, some things represent their stature, could be a point of pride, or a boon or a bust to their ego. Contract values and terms are along these lines, too. As Dave said, Pujols is a human. How would he take to batting seventh or lower? Anyone knows how much it means to him?
6:58 AM Feb 24th
-- Pujols is likely significantly older than 38.

-- To Brian's comment about Pujols not making adjustments -- Pujols has become a pull-hitting slugger over time; when he came up, he sprayed line drives to all fields as you describe. I believe some of the alteration in his swing mechanics has had to do with his chronic foot issues... it's messed with his swing.

1:35 AM Feb 24th
Is it really so important whether Pujols hits in the middle of the lineup or at the bottom? I thought that all the research seemed to indicate that lineup changes make only the slightest difference in team run production.

I think your list of players is slightly erroneous. Didn't Batista only have 99 RBIs in 2003?
11:39 PM Feb 23rd
I remember feeling the same way about Ryan Howard, who is nowhere close to Pujols as a player, somewhere around 2009 or so and wishing the Phillies had traded him when they had the chance. I knew he'd age badly and always thought he was overrated.

I could see a spot for Albert batting 7th or something though. And of course the main question is who do the Angels have to fit into his slot?​
9:46 PM Feb 23rd
In his career, Pujols has essentially no platoon split--a 938 OPS against RHP and 975 against LHP. Last year--with 485 PA against RHP and 151 against LSP, his OPS against RHP was 692; against LHP, 608. In 2016, with similar PA, he was 770 (RHP) and 822 (RHP).

Dave's right--unless he manages to improve pretty much across the board, he's not going to be useful as a DH, or anything else. In 2017 the AL OPS was 730, or more than 10% better than Pujols.

But I'd bet the likelihood of Pujols being released is nil.

7:32 PM Feb 23rd
I checked on Kingman: he was pretty good the two years he topped the 100-RBI mark, leading the league in homers and slugging in 1979, and having a bounce-back year in 1984.

Kong did post a wRC+ of 86 in 1986, while driving in 96 runs, which would put him close to Francoeur and Armas if we lowered the bar a little bit. Last year in the majors, of course.
7:05 PM Feb 23rd
Ray Peppers! How weird is that. Not deadball era either.

Where is Dave Kingman?
5:17 PM Feb 23rd
It probably requires an evaluation of what adjustments can be made to stall and in some part reverse his slide. Perhaps a Jim Rice-like late career adjustment involving more contact and using all fields. An emphasis on On Base Percentage and avoiding hitting into double plays. . My perception is that he is perhaps stubbornly refusing to make any adjustments, and figuring what worked at age 28 pre-shift era will work at age 38 mid-shift era. If so, he needs to be confronted with the reality of his situation.

The idea is not to recapture his prime, of course, but to tweak enough to get him back above replacement level. Presumably then, with his leadership and clubhouse presence, it would be worth keeping him on the roster. Given their weak farm system, this would also avoid spending anything else on a replacement.

The problem I foresee is that a particular weakness of Scioscia seems to be the same sort of stubbornness that I see in Pujols. He also appears to live in the past. Scioscia may be one manager least likely to see and fix the problem here. The other issue is that at best you are holding off the inevitable for another year or two.
4:15 PM Feb 23rd
pujols hit 21 of 23 homers vs the right, but that just made him completely worthless vs lefties. And he's still terrible vs the right.
3:38 PM Feb 23rd
I knew Joe Carter was gonna be on that list. He was the player that opened my eyes to to the concept of, it's not how many things you do, it's how long it takes you to do it.
3:35 PM Feb 23rd
Would his splits make him a productive platoon player?
3:24 PM Feb 23rd
If the Angels do, will the St. Louis Cardinals sign him so Pujols can retire a Redbird?
3:12 PM Feb 23rd
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