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The alternate histories of Albert Pujols, baseball’s worst player

The Cubs, Cardinals, and Marlins also wanted to sign Albert Pujols. What if they had?

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, I watched Albert Pujols ground out. This might seem unremarkable to you, but I assure you it was not. The grounder looked like this:

If you need that annotated, that’s a) Albert Pujols hitting a ground ball that b) Marcus Semien drops before c) leaving a Yelp review about Angels Stadium then d) calmly picking the ball up and e) gently crow-hopping as he f) throws a lollipop to first base to g) get Pujols by two steps.

I laughed out loud. I was with three other people, and at least one of them stared at me, but I couldn’t help it. All I could think about was the new StatCast leaderboard for foot speed.

There! In the far left corner! Off the danged scale, even when catchers are a part of the scale! Pujols is the slowest regular in baseball, someone who can lose to Yadier Molina in a 60-yard dash by a couple lengths. He also has a .274 on-base percentage as a DH. The list of DHs with at least 500 plate appearances and an OBP under .275:

  1. Albert Pujols, 2017
  2. Dave Kingman, 1986

Except King had 35 home runs that year. Pujols does... not.

It’s been a bad year for Pujols. So much so that I started wondering, “Is Albert Pujols the worst player in baseball? I wonder how often a player can claim to be the best and worst player in baseball over his career.”

Well, there goes that idea. But I encourage you to read the fine article for historical context. This is a freakish, perfect combination of contract, player, and situation. The Angels have nothing better to do but hope Pujols improves. It’s rare. It’s unfortunate. It’s amazing.

With that idea down the tubes, it’s time to wonder about the what-ifs. I’m a huge fan of the what-ifs. And it’s worth remembering that the Angels weren’t supposed to sign Albert Pujols. Oh, no. The Angels were the ~~~mystery team~~~. In Jayson Stark’s survey of executives, not one of them picked the Angels as a likely destination. It was all Cardinals and Cubs, with a heavy emphasis on the former.

But it was the Angels who shocked the world. People were excited.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Introduce Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

People were so very excited. He’s still owed $112 million for the next four years. He doesn’t have to get better. And he doesn’t have to stop playing, not when he’s still driving in runs. His sense of timing is still great, at least. But if that sense of timing is an illusion, which it probably is, this unfortunate story can get even more unfortunate.

ANYWAY, I don’t want to beat a dead foot, here, so let’s get to the point of the article, which is to guess at what would have happened if Pujols signed somewhere else. There were three teams that were also interested in him, according to almost every account: the Marlins, Cardinals, and Cubs. How would have their fortunes changed with Pujols?

Miami Marlins

They have Albert Pujols and his $240 million contract, and it’s clear after about two seasons that he can’t be traded. And that means you have to assume that means no Giancarlo Stanton on the Marlins right now. There’s absolutely no way they were going to leverage themselves like that on two players. I guess the idea was that Marlins fans would be so overcome with spirit and excitement that they would storm the gates, which would allow the team to keep Stanton.

It wouldn’t have worked if Pujols had four more MVP seasons, and it certainly wouldn’t have worked after it was clear that Pujols was never going to be an MVP again. And if the Marlins’ history is any guide, they weren’t just going to let Stanton walk. They were going to trade him, probably after the 2014 season, which was his best all-around season to that point.

To the Dodgers for Corey Seager and Joc Pederson?

To the Yankees for Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino?

To the Nationals for Lucas Giolito and A.J. Cole?

To the Padres for Matt Wisler, Trea Turner, and Hunter Renfroe?

I’ll stick with the Dodgers, who use Stanton’s help to power past the Cubs in the 2016 NLCS. In this scenario, the Dodgers aren’t willing to sign Stanton after that injury-marred season, so he’s a free agent and signs with the Giants. Also, the Dodgers lose in the World Series to the Indians. They’re swept and outscored 32-2, which is a record, and it makes all of the fans very sad.

ANYWAY, focus on the idea that the Cubs don’t win the World Series, because that’s all matters right now. Can you imagine the pressure, the attention being paid to the Cubs and their NL Central death struggle right now if last year didn’t happen for them? It would have been super irritating. The Angels didn’t just save Cubs fans. They saved us all.

Chicago Cubs

Would the Cubs have won the World Series with Albert Pujols at first base last year? I’ll tell you what wouldn’t have happened: They wouldn’t have acquired Anthony Rizzo from the Padres for Andrew Cashner after the 2011 season. No, the Cubs would have been looking for a player who wouldn’t have been blocked by a $240 million player. Someone like Rymer Liriano, who was just two spots behind Rizzo on Baseball America’s top-100 list.

In the final 10 games of the 2016 postseason, Rizzo hit .410/.489/.769, with 10 runs scored and 10 runs driven in. His WPA was over .7, which means it’s exceptionally likely that he added at least a win for a team that went to Game 6 of the NLCS and Game 7 of the World Series.

Pujols might have done that! But, more specifically, he would not have done that.

Also, the Cubs wouldn’t have signed Jon Lester because they were licking their Pujols wounds. The biggest story in baseball right now would be “What are the Cubs going to do with Pujols?” as they fell further behind the Brewers in the NL Central, having replaced one of their best players with perhaps the worst player in baseball.

Can you imagine the pressure, the attention being paid to the Cubs and their NL Central death struggle right now if last year didn’t happen for them? It would have been super irritating. The Angels didn’t just save Cubs fans. They saved us all.

St. Louis Cardinals

If the Cardinals had signed Albert Pujols, he would be hitting .310/.443/.610 right now with 37 homers. Don’t ask how. Just look in your heart. You know it’s true.

The Cardinals don’t have secret powers that would have prevented Pujols’ foot from breaking down, but they do have Stan Musial’s endocrine glands pickled in different jars, and they let certain hitters chew on them from time to time. And with Super Pujols, the Cardinals win two more games last year than they did with Matt Adams at first. They beat the Giants in a one-game playoff, and they beat the Cubs in the NLDS, with Pujols hitting a dramatic home run.

Can you imagine the pressure, the attention being paid to the Cubs and their NL Central death struggle right now if last year didn’t happen for them? It would have been super irritating. The Angels didn’t just save Cubs fans. They saved us all.

Unless ... okay, maybe Pujols would have struggled for the Cardinals, too. And his presence would have meant no Jhonny Peralta (7 WAR in four seasons), Carlos Beltran (6 WAR in two seasons), or Mike Leake and Dexter Fowler (probably fine, really). The Cardinals would have won fewer games, but it’s not like they would have applied that money in an obviously superior way. We would have spent our time wondering which players they would have spent on, not known the answer was Mike Leake and Dexter Fowler, which is pretty boring.

But I’m pretty sure that Pujols would have hosed the Cubs somehow. He would have hit the pop fly that caused Kris Bryant to crash into Addison Russell or something, and you can’t convince me otherwise.

We’ll never know what the different ripple effects would have been for all these teams if Pujols didn’t sign with the Angels, but we do know what happened in this timeline. The Angels couldn’t afford to reinforce their roster. They got stuck with the contracts of Pujols, C.J. Wilson, and Josh Hamilton, and that’s been a big reason they’ve wasted the best years of Mike Trout’s career to this point.

Until Pujols hits the game-winning home run in Game 7 of this year’s World Series. Against the Cubs.

I’m sure that’s extremely unlikely, though.

Sleep tight, Cubs fans.