Welcome Back, Old Friend

“Oh my dear friend, how I’ve missed you.”–C-3PO, The Force Awakens

Ten years and a couple of months ago, I wrote in the immediate aftermath of Albert Pujols agreeing to terms with the Angels that I’d be mourning what could have been.  One of those missed opportunities, at the time, seemed to be watching him ride off into the sunset of his career with the St. Louis faithful cheering him on.

Apparently the future can be re-written.

Last night, Katie Woo reported that the Cardinals had an increased interest in bringing back Albert for the 2022 season.  This morning, word is from various places that Pujols has reached an agreement on a one-year, $2.5 million contract that gives him one last ride in Cardinal red.

It’s not surprising that his dear friend Yadier Molina had a lot to do with the return of Pujols.  As our friend Tito put it yesterday, it could have been that the “personal issue” that Molina had that kept him from reporting from camp was that he was insisting on bringing AP back in.  That does help ease at least one of the hesitations some fans had about Pujols returning, that it would overshadow the last year for Molina (and, it would seem likely, Adam Wainwright).  If Molina wants to go out with his best friend at his side, who’s to say no?

I imagine–though it’s still early and I’ve not seen it yet–that there will be those complaining about the return, saying it signals that ownership is more concerned with nostalgia (and money–I know I’ll need to purchase a new Pujols shirt) than winning.  I think that’s overblown, as it usually is.  For one, it’s a one year, $2.5 million deal and, as is conventional wisdom, there’s no such thing as a bad one year deal.  That limited of an amount doesn’t keep the Cardinals from doing something mid-season if needed.  Payroll-wise, this isn’t an issue at all.

Of course, there are opportunity costs in here as well.  Rosters are a fixed resource, even though they will expand a couple of spots for April.  With Pujols on the roster, someone else won’t be.  However, I think that’s probably a little overstated as well.  With the DH now coming to the National League, there’s going to be fewer and fewer opportunities for a pinch-hit bat.  Some of the young guys like Nolan Gorman probably weren’t going to make the team anyway because it’s better to play in Memphis every day than get four at bats a week in the majors.  (For experience, at least, if not for the wallet.)

My last post, lo this many weeks ago, looked at the pitching staff.  While there are things that have happened there and that needs to be re-examined, with the Pujols news let’s look at how the hitters will shake out.  You assume 13 hitters, even with the expanded April roster, and even if that’s wrong it’ll drop to that when May comes around.  So let’s see what it looks like.

Catchers (2): Molina, Andrew Knizner
Starting infield (4): Paul Goldschmidt, Tommy Edman, Paul DeJong, Nolan Arenado
Starting outfield (3): Harrison Bader, Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill

That’s nine, which means we have four more spots.  Edmundo Sosa will have one of those, as well Corey Dickerson.  Now we add in Albert, but that still leaves one spot for, most likely, Juan Yepez.  I have to imagine one of the benefits of bringing in Albert is to give Yepez the opportunity to learn from one of the greats who has quite the reputation for being a teacher as well.

That does mean that Gorman and Brendan Donovan will start their years in Memphis and if Gorman winds up dominating AAA, there’s going to be a tough decision to make in June or so.  Baseball finds a way, though.  Could be that Yepez goes down for some regular at bats (and there’s an argument to be made for rotating that bench bat between the three of them to continue to give them regular play while also exposing them to the big leagues), could be that someone like Dickerson gets cut, could be that someone gets traded.  We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it because there’s no doubt the facts on the ground will be much different then than they are now.

I’m still excited about this reunion and I’ve been one that has been in favor of it for a while, but I do wonder if it’d been a little easier to swallow for some if the offense was just a little better.  We’ve seen it in the past with Kolten Wong and Harrison Bader.  Their defense was outstanding but the team had trouble handling their weak (at the time) offense because the rest of the lineup was struggling.  Hopefully the outfield continues 2021 (and takes another step), Paul DeJong figures things out (he’s 4-12 with a double and some hard hit balls this spring, so it’s a possibility), and Oli Marmol is judicious in when he uses AP.

If that last home series against the Pirates isn’t already sold out, it probably will be soon after you read these words.  The chance to see three Cardinal legends for the final time will be too hard for anyone to pass up.  (There also probably won’t be a dry eye in the house.)  There’s a lot of time between now and then, though.  I imagine there’s at least a couple more moments that Pujols will add to his legacy.  He’s not getting to 700 home runs, especially not playing every day, but he should pass Rogers Hornsby on the Cardinals career hits list (37 behind) which will make him fourth–he’d have a chance to be third if it wasn’t for that guy (Molina) still playing.  It’s not going to be the Pujols we all know but hopefully we’ll see a little bit that reminds us of that legend.

I’ve said it on the podcasts, but this is why we get romantic about baseball.  Baseball has gotten very calculated, very results-focused.  It’s hard to argue about getting each advantage, playing the numbers, all of that.  Sometimes, though, you just have to appreciate the story and get swept away by the emotions.  We’re getting a chance that hardly anyone ever gets to live in the romance.

Welcome back, dear friend.  How we’ve missed you.

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Brewers2414.632 -
Cardinals2017.5413.5
Pirates1621.4327.5
Cubs1521.4178.0
Reds1026.27813.0

Last updated: 05/19/2022

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