Albert Pujols is back with the Cardinals, and he’ll wrap up his career where he began. Speaking to reporters (including Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) at a press conference announcing his return to St. Louis, Pujols confirmed he’s planning to retire after the upcoming season. “This is it for me. This is my last run,” he told the group.
Pujols is headed into the 22nd season of a Hall of Fame career. He has spent a bit more than half that in Cardinal red, breaking into the big leagues with a Rookie of the Year-winning 2001 campaign. The slugging first baseman finished fourth in NL MVP voting his debut season, and he’d remain among the top five finishers in that balloting for all but one season in St. Louis (a 2007 campaign in which he finished ninth).
During that run, Pujols claimed the MVP award on three separate occasions. He led MLB in OPS+ in four of the five seasons between 2006-10, claiming the Silver Slugger Award in each of the latter three years. Pujols went to the Midsummer Classic in nine of his first 11 seasons with the Cards and helped the club to a pair of World Series championships. Over his time in St. Louis, he posted an incredible .328/.420/.617 slash, averaging more than 40 home runs per season.
Of course, the second half of Pujols’ career wasn’t close to the otherworldly heights he reached during that time. Pujols posted above-average offensive numbers for each of his first five seasons in Orange County after signing a ten-year pact with the Angels during the 2011-12 offseason. He only put up excellent numbers during his first season with the Halos (.285/.343/.516 with 30 homers) as his batting average and on-base numbers sharply declined, although Pujols twice more eclipsed 30 longballs in Anaheim.
As his production continued to wane towards the end of that deal, the Angels released Pujols last May. He landed with the Dodgers and served as a righty platoon/bench bat before hitting the open market again this winter. In a full-circle moment, the 42-year-old agreed to head back to St. Louis for one final run last night.
Pujols has already racked up a laundry list of career accomplishments. His name dots the all-time leaderboards in most major categories. He’s 12th with 3,301 hits, and he’s just 18 knocks away from supplanting Paul Molitor in the top ten. Barring injury, he’s sure to get there this year. It’ll be harder — but not impossible — for Pujols to set another pair of achievements in the home run department. Already 5th all-time with 679 big flies, he needs 18 more to pass Alex Rodriguez for fourth-place and 21 homers to reach the 700-mark plateau. Pujols is 64 RBI from babe ruth for second-place in that category, and he has a chance to leapfrog both Willie Mays (38 away) and Stan Musial (92 away) on the total bases leaderboard.
Obviously, Pujols won’t shoulder the kind of workload he did early in his career. Paul Goldschmidt is the regular first baseman with the Cards, leaving the designated hitter role as the cleanest path to at-bats for Pujols. In recent seasons, he hasn’t hit well enough that a win-now St. Louis team will be committed to playing him everyday in that capacity, but he figures to pick up some pinch-hit work and starts against left-handed pitching. Cardinals fans will get an opportunity to watch Pujols chase those various milestones for a final six months, and he’ll go out alongside the two other players most alike with the past two decades of Cardinal baseball.
Yadier Molina has already announced plans to retire after this year himself. Adam Wainwright, who turns 41 in August, returned for a 17th season on a one-year deal over the offseason. There has been plenty of speculation over the past few seasons that Wainwright could soon step away himself, although he has yet to commit one way or the other. The three-time All-Star starter again demurred on his future this afternoon, telling reporters he’s “not crossing that bridge” at the moment (via John Denton of MLB.com).
To Wainwright’s credit, he has remained highly productive deep into his 30’s, showing even less of a drop-off in performance than either of his legendary teammates. All three players have been iconic members of the organization, and they’re now officially reunited for one last run. Whether Wainwright will join Molina and Pujols as outgoing stars remains to be seen, but the trio will be together this year in hopes of bringing a third World Series to St. Louis.