Why Albert Pujols needs to retire before his greatness becomes invisible

I feel like it’s my duty to inform St. Louis Cardinals fans, and baseball lovers in general, that Albert Pujols is arguably the greatest player of all time. Easily the best I’ve ever seen.

Offensively and defensively, together with a swing that can rival any right-handed slugger in baseball history, Pujols composed an eleven year run with the St. Louis Cardinals that only a handful at best will ever touch again. You could say Mike Trout got there and Miguel Cabrera to an extent-but Pujols did it first. A machine is only built once.

This particular machine was reportedly calling it quits after 2021, according to Pujols’ wife, Deirdre. I say “was” because she quickly backtracked her Instagram (where all good Cardinals drama takes place these days) post later that same day, with Pujols confirming that his future was uncertain. In other words, Pujols will be the one who says it’s over. What he will leave behind is tremendous and arguably unprecedented.

If it weren’t for Barry Bonds, he may own up to six MVP awards at the moment. Pujols won three with the Cardinals, including two Gold Gloves at first base and appeared in nine All Star Games and won a batting title and the Rookie of the Year award. Pujols collected six Silver Slugger awards, three Player of the Year trophies, and helped bring St. Louis two World Series crowns. He could retire today and be a legend for the rest of his days.

Let’s hope he leaves the game before his greatness becomes too hard to notice, maybe even invisible. Pujols turned 41 on Jan. 16, and has played in 2,862 games during a 20-year career. Steamers, a highly credible Fangraphs stat projector, expects him to post a -0.4 WAR (wins above replacement) for the Los Angeles Angels this season. Pujols hasn’t recorded a positive WAR since 2016. His OPS (a combination of on-base and slugging percentage) was .665 last year, following a 2019 campaign that had him as high as .734.

Ladies and gentlemen, Pujols’ lifetime OPS as a Cardinal was 1.037, which is an insane level to stand on.  That’s .300 higher than his lifetime Angels OPS. Night and day, two different hitters.

Pujols isn’t a threat anymore. It’s time for me to see the forest through the trees. For the past couple of years, I allowed that baseball romantic to creep up inside my brain and wonder about #5 hitting his last home run at Busch Stadium as a Cardinal. Every time logic knocked at the door, I installed another lock. Like Sansa Stark in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” I can be a slow learner in this game at times due to my reluctance to slice my fan bravado in half-but in the end, I learned.

Once a legend and now a liability, Pujols should retire soon. What his wife said wasn’t illogical, just came from the wrong person. He will turn 42 before a swing in 2022 can be taken. Baseball may see a lockdown due to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement needing to be worked out between the owners and players. What if he loses another year-and turns 43 then? Unless he gets a bionic knee or foot, no team will take a chance-not even St. Louis for a fool’s errand in nostalgia.

There was a time when Pujols could have returned. Maybe 2-3 years ago in a last-ditch effort by LA to claim some true trade value before the real decline-but it’s always been a fairy tale no matter how you try to sneak it past Father Time at customs. Once he left back in 2011, after winning his second championship here, Pujols was gone for good-only leaving shadows of past highlights in his wake.

The Cardinals didn’t rebound easily at first base. It took years for them to find Paul Goldschmidt, who broke into the league when Pujols left town. Before “Goldy,” the Cardinals had a collection of misfit toys catching infield tosses that could only be summed up as a half-working Tino Martinez in St. Louis hybrid. In other words, disappointing. Jedd Gyorko needed a ladder to catch a few throws during a game three years ago, and Jose Martinez’ footwork reminded me more of salsa dancing than proper foot placement.

But that’s normal when you try to replace a guy like Pujols, whose career rivals most. But if there is one reason he will sign a one-year deal for 2022, it will be to collect one last thing: 700 home runs. Go ahead and toss 700 doubles in there as well. If Pujols reached #700 in big flies, he would become just the fourth player in Major League history to do so, following Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth. I do think it’s all the incentive he will need to return one last time. Is it a good idea? Yes and no. How much is seeing a guy reach the 700/700 club worth to a baseball team, especially if the new CBA does elicit a universal DH (I am all FOR it, btw)?

Some people seem to equate this pursuit with Pujols being single-minded, or only thinking about himself. That’s ludicrous. The man has played this game his entire life, entering the big leagues as a longshot. He was the young boy who helped his drunk father home from softball games. Baseball is ingrained in Pujols’ DNA. He’s wired the same way as his best friend, Yadier Molina. They want to be the greatest-or at least among them.

While there’s a good argument for Albert Pujols to retire after this season, I would bet that he picks up the bat one last time. Reaching 700 will be no easy task, as it should be. My only hope is that his final moment isn’t a pale imitation of his true talent.

Sometimes, fading away is better than becoming invisible.

**Picture Credit: Rick Osentoski/USA Today Sports**

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