Angels release future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols rather than bench him

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Los Angeles Angels' Albert Pujols bats against the Houston Astros during the eighth inning of a baseball game Friday, April 23, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Angels' Albert Pujols bats against the Astros on April 23 in Houston. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

In the hours after the Angels’ loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday night, general manager Perry Minasian and team President John Carpino held a meeting with Albert Pujols.

During the season’s first month, Pujols had played almost every day as the Angels first baseman. He’d hit five home runs in his first 18 games. But his performances had also dropped off in recent days, the 41-year-old slugger returning to the underwhelming form that had come to define much of his time with the Angels.

Meanwhile, the Angels' front office had been considering a big decision. The team already had Shohei Ohtani at designated hitter. They wanted Jared Walsh, who’d spent much of the first month in the outfield, to be their primary first baseman. And they knew doing so would relegate Pujols to the bench.

As a result, they spent the past two weeks weighing whether or not to move on from Pujols entirely, deciding if it was time to sever ties with the future Hall of Famer.

On Wednesday night, they pulled the trigger, informing Pujols he would be designated for assignment on Thursday and ultimately released, ending his Angels tenure in the last season of a 10-year, $240 million contract.

“This is more about playing time and who we have,” Minasian said Thursday before the Angels’ 8-3 loss to the Rays, adding: “Albert is not a bench player. We felt like, with respect to him, keeping him on the bench, him not getting any playing time, would not do him any good or the team any good. There’s never a good time for this. But we felt like it was the best thing for the organization.”

In Pujols’ 1,181 games with the Angels, there were highlights: A division title in 2014, an All-Star game bid in 2015, and myriad career milestones including his 3,000th hit and 500th and 600th home runs.

But on the whole, Pujols’ time in Anaheim never fulfilled the expectations that accompanied his arrival a decade ago. There were no playoff wins, several injury-plagued seasons and, ultimately, an awkward exit that leaves Pujols’ future unclear.

Minasian said Pujols wants to keep playing. The question is whether another team gives him a chance. This year, Pujols was batting .198 with a .622 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. His OPS+, an all-encompassing advanced metric, hasn’t been above league average since 2016.

And while a team probably would be able to sign him at a league-minimum salary — the Angels are still responsible for paying remainder of his $30-million salary this year — there aren’t many obvious fits.

“If he does go somewhere else and pursue playing somewhere else,” Minasian said, “I would not bet against him.”

Angels' Albert Pujols walks to the dugout.
Angels' Albert Pujols walks to the dugout during a game against the Texas Rangers on Aug. 8, 2020. (Tony Gutierrez / Associated Pres)

The Angels' first-year general manager, however, was no longer betting on Pujols as his club’s best option moving forward.

According to a person familiar with the situation but not authorized to speak publicly about it, Pujols was upset that he was not in Wednesday night’s lineup to face Rays pitcher Ryan Yarbrough, a left-hander against whom Pujols had gone six for nine with two homers, two doubles and seven RBIs.

The person said that the decision to bench Pujols on Wednesday night was made by the front office and not Angels manager Joe Maddon.

Maddon acknowledged Thursday that, “I’d spoken to [Pujols] several days before that, telling him that he had the next whole week of games to play. But things changed, and once they changed, he came to me, we had the conversation, he knew exactly where I was standing.”

Maddon disputed the idea that Wednesday’s lineup was a “tipping point” in the Angels’ decision to release Pujols. Minasian reiterated the team had been contemplating it for several weeks.

“There was no fight. There was no argument,” Minasian said of his and Carpino’s conversation with Pujols. “This was a conversation that went back and forth. He expressed his feelings. We expressed ours. He understood where we stood on the whole situation, and things did not end bad. I gave him a big hug. Big fan of the guy.”

Pujols spent the first 11 years of his career in St. Louis, where the 10-time All-Star established himself as one of the most feared hitters in the game. He helped the Cardinals win the World Series in 2006 and 2011 and was named National League MVP in 2005, 2008 and 2009.

But after signing with the Angels in December 2011, the man nicknamed “The Machine” because of his consistent production no longer looked the same. With the Cardinals, he batted .328 with a 1.037 OPS. In his 10 seasons with the Angels — several of them derailed by lower-body injuries — he hit .256 with a .758 OPS.

“The first 10 years of his career are the best ever in the history of the game,” Pujols’ former Cardinals teammate Mark McGwire said by phone Thursday. “Like most great athletes, injuries are the things that really held him back.”

Asked if the team would hold some kind of ceremony to honor Pujols, Carpino said it was unlikely unless Pujols returns to Angel Stadium in the future as a visiting player.

“Especially someone of Albert’s stature, the greatness he has accomplished on and off the field, we just tried to give him the ultimate respect,” Carpino said. “However, this is baseball, and this is what happens sometimes.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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