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Pujols Blocks Everyone but That’s OK

On Pujols, Depth, and Getting What you Want but Not Realizing It

Albert Pujols is a Cardinal.

I will say that my initial reaction to this move was not overly positive. Yes, I understand the nostalgia and sentiment that goes with a Cardinals legend returning for one more run with the club. I see the symmetry of that with Yadier Molina and (maybe) Adam Wainwright also in their final year in the game together.

This will be fun. No doubt.

For a few weeks.

Then the Cardinals have 162 games to play this summer and winning will become what I care about.

Gotta stop here and give a little shoutout to my Twitter friend Crash (@CrashSTL), who cracked me up over on Twitter with this one (there’s a couple good-natured shots at me in the thread):

Yeah, I’ve been a bit of a party pooper compared to the general Kumbaya that is Cardinals’ country over Pujols’ return.

I just don’t see much upside to the move. Pujols sorta kinda still hits ok against lefty pitchers – particularly if you bias-ly limit the sample start and endpoints. That’s not a huge need on the Cardinals, who are packed to the brim with right-handed bats.

The club also doesn’t face that many lefties. Last year, the Cardinals ranked last in the league in lefties faced at 1245 PAs. That’s well behind ATL who was next with 1461. The Cubs, Milwaukee, and Cincy also ranked in the bottom third of the league. The Pirates, somehow, were 13th. So, unless the handedness demographics of the NLC have changed dramatically since last year, Pujols isn’t looking at that many plate appearances, assuming the club sticks with him as a pinch hitter and weak-side platoon partner for Corey Dickerson at the Designated Hitter spot.

That’s the other side of this. I entered this acquisition with significant doubt that the plate appearances will shake out along those platoon lines. Pujols is a larger-than-life presence. To be an elite professional athlete you pretty much have to be insane. At least in terms of ego. See Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Tom Brady. I’m a huge Kansas City Chiefs fan and it’s certainly true of Patrick Mahomes as well. Throw in-his-prime Pujols in there, too. And Yadier Molina.

The same attitude that pushed them to become two of the best players at their positions in the history of the game during their prime years is that same attitude that will push them for more and more playing time in less and less ideal situations now. Poor youngest-manager-in-the-league Oli Marmol is going to have quite a task wrangling those two into playing environments that maximize their talents and minimize their increasing number of faults.

Then there’s the bigger reason this signing irked me and it’s going to be the one to which I’ll devote the rest of this rambling post: Pujols’ addition to the active roster has to come with a corresponding subtraction.

It looks like Juan Yepez will be the player on his way out. Yepez’s primary position is probably first base, though he can play a little at third and in the corner outfield. His real job, though, was to hit and I viewed him as the right-handed part of the DH platoon who could slowly push for the full-time gig since he has not had much of a platoon split in his minor league career.

Yepez’s skillset is redundant with Albert Pujols. Except for one thing: upside. I’ve seen some suggesting being back in StL will bring the best out of Pujols again. As if a mega-ego elite athlete needed any additional motivation to perform at or near his best. No, at this age – Pujols is at least 42 – players don’t improve. There might be short stretches where things click again, but the trajectory is consistently and universally down. We saw the best of Albert in St. Louis a decade ago.

In light of that, it’s easy for me to imagine Juan Yepez doing pretty much everything that Pujols is here to do better than Pujols can currently do it.

That’s no slight intended against the Cardinals’ legend. When Albert was roaring his way through his one season in the minors, he produced a combined 920 OPS. Last year Yepez’s combined OPS was 969. He followed that up with a 1.028 OPS in the Arizona Fall League.

Those are serious numbers. Very serious.

Minor league translations can take a big chunk of that production away from Yepez and he still has a line that we can’t ignore.

Yepez’s 2022 ZiPS projections: .239/.310/.449 with a 106 wRC+ and 1.1 fWAR.

Pujols’ 2022 ZiPS projections: .236/.281/.395 with an 80 wRC+ and -0.5 fWAR.

So, yeah, maybe I’ve been a party pooper. But the reasons are right there for all to see.

Pujols’ presence on the roster not only kicks Yepez out of the DH spot, but it likely kicks him off the roster entirely. He’ll be stuck in Memphis along with Nolan Gorman and Brendan Donovan. There’s also an increasing chance that Lars Nootbaar won’t make the club either, as the Cardinals inked veteran utility player Cory Spangenberg to a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training just a few days ago. Corey Dickerson is guaranteed a roster spot, too.

Add it up and the Cardinals’ decision to double or triple down on veteran depth will stack Memphis with players we all assumed would spend most of their seasons in the majors, slowing their development and the development of everyone behind them.

Take Luken Baker. Instead of starting at DH for the Cardinals, Yepez will start at 1b for the Redbirds in Memphis. Baker, who passed his AA test with a strong power performance last year, will likely return to Springfield to start the minor league season. He has nothing more to prove there.

As I say in the title, it feels like “Pujols blocks everyone”.

Now read the second part of the title: “but that’s OK.”

Sometime Monday on the train ride back from Chicago – I spent a blustery weekend museum-hopping in the windy city with the family – I realized that my initial annoyance at what Pujols’ presence would do to the roster was misplaced.

After all, this is exactly what I’ve been asking the Cardinals to do.

For the past several seasons I’ve written extensively about the Cardinals’ need to add more depth. To create platoon matchups that they can aggressively use. To be ok with players being blocked or without set roles. Why? Because the circumstances and performances of a 162 game baseball season always open doors and windows and emergency exit hatches that few could have foreseen during pre-season roster construction.

How many times in this space have I said, “the Cardinals need to become more like the Dodgers!”

So, I really can’t complain when they do that, can I? After all, it was the Dodgers, who, with a full roster of talent and prospects to spare, signed Albert Pujols mid-season of 2021 to fill the same role he is now expected to fill with the Cardinals.

The Cardinals obviously don’t have the talent level of the Dodgers. But that doesn’t mean the depth they do have can’t be useful if used properly.

Last year was a great example of why I wanted the club to do this. The plan entering 2021 was for O’Neill, Bader, and Carlson to lock down the outfield. They assumed health and production, so they stuck with unproven Justin Williams, a player with a sketchy minor league history, to hold a bench spot. A few injuries and a bunch of ground ball outs later and the Cards were making unprecedented moves, like digging Scott Hurst out of their system and giving him time in center field.

Last year, Mozeliak tried to rely exclusively on marginal developmental talents (Williams, Nogowski, Sosa) for season-long depth. He tried to support those minor leaguers with castoffs and NRI’s like Jose Rondon, Austin Dean, and Max Morroff. That created a margin for error that was razor-thin. Yes, Sosa worked out ok. But almost nothing else did.

The Cardinals learned their lesson and now they have a bench with significant MLB experience: Pujols, Dickerson, Knizner, Sosa, Nootbaar/Spangenberg. They have another solid collection of non-roster invitees to fall back on if they have to. And they have several young players with significant production and time at AAA, pushing hard for their shot at the majors.

Pre-season roster math says, with so many veterans ahead of them, the kids won’t get that shot. They’re blocked.

Roster usage history says otherwise.

We can’t count on any one thing to happen to create playing time for everyone that’s currently “blocked by Pujols”. I can’t pretend to be Nostradamus and predict a foot injury for Pujols on April 32nd. Or tennis elbow for Dickerson on the 6th Saturday of June.

However, we can count on any number of things transpiring to change the shape of the roster. Baseball will happen over the next 162 games.

Somehow, in the end, everyone that deserves to get their cookies will get their cookies.

I’ve started to view MLB roster construction for a season by thirds.

FIRST THIRD – WHAT YOU HAVE: The first third allows a team to learn what they have – both in the majors and on the farm system. The injuries that can alter the trajectory of a season happen earlier rather than later – like losing Jack Flaherty before his first spring start or losing Harrison Bader for half of the season. Proven depth is useful here, as it gives the club a chance to get a good look at what they actually have, what they planned to have but don’t have, and what they didn’t plan to have but have anyway.

Let me re-state that in early 2021 outfield terms. What they actually had: an MVP candidate in Tyler O’Neill. What they planned to have but didn’t actually have: platoon options from the bench. What they didn’t plan to have but had anyway: a developing young talent in Lars Nootbaar.

SECOND THIRD – WHO YOU HAVE: By the time a ballclub hits early summer, the trade market is still cold but the farm system is just heating up. The second third of the season is about filling gaps in the roster internally, based on actual performance and not hypotheticals. You can leave spring assuming Justin Williams and John Nogowski can hold down bench spots for the season. By June, you know that has to be Lars Nootbaar.

Every season has its share of injuries. The shortened spring training could increase those. By mid-season, there’s a pretty decent chance that one or two of these players who are “blocked by Pujols” will be regular starters, having already pushed past Dickerson and Pujols to fill everyday roles as injury replacements.

THIRD THIRD – WHO YOU NEED: The final third is when you try to put it all together. The trade deadline allows a club to go outside of the organization to fill gaps they can’t internally. Talent has shown through, so clubs can position their best 26 for the postseason run. By September, Nolan Gorman could be the starting second baseman. Matthew Liberatore could be a playoff starter. Some unknown acquisition could be locking down center or shortstop.

A deeper team, like this 2022 version of the Cardinals, should be able to better wear the unpredictable storms of the season, while giving a young, creative manager the tools he needs to play matchups and put his veteran talent in a position to succeed. When the inevitable trouble happens, there is a wealth of MLB-ready talent on the farm – both offense and pitchers – to fall back to. And, with that extra depth, there’s the added ability to trade pieces to fill gaps the system can’t fill.

Yes, figuratively speaking, “Pujols blocks everyone” but that’s OK. It might end up being good.

Plus, his presence allows for all those moments you sentimentalists love. Enjoy them while you can because baseball will happen and everything we think we know today will change.