After years of being that team which continuously underwhelms despite boasting a truly great player, the Angels entered 2018 with a genuine play-off shot, helped in no short part by (somewhat inexplicably) adding another potential star to the roster in the form of Shohei Ohtani.
With a good chunk of the season gone, things are largely going to plan, save for an unexpectedly strong Seattle Mariners side. The Angels’ best hope for October baseball was the second Wild Card spot behind the Astros in the West and the Yankees-Red Sox one-two punch in the East, and that’s still very much the way things continue to look.
Even with the eventual second placed team from the AL East inevitably boasting an intimidating regular season record, the Angels will be confident going into the one-off Wild Card encounter should they get there. Whether they’re against the Sox or the Bronx Bombers, they’ll be weary and probably slightly disbelieving that a 95+ win season still hasn’t yielded a berth in the post-season proper. Such a mindset is ripe for further ignominy against an Angels side with little to lose.
However, before the Angels begin counting their chickens, we need to talk about one man on the roster that could determine their fate. It isn’t Mike Trout, already on his way to another MVP-calibre year. It isn’t Ohtani, who has met all the lofty expectations foisted upon him before his MLB debut. It’s Albert Pujols.
Currently in year six of a ten year, $240m contract, Pujols is doing little to justify that money. In fact, quite the opposite; despite still being owed almost $100m, the Angels must now begin to consider turning the page and moving on from the once-great slugger.
Despite enjoying a surgery-free off-season for the first time in several years, Pujols has offered no indication that he’s able to arrest his gradual slide in performance. Up until last year, he was still at least a productive hitter, consistently posting an OPS+ above 100. His fWAR across his first five years in Anaheim was 8.8 (compared to 35.6 in his final five years in St Louis), a relatively respectable total that, while not justifying his enormous wage packet, did at least mean he wasn’t doing much harm, particularly not in an uncompetitive team.
Just how bad has Pujols been in 2018? Well, he’s actually improved slightly on last year, but that isn’t saying an awful lot. A slash line of .251/.287/.398 is good for a OPS+ of just 88, better than last year (OPS+ 80) but still below average, and nowhere near the production you’d want from a mostly full-time DH.
Of the 15 players who have made more than 150 plate appearances as a DH this year, he’s 14th in WAR, and one of only four players (including Hanley Ramirez, who was designated for assignment by the Red Sox) to have posted a sub-100 wRC+. To make a perhaps unfair comparison, Ohtani is currently the owner of a 154 wRC+.
To make matters even worse, rather than attempting to bury him in the lineup, Angels manager Mike Scioscia has persisted in using Pujols in the cleanup spot. Last year, this move saw Pujols lead the majors in the number of double plays grounded into (26). In a Wild Card race of such fine margins, a similar number of missed opportunities this year could prove extremely costly.
The equation has changed for both player and club. In the past two years, Pujols has become significantly worse, while the Angels have gotten better. The question is now whether the price the Angels put on potentially damaging their play-off hopes is greater than what is still owed to Pujols.
Though the money left on the table will be wince-inducing for ownership, it’s time to acknowledge that Pujols will only hinder more than help the Angels in a pivotal time for the organisation.
MLB Network host / analyst Brian Kenny is a notable opponent of long-term contracts for players over thirty years old. This posting clearly identifies player decline with age which is consistent with Kenny’s view. However, I’m prepared to say the Angels are paying for more than just Albert Pujols’s existing skills. Pujols is a certain hall of fame player and him reaching achievements such as 500 home runs and 3,000 hits have taken place in an Angels uniform. That’s all worth a lot of publicity for the Angels. He currently needs 79 home runs to reach 700 and with this season and three more left on his contract he should get there in an Angels uniform. Babe Ruth’s home run record of 714 is reasonably within reach for Pujols and any mileage the Angels could get in terms of him chasing down Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds that would be worth a lot of money to the Angels. So it is completely reasonable the Angels have invested in Pujols’s legacy. This posting highlights the need to identify Pujols’s best role to help the team win games and it is a satisfactory conclusion that he may be more effective further down the batting lineup.