It’s not a surprise to see Pujols go unclaimed, given that any team that claimed him would have also been on the hook for the remainder of the $30MM salary he’s owed this year in the final season of a 10-year, $240MM contract. Now that he’s a free agent, the Angels are on the hook for that salary regardless of where he ends up playing. A new team need only pay the prorated portion of the league minimum for any time spent in the big leagues, and that sum would be subtracted from what the Angels owe him.
The decision to part ways with Pujols was sudden and unexpected, even in spite of the aging slugger’s diminished performance. Following the move, Angels brass addressed reporters and explained that the split was agreed upon after the Angels approached Pujols about a reduction in playing time (link via The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya).
“The guy wanted to play, wants to be on the field,” manager Joe Maddon said of Pujols. “He does not want to be a bench player of any kind. This guy’s got a lot of pride, and that’s a big reason why he’s going to be a first-ballot, unanimous Hall of Famer. There’s no question about that.”
Of course, it’s hard to imagine Pujols being dropped into an everyday role with another club. Most National League teams wouldn’t want to play him at first base every day given his range and mobility (or lack thereof). And given the fact that he’s only produced a .198/.250/.372 slash in 2021 and a .240/.289/.405 line since 2016, he’s a tough sell as a regular designated hitter in the American League.
While Pujols’ bat has been anemic, there are some more positive indicators in his overall offensive profile. He’s been plagued by a tiny .176 average on balls in play in 2021, and while some of that is to be expected since he’s less likely than your average hitter to beat out any sort of hit on the ground, he’s also gone hitless on fly-balls that stay in the yard. The league average on non-homer fly-balls is .109.
Pujols’ average exit velocity (90.5 mph) is its best since 2016, as his rate of barreled balls, as measured by Statcast. He’s only walked three times in 92 plate appearances, which is an obvious concern for someone who should be a bat-first player at this point of his career, but his 14.1 percent strikeout rate is also much smaller than the league average. Based on the frequency and quality of Pujols’ contact, Statcast gives him an “expected” .265 average and a similarly heartening .511 “expected” slugging percentage. Those numbers can change in a hurry, given the small nature of the sample, but there’s reason to believe he might yet have some productive at-bats in him.
Then again, given his lack of defensive and baserunning value, Pujols would need to be considerably better than a league-average hitter to hold much appeal, even at a league-minimum rate. He hasn’t been that — or even been particularly close to it — since the conclusion of a 2016 season in which he batted .268/.323/.457 with 31 homers.