The Angels are making a rare interleague visit to St. Louis this weekend, marking Albert Pujols’ first on-field visit back to his former city since he left the Cardinals following the 2011 season. He could have been a much more frequent visitor to Busch Stadium, however, if he had remained within the NL Central, as USA Today’s Bob Nightengale writes that the Reds were the proverbial mystery team that came closest to keeping Pujols away from the Angels in free agency.
Cincinnati offered Pujols a ten-year, $225MM offer, which fell just short of the ten-year, $240MM contract Pujols ultimately accepted from the Angels. The Marlins actually offered more money than either the Angels or Reds, though Pujols turned down Miami’s ten-year, $275MM offer out of concerns that the contract didn’t contain a no-trade clause, and as Nightengale puts it, “Pujols [was] fearful of the Marlins being the Marlins.”
Walt Jocketty was the Reds’ general manager at the time, and had a long relationship with Pujols due to Jocketty’s time as the Cardinals’ GM from 1994 to 2007. “We thought we were going to get him,” Jockey told Nightengale. “We thought he would certainly give our organization a lift with his presence, on and off the field.”
After suffering through nine consecutive losing seasons from 2001-2009, the Reds won the NL Central in 2010 but were then unceremoniously swept out of the NLDS by the Phillies (a series that saw the Reds become just the second team to be no-hit in a postseason game, after Roy Halladay shut them down in Game One). That taste of the postseason gave way to a disappointing 79-83 record in 2011, which led to an aggressive offseason for Jocketty’s front office. Cincinnati added Mat Latos and Sean Marshall that winter, and indeed went on to regain the NL Central crown in 2012 and then reached the playoffs again as a wild card team in 2013.
Needless to say, adding Pujols would have been by far the biggest possible transaction for the Reds, and the signing would’ve had an incredible ripple effect on recent baseball history. The player who would’ve been most notably impacted, of course, is Joey Votto. Aside from six games as a left fielder in his rookie year, Votto has never played anywhere besides first base and (in interleague games) DH in the majors, and a position change would’ve seemingly been unlikely. While Pujols had played a handful of games at third base for St. Louis in 2011, that marked his first action at the hot corner since 2002, so he wasn’t going to be moved away from first base.
The most plausible scenario of a Pujols signing is simply that Votto would have become an enormous trade chip for the Reds. Votto had already established himself as a star, and since he wouldn’t have become a free agent until after the 2013 season, the Reds could have netted a hefty return for his services.
As things turned out, the Reds ended up spending their exact planned investment on Pujols into a new extension for Votto, inking him to a ten-year, $225MM deal covering the 2014-2023 seasons (after Votto’s original three-year deal with Cincinnati was up). This wasn’t the only money the Reds splashed around that spring, as they also extended Brandon Phillips on a six-year, $72.5MM contract.
It’s hard to argue that keeping Votto over Pujols was a bad move for Cincinnati, as Votto has decidedly outhit Pujols over the last nine seasons. There’s even some question as to whether Pujols could have even remained on the field if he had stayed in the National League, as the slugger said his decision to join the Angels “worked out perfect for me….With all of the injuries and everything that happened to me, it was the best-case scenario for me playing in the American League with a DH. It hasn’t been the best years of my career, but I’m still producing.”
Still, it’s worth at least guessing at how a Pujols-in-Cincinnati scenario could have developed. For one, the Reds would’ve had Pujols off their books following the 2021 season, whereas they’re still committed to Votto through 2023 (and Votto’s power numbers have dropped precipitously over the last two seasons). In terms of shorter-term results, who knows if the combination of Pujols and whatever pieces the Reds could have obtained in a hypothetical Votto trade could have put the Reds over the top in 2012 or 2013, though Pujols missed a big chunk of the 2013 season once his foot problems began to worsen.
Of course, who knows — maybe the Pujols-led Reds would’ve lost the 2012 or 2013 World Series to whichever team Votto ended up joining. His availability that winter creates a whole new set of alternate realities, as one can not only look back at the 2011-12 free agent market for teams in need of first basemen, but it’s quite possible that teams without a defined need at first might have changed their plans if Votto was on the table (in the same way that the Reds weren’t seen a suitor at all for Pujols).
Pujols signed with the Angels in early December, so if he signs with the Reds in this fantasy scenario, that gives Cincinnati much of the offseason to market their younger first baseman. Maybe it’s Votto who ends up in an Angels uniform after the Halos missed out on their top free agent choice. The 2011-12 offseason saw the Marlins splurge on Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell in free agency, so maybe they could’ve decided to augment those free agents with a first baseman in a Votto trade? If Votto is still a Red in late January 2012 when Victor Martinez tears his ACL, would the Tigers have spoken to the Reds about Votto rather than sign Prince Fielder? The possibilities are endless.