It was exactly a decade ago today that ESPN.com’s Buster Olney dropped a bombshell on the baseball world, reporting that the Phillies had held some internal discussions within their front office about the possibility of a blockbuster deal of first basemen — Phils slugger Ryan Howard to the Cardinals for Albert Pujols. It would have been a one-for-one trade, with both players switching uniforms with two years remaining on their current contracts.
As Olney observed in his report, the concept might well have been just an idea floated within Philadelphia’s front office, rather than an actual proposal made to the Cards. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. went a step further when asked to comment on the rumor, calling it “Lies. That’s a lie. I don’t know who you’re talking to, but that’s a lie.” (Olney defended his reporting two days later, calling it “confirmed information” and he knew “exactly who said what to whom, and how sturdy the intent was.”)
It was an eyebrow-raising trade rumor at the time, and though this particular swap apparently didn’t come close to being a reality, the concept of a straight-up superstar-for-superstar deal is still fascinating ten years later since such deals are so rare. And, in this particular instance, we can judge with a decade of hindsight how a Pujols-for-Howard trade might have worked out for both the Phillies and the Cardinals.
For St. Louis, the impact is simple — they might not have won the 2011 World Series without Pujols. 2011 marked what was, incredibly, the least-impressive of Pujols’ 11 MLB seasons, as he “only” hit .299/.366/.541 with 37 home runs over 651 PA. This performance was just the warmup for an epic postseason, as Pujols posted a 1.155 OPS over 82 PA during the Cardinals’ 18 playoff games. Pujols’ efforts included a three-homer night in Game 3 of the World Series, putting him alongside Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only men (Pablo Sandoval joined the club in 2012) to ever hit three home runs in a Series game.
Could the Cardinals have won a title with Howard in Pujols’ place? It’s possible, as while Howard wasn’t quite as productive as Pujols during the 2011 regular season, Howard still hit .276/.353/.505 and 31 homers. Who’s to say how those numbers might have differed in a new ballpark and a new environment as a Cardinal rather than as a Phillie; Howard, a St. Louis native, might have thrived with his hometown team, or perhaps struggled under the added pressure.
What likely doesn’t happen in this what-if scenario, however, is the nasty injury Howard suffered in his (and the Phillies’) last at-bat of the 2011 season. Making the final out of the 2011 NLDS, Howard tore his Achilles tendon leaving the batters’ box to run out a grounder, and he didn’t return to action until July 6, 2012. It ended up being a career-altering injury for Howard, as while he was already showing a tiny bit of decline from his prime years and any sort of dropoff for a power hitter isn’t uncommon as he enters his 30’s, the before-and-after of Howard’s Achilles injury is jarring. From 2012-16, Howard hit only .226/.292/.427 over 2122 PA.
The Phillies lost that 2011 NLDS to, ironically, the Cardinals. It was the second straight year the Phillies had fallen short in the playoffs after a dominant regular season, and it ultimately proved to be the end of that great era of Philadelphia baseball. In the eight years since, the Phillies have yet to enjoy another winning season, only managing an even .500 record on two occasions (2012, 2019). While Howard was a big part of the Phillies’ success in 2010 and 2011, replacing him with Pujols’ next-level production might well have been the difference in a World Series victory in either 2010, 2011, or both seasons.
The other major side effect of this trade is what happens after the 2012 season. A little over a month after Olney’s report, the Phillies signed Howard to a five-year, $125MM extension covering the 2012-16 seasons. Since Howard was already 30 years old at the time of the extension and under contract for two more years, there was a pretty immediate and negative reaction to the Phillies’ decision, and while the Achilles injury wasn’t foreseen, the deal indeed ended up being a bust for the Phils.
That said, does Howard still ink an extension if he ends up with St. Louis in this alternate reality? As Olney noted, the Cardinals weren’t making progress with Pujols on an extension, so they could have had interest in Howard as a potential long-term replacement. The difference, however, could’ve been that the Cards might have waited at least a season before locking Howard up. Looking back at past extensions for such Cardinals notables as Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, or Paul Goldschmidt, the team has tended to wait until just before the pending free agent’s final season under contract to finalize a new deal. A Cardinals/Howard extension could been potentially lesser in both years and dollars, if Howard has performed for the Cards in 2010 as he did in the real world (.276/.353/.505 with 31 home runs) for Philadelphia. While still strong numbers, they nonetheless represented a step back from the 50 homers Howard averaged every season from 2006-09, while also batting .278/.379/.589.
As for Pujols, he did depart St. Louis after that 2011 World Series title, signing a ten-year, $240MM deal with the Angels that still has two seasons remaining. While the Phillies were willing to splurge on Howard, extending Pujols would’ve cost twice the years and almost twice the money as Howard’s extension. Maybe the Phils (perhaps flush off Pujols leading them to a championship or two) would have decided that Pujols was worth the extra investment and signed him to a similar extension. Assuming the Pujols in this multiverse declined at the same pace as our universe’s Pujols did with the Angels, such a deal could have left the Phillies with an even bigger contractual albatross on their hands….especially if the Pujols-led 2010 Phils or 2011 Phils hadn’t won a World Series, leaving the team without even a “flags fly forever” silver lining.
Another route is that the Phils work out a more creative extension with Pujols, perhaps overwriting the terms of his 2010-11 salaries to give him more money sooner and less money on the back end in his decline years. Or, in what might have been ultimately the best-case scenario for Philadelphia, the team could have just let Pujols depart for free agency after the 2011 season. That would have left room in the Phils’ budget and a hole at first base, which could have put the team in the market for another of that offseason’s top free agent first basemen — Prince Fielder.
Needless to say, such a major trade would’ve greatly altered the last decade of Major League Baseball, and likely swung at least one World Series result. Given how the last ten years played out for the Phillies, maybe there’s someone from that club’s front office who, if this trade proposal indeed never got past the internal discussion phase, wishes they’d picked up the phone to at least give the Cards a call.