This was originally published in The Athletic.
I remember the possibility that Albert Pujols would sign a massive free-agent contract with the Reds being “A Thing.”
I don’t recall people losing their minds when Pujols ultimately decided to leave St. Louis for Anaheim. In fact, I remember grudging admiration for Cardinals management being willing to not hand a franchise legend a blank check, and obviously there was a sense of relief that the longtime Reds killer was headed to the American League. I don’t recall any deeply embedded journalists informing us of the Reds’ interest in the slugger, and when I think about the 2011-12 hot stove, I think of the moves then Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty made to flip 2011’s disappointing 79-win squad into the next season’s 97-win unit.
But I also recall a shared sense that a Pujols signing with the Reds wasn’t that implausible.
The main reason was Jocketty’s connection to St. Louis. He’d been the Cardinals’ general manager during the selection of Pujols in the 2000 draft as well as his subsequent ascension into the game’s most-feared right-handed hitter. A little over a year into the job in Cincinnati, Jocketty sprinkled some magic Cardinals dust by trading for Scott Rolen, whom he’d brought to St. Louis seven years earlier. Then, in 2010, he acquired former Cards center fielder Jim Edmonds to try to help the Reds get over the hump during a surprising, feel-good summer.
There was also the Joey Votto factor. The same player who’d sign the most lucrative contract in Reds history in 2012 spent much of 2011 in the center of speculation about how much he would cost to keep. He piled up MVP numbers in 2010, then followed them up with very good numbers the following season, but there still seemed to be some distance between the first baseman and the fan base. Mind you, these were the days before Joey dressed as a Mountie on TV, and before his sitting down with beat writers to discuss hitting in detail.
If Joey left, the thinking went, the only way to soften the blow would be replacing him with maybe the only first baseman who could be considered better.
All of this, as I remember it, was “A Thing.”
A recent USA Today story that coincided with Pujols’ first Busch Stadium appearance since leaving confirmed the Reds’ interest. Bob Nightengale reported that the Reds finished second in the bidding behind the Angels, offering a 10-year, $225 million deal, even with Votto still under contract. Nightengale even got this quote from Jocketty himself:
“We thought we were going to get him. We thought he would certainly give our organization a lift with his presence, on and off the field.”
Obviously, the Reds did not get him. Pujols signed with the Angels in early December 2011, agreeing to a 10-year, $240 million deal that included bonuses and an additional 10-year, $10 million personal-services contract upon retirement.
Pujols was probably never going to approach the numbers he posted in St. Louis, but his totals as an Angel still seem underwhelming. He’s put up some quality single-season home run totals, including 40 in 2015, which was his lone All-Star year in Anaheim, but a player who routinely was a league leader in all sorts of major categories has led in the AL only in double plays grounded into, on three occasions. The Angels, after making six postseason appearances from 2002 through 2009, have qualified for the playoffs just once since Pujols signed.
It’s fascinating though to think about what the last seven and a half years in Cincinnati would’ve been like had Jocketty gotten a deal done. You can go down a few different rabbit holes once you explore the reverberations that would still be felt today had Pujols changed sides in what was once the NL Central’s best active rivalry.
Let’s go down a few of them.
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