Albert Pujols: Best St. Louis Cardinals free-agent signing in 10 years

Albert Pujols #5 of the St. Louis Cardinals reacts after beating the San Diego Padres at Busch Stadium on May 31, 2022 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Joe Puetz/Getty Images)
Albert Pujols #5 of the St. Louis Cardinals reacts after beating the San Diego Padres at Busch Stadium on May 31, 2022 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Joe Puetz/Getty Images) /

The Albert Pujols-St. Louis Cardinals reunion has been absolutely incredible and the best signing of the last decade.

The St. Louis Cardinals are rolling. Every aspect of the game is going strong right now: from pitching to offense to clubhouse energy, it’s just a great time to be a fan of the organization.

One of the main contributors for the success we’ve seen this season is Albert Pujols. When the Cardinals signed Pujols to a one-year, $2.5 million deal this offseason, there were questions about the motivation. Was it simply for nostalgia? How often would Pujols play? Is this really a good idea?

Those questions have been put to rest. Simply put, Albert Pujols on the Cardinals has been nothing but a good thing. But how successful has this deal been for the Cardinals?

Let’s go back to the offseason of 2011, when Pujols left for the Angels. The Cardinals responded by re-signing Lance Berkman and adding Carlos Beltran. But after the 2011 offseason? I’d argue that the deal given to Albert Pujols for the 2022 season is the best free agent deal the Cardinals have made in the decade since – and not just because I thought it would be a good idea long before the deal became official.

Who else is in the running? For this exercise, I’m not going to include re-signing players such as Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. Really, for best free agent deal of the last decade, there are only three other candidates we need to consider.

First is Seung-Hwan Oh. “The Final Boss” had a great two-year stint in the Cardinal bullpen in 2016 and 2017. In fact, his first season was so good that Oh received rookie of the year votes, a rare feat for a reliever.

Oh finished his St. Louis tenure with 39 saves and an ERA+ of 145. Not as effective toward the end of 2017, the Cardinals didn’t re-sign Oh, letting him leave in free agency. One of the few successful reliever signings that the Cardinals have made in recent years, there’s no doubt that Seung-Hwan Oh had a positive impact in St. Louis.

The second candidate is Jhonny Peralta. The Cardinals signed Peralta to a four year, $53 million deal in 2014 in an attempt to find a permanent solution at shortstop. Brendan Ryan, Ryan Theriot, Rafeal Furcal, and Pete Kozma had been a mixed bag up the middle, and Peralta was a great fit.

Johnny Peralta received MVP votes in 2014 (finishing tied for 14th with Cardinal teammate Matt Holliday). He was an all-star the next season in 2015. Peralta’s WAR in 2014-15 was 6.9– the highest WAR from a Cardinal shortstop in a two-year span since Edgar Renteria in 2002-03. His single season WAR of 5.8 in 2014 is the highest total from a Cardinal shortstop since Ozzie Smith in 1989.

After a successful first two years in St. Louis, however, Peralta’s run came to a disappointing finish. 2016 was marred by injuries, and Peralta lost the starting job to Aledmys Diaz. Peralta was released shortly into the 2017 season, and he never made it back to the big leagues.

Lastly we can look at Miles Mikolas, who signed a two-year, $15.5 million deal in 2017. It’s been an interesting few years for Mikolas. 2018 was an incredible debut. He was an All-Star and finished sixth in Cy Young voting. Without question, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Mikolas followed up that season, however, by leading the National League in losses. Injuries quickly followed, as he did not pitch in 2020 and was limited to under 50 innings in 2021.

Thankfully, the magic has returned for Mikolas in 2022. He’s been incredible this season for the Cardinals. He was one out from a no-hitter, he returned to the all-star game, and he’s leading the team in both batting average against and wins.

The Cardinals have made a few other notable free agent deals. Kwang-Hyun Kim was solid during a difficult time period, Dexter Fowler’s contract was always a little too rich, but he was part of some memorable Cardinal moments. Similarly, Andrew Miller was a valuable member of the clubhouse, even when he wasn’t his best on the mound. I’d even acknowledge how Wade LeBlanc and T.J. McFarland helped turn the team around last season.

However, while Oh, Peralta, and Mikolas are worthy candidates, I think it’s clear that Pujols is the best signing. His 0.6 WAR might not beat out the others, but there’s no stat that measures his off-the field impact. Also, the other three each had periods on their deals that have not been positive. Maybe Albert’s one season as a DH lefty masher isn’t producing as many runs or striking out as many opponents, but for the price of the deal, there’s no doubt he’s number one.

This conversation also highlights what we already know: that the St. Louis Cardinals have been built through drafting and developing, complemented by a few big trades. The free agent market is not where John Mozeliak and his front office have made their mark.

Even so, I don’t think that we should point to a lack of big free agent moves as the reason for the Pujols signing to rank so highly. Instead, we should celebrate number five. There are few words to describe what he has brought to the 2022 St. Louis Cardinals, both on and off the field.

Really, you have to look at Beltran in 2012, Berkman in 2011, Kyle Lohse in 2008, or maybe all the way back to David Eckstein in 2005 to see an impact that rivals what Albert has brought to this team. The crazy part, of course, is how important Albert Pujols was to each of those Cardinal teams, too.

It’s been truly special to witness one of the greatest baseball players of all-time come back to St. Louis this season. As we honor his many incredible achievements, it only feels right to add “best Cardinal free agent signing of the decade” to the legendary list.

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