Most Cardinals fans tend to dwell on what could have been if the Cardinals and Pujols were able to agree on an extension following the 2011 season. Would Pujols have continued mashing like he had in St. Louis, perhaps even challenging for the lead in all-time home runs? Would he have not just been seen as a top-10 talent of all time, but possibly even the greatest hitter we've ever seen?
Well, while appearing on "The Bret Boone Podcast", Pujols shared about what was his biggest during his playing career.
"One mistake that I made that I regret, it was playing with my knee – I used to drain my knee every single day because I wanted to be out there in the field. I want to be respected in the clubhouse. I want my teammates to know I am here when I easily could’ve taken a year off and healed really well... That’s one thing that I regret, not being able to take the time off from my knee to heal properly.- Albert Pujols
I remember the doctor, I think it was in ‘16, he drained the knee, and took like 85 cc before the game around 3 o’clock, and then after the game, he took out another 55. He told me, ‘Albert, I can’t believe you’re doing this. Why are you doing this to yourself?’ You know why? Because I need to be out there playing with the guys, even if it’s on one leg.
So if there’s one thing I regret it’s that. Not giving my time to my body because I care... I don’t want people to think I was faking an injury. I don’t want people to think that I was just getting the money that I was getting paid. I had a responsibility and that responsibility was to be on the field no matter what, and that’s what I did. Listen, it didn’t work out the way I imagined it was going to work out with the Angels but there’s nothing I regret, only that I didn’t take the time that I needed to heal my body."
If that doesn't show the kind of competitor that Pujols was, I'm not sure what else will. It's not clear based on his comments when the knee pain started, but it had at least been going on since 2016, and Pujols did not end up having the surgery he needed until late into the 2018 season. Even while battling that injury, Pujols still averaged 154 games a season from 2014-2017 and played in at least 140 games in all but one season of the first 17 years of his career.
If Pujols' knee issues truly began in 2016, it makes a ton of sense why that would be his biggest regret as a big leaguer. His last All-Star appearance as an Angel was in 2015, and between 2017 and 2018, his OPS dropped below .700 for the first time over that two-year stretch.
In today's game, you see players have scheduled off-days all the time. Guys rarely play the amount of games, or pitch the amount of injuries, as they once did. It's just rare to find a player as good as Pujols, especially in the later years of his career, who desires to play the number of games that he did, especially when battling such a frustrating injury.
Let's say he has that surgery back in 2016, who knows what kind of finish to his career he could have had? Would the Angels eventually cut him later down the line in 2021? Could have hit close to 30 HRs per year again? He did hit 40 in 2015 and 31 in 2016. Pujols was only 59 home runs shy of the all-time record, he may have ended up pushing toward that number in 2022.
Regardless, Pujols had an incredible career, is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and will go down as one of the best to ever play the game. It's frustrating that injuries impacted the latter half of his career, but the first 12 years of his career may be one of the best stretches of baseball we'll ever see from a player.