The Los Angeles Angels designated Albert Pujols for assignment last week, which may very well end the career of one of the greatest right-handed hitters in Major League Baseball history.
When thinking of Pujols in regards to Philadelphia, you likely think of his St. Louis Cardinals upsetting Roy Halladay and the 2011 Phillies in the NLDS, en route to winning the World Series.
Of course, there aren’t many people in Philadelphia eager to to relive the 2011 NLDS, so let’s consider another angle with Pujols. Remember the Ryan Howard for Pujols trade rumor?
Sure, that rumor sounds like a godsend to sports talk radio, and if you listened to Glen Macnow or Howard Eskin in March of 2010, you can be assured that it was. However, this wasn’t a topic created by hosts to get through a slow time, there appears to have been some legitimacy to it.
On March 14, 2010, ESPN‘s Buster Olney – probably the most trusted national insider at that point – reported that “an idea has been kicked around the Phillies organization internally, with discussions about proposing a swap of slugger Ryan Howard for St. Louis superstar Albert Pujols.”
Then-Phillies general manager Rubén Amaro Jr. strongly denied the validity of the report.
“Lies,” Amaro told Olney of his report. “That’s a lie. I don’t know who you’re talking to, but that’s a lie.”
Then again, what was Amaro going to say? It’s hard to think of any notable reports that Olney was incorrect on, and even if this report was accurate, the Phillies would have no motivation to give it credence with Howard still on the team. Frankly, even if the discussion took place, the Phillies would be motivated to strongly deny it publicly to make sure Howard was in a good head space before a season with World Series aspirations.
Phillies Nation reached out to Amaro, now working for NBC Sports Philadelphia, last week to see if he wanted to extensively discuss this story on the record more than a decade later. Amaro politely declined.
Chances are, no one in the front office from that era will be especially interested in commenting on the idea of trading one of the most popular players in franchise history, even if it would have been for a future Hall of Famer. Howard will likely be inducted onto the Phillies Wall of Fame in the coming years, and it remains to be seen if anyone will ever wear his No. 6 again for the team.
But if you objectively look at things, Pujols would have been an upgrade over Howard heading into the 2010 season. At that point, Pujols would have been an upgrade over most players in baseball history.
Make no mistake, Howard had one of the greatest runs in MLB history in terms of power output between 2005 and 2009, homering 220 times and driving in 635 runs over that period. But over the same stretch, Pujols homered 206 times and drove in 608 runs. Pujols – comfortably in most cases – topped Howard in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+ and fWAR over the aforementioned stretch. Having won three National League MVP Awards in five years, Pujols would have been an upgrade over Howard, which would have intrigued a Phillies team that had won consecutive National League pennants and already acquired another future Hall of Famer in Halladay that offseason.
It’s not unhealthy for an organization to have these type of conversations. Howard and Pujols – along with Prince Fielder and Adrian Gonzalez – were part of an impressive group of star first basemen slated to become free agents after the 2011 season. If you were going to dole out a major deal, you might as well see if you could get the very best at the position.
Olney would note that it wasn’t apparent at the time if the Phillies had opened the lines of conversation with the Cardinals about such a trade. We still don’t know. At the time, it would have been unthinkable to trade Pujols. But it was unthinkable to let Pujols walk after winning a World Series in 2011, and the Cardinals ultimately did that when the Angels outbid them for his services.
From the Phillies perspective, it’s interesting to think about what may have been. Howard was still one of the better power hitters in the league in 2010 and 2011, but you did start to see signs of some physical decline, culminating in Howard suffering a career-altering torn left achilles on the final play of the 2011 NLDS. Pujols started to take a step back in those two years as well, but FanGraphs still says he was the 16th-most valuable offensive player between 2010 and 2011, and that he was worth 10.7 fWAR. Howard – who homered 31 times in 2010 and 33 in 2011 – saw a more significant decline, checking in as the 102nd-most valuable offensive player over the same period, worth just 2.5 fWAR. Parting with Howard would have been a difficult sell, but Pujols was unquestionably a superior player that may have helped the Phillies to win a second title in perhaps the greatest era in franchise history.
With that said, any trade involving the two almost certainly wouldn’t have been a player-for-player swap. The Phillies – having just reluctantly traded away Cliff Lee in an attempt to restock a farm system that had been used to acquire multiple established stars – would have had to convince president David Montgomery and ownership to part with more young talent on top of Howard.
Would J.A. Happ, eventually traded in the summer of 2010 in a deal for Roy Oswalt, have been enough on top of Howard to land Pujols? The feeling here is probably not. The same could probably be said for pitching prospect Trevor May, who the Phillies used to help acquire Ben Revere from the Minnesota Twins in December of 2012.
The only player in the organization that may have truly moved the needle for the Cardinals would have been Domonic Brown. Brown’s career didn’t pan out as the Phillies hoped, but entering the 2010 season, Brown was Baseball America‘s 15th-best prospect in the sport, ranking ahead of Aroldis Chapman, Freddie Freeman and Zack Wheeler, among other eventual MLB stars. For an organization seemingly starting to become aware that a retool may not be too far off, the Phillies probably wouldn’t have coveted Pujols so much that they’d trade a former National League MVP in Howard and their most highly-touted prospect in years to land him.
If a trade had been made, Howard likely would have felt some understandable animosity towards the Phillies, but St. Louis would have been an ideal landing spot. Howard attended Lafayette High School in Wildwood, Missouri and played collegiately at Missouri State University, which is about a two-hour drive from Busch Stadium. Throughout his career, Howard relished the chance to play in St. Louis, hitting .328 with 13 home runs, 43 RBIs and a 1.102 OPS in 38 career games at the new Busch Stadium.
Instead of trading Howard, the Phillies would sign the three-time All-Star to a five-year/$125 million extension on April 26, 2010, less than two months after the trade rumor surfaced. Given that Howard had almost two full years before reaching free agency, the deal proved to be premature. Sure, no one could have predicted Howard tearing his achilles before the five-year deal actually began, but as noted above, there was decline in 2010 and 2011. If Howard had actually reached the free-agent market after 2011 – even if you erase the torn achilles that essentially turned his 2012 season into a lost one – he probably wouldn’t have received that type of contract.
But while Howard’s extension is viewed as one of the worst in MLB history, the 10-year/$254 million deal that Pujols signed with the Angels before the 2012 season may very well be the worst contract in MLB history. In parts of 10 seasons with the Angels, Pujols did homer 222 times, but posted a .758 OPS, made just one American League All-Star team and helped the franchise to reach the postseason just once, despite being teammates with Mike Trout at his peak.
Pujols last posted a positive fWAR in 2016, the last year of Howard’s deal and the final season of his career. Would having to employ Pujols for at least half a decade of objectively bad seasons been worth it if he could have helped the Phillies win a second World Series in 2010 or 2011? Probably, especially considering that the last 10 years haven’t exactly been enjoyable for the franchise. But just like Lee returning to Philadelphia in 2011 didn’t guarantee a championship, Pujols’ presence only would have improved the chances of a parade down Broad St., not assured it. And without a championship, getting to see Pujols hit his 500th and 600th home runs as a Phillie probably wouldn’t have been enough to justify overpaying him for close to a decade.
A trade involving Howard and Pujols certainly would have changed Phillies history, though it’s hard to be sure it would have improved it in any meaningful way.
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