Plaschke: Who are the Dodgers really getting in Albert Pujols? He needs to prove himself

·6 min read
LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 17: Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Albert Pujols (55) flies out to the outfield against the Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner (40) in the first inning at Dodger Stadium on Monday, May 17, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers first baseman Albert Pujols flies out to the outfield against Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Madison Bumgarner in the first inning at Dodger Stadium on Monday. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

It might have been baseball’s first news conference for a .198 hitter.

It was certainly the first news conference in which a member of the Dodgers implied that the Angels were liars.

It was 20 minutes of awkward tip-toeing around a fallen legend searching for a resurrection.

Welcome to Chavez Ravine, Albert Pujols.

Now prove the Dodgers didn’t just make a giant mistake.

Prove they didn’t just sign an aging malcontent whose first-ballot Hall of Fame credentials could give him a license to become a clubhouse distraction.

Prove they’re not wasting valuable roster space on a former superstar whose discomfort with his mostly bench role will eventually force them to uncomfortably fire him again.

Obviously, in the broader expanse of the baseball world, the great Pujols doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody. After all, three MVP awards, two World Series championships, 3,253 hits and 667 home runs pretty much covers it.

But here in Southern California, where he’s virtually disappeared since his misguided move from St. Louis to Anaheim 10 years ago, Pujols is setting himself up for greater scrutiny by making the 27-mile drive up the 5 Freeway from the shadows into the spotlight.

While he never looked too unusual in Angels red, he looks really bizarre in Dodgers blue, and can it quickly be a fit?

At age 41 and in steep career decline, will he be worth the Dodgers’ time and effort and potentially trouble?

It’s one thing to fail in quaint Angel Stadium. It’s quite another to blow it in Hollywood.

The Angels said he was cut because he couldn’t accept a bench role, and there were even reports that he was finally canned after a shouting match with manager Joe Maddon one night when his name wasn’t on the lineup card.

“He wants to play every day at first base,” said Angels president John Carpino after the release.

Yet on Monday, Pujols denied saying any such thing.

“I think there were a lot of things said out there, that I wanted more playing time, that I wanted to play every day,” Pujols said. “That never came out of my mouth. You guys asked me that question over and over, so many times, and I always told you, however the team needs me, I’m here for that.”

You hear him, but you wonder. After 20 years of being mostly on the field and in the batter's box, will Pujols really embrace the dugout? Because it seems like if he embraced the dugout, the Angels wouldn’t have paid him nearly $30 million to disappear from it.

The petulance he reportedly showed in Anaheim won’t play with the Dodgers either. The Dodgers clubhouse works because nobody openly complains about playing time. The Dodgers win by being selfless.

“Listen, I had [86] at-bats this year, I never thought this early in April I’d have that many at-bats,” Pujols claimed. “I was excited with the playing time I got there.”

It sure didn’t seem like it. It also doesn’t seem like he would be happy as a pinch-hitter considering he has pinch-hit in less than 1% of his career plate appearances and hasn’t had an actual pinch hit in 12 years.

Bring it on, Pujols said.

“I told them I’m here to do whatever,” he said. “Pinch-hit, first base, whatever they want, at the end of the day, I’m just excited to have the opportunity to wear this uniform.”

Don’t blame the Dodgers if his excitement wears thin. Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ baseball boss whose transparency with players is one of his hallmarks, emphasized that he and manager Dave Roberts told Pujols that he would be used in a variety of roles. He believes Pujols understood.

“We were open and honest and we walked through the scenarios and talked through it,” Friedman said. “We didn’t want to be a used car salesman to get him to come here … I think you guys heard from him earlier, of how excited he is about that.”

There’s been comparisons between Pujols’ potential impact and the positive vibes once shared by David Freese and Chase Utley, two declining veterans who Friedman signed as role players.

There is one difference. Those guys weren’t 20-year stars, and those guys adapted quickly to their new roles. It is this adaptation that will be so crucial — and is so questionable — for Pujols.

“The thing that I remember most is their veteran leadership, the way they prepared their mindset, and most importantly their acceptance of the role,” Roberts said of Freese and Utley. “When … specifically a veteran player understands and accepts the role, they can thrive … so that’s why it was just really important for Andrew to talk to him and be upfront.”

If Pujols buys in, he can certainly help. His OPS against lefties is 215 points higher than the Dodgers’ team OPS against lefties. He can certainly come off the bench or spot start and drive the ball and win a game or two or three.

“I feel like I still have some gasoline left in my tank,” he said.

He also has the lure of a legitimate shot at another ring, a bauble which was only an illusion during his time in Anaheim. Veterans in all sports have often stifled their egos for the sake of one more championship.

“These guys won last year, they’re hungry to win again, they can tell you that, I can see that, watching them play,” Pujols said. “I’ve been playing against the organization long enough from the other side, and I’ve seen how they go about it. I think that’s something I want to be a part of.”

As further motivation, maybe, just maybe, he will do whatever it takes to show the Angels that they quit on him six months too soon.

“Listen, I don’t have to show the Angels or anybody,” Pujols protested. “I’m just going to be myself out there and play the game.”

Who exactly is this former great as he grasps for one more shred of glory in the twilight of his grand career?

For better or worse, the Dodgers are about to find out.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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