Late Wednesday night, after watching another game from the bench, Albert Pujols was summoned into a room with Los Angeles Angels president John Carpino and general manager Perry Minasian and was informed that his near-decade run with the team was coming to an abrupt end. The following morning, the organization announced it had designated Pujols for assignment, a procedural move that will lead to Pujols' release by the end of the week, barely two months into the last season of a 10-year, $240 million contract.
Minasian, in his first year as the Angels' GM, said the decision was dictated strictly by the baseball-operations department. Jared Walsh, a 39th-round pick, has continued his evolution as a highly productive hitter and was providing more dynamic defense at first base. And Shohei Ohtani, a two-way player who has become one of the game's most menacing hitters, had solidified the designated hitter spot on an everyday basis.
Pujols, with an OPS 80 points below the league average in his age-41 season, had no place to play.
"It's more about opportunity," Minasian said. "Albert is not a bench player. We felt like, for him, with respect to him, keeping him on the bench, him not getting any playing time, would not do him any good or the team any good."
Pujols is steadfast in his desire to continue playing, and he let that be known to Carpino and Minasian during their meeting. But the opportunities seem limited, if not nonexistent, with no DH in the National League. The Chicago White Sox jump out as a potential landing spot, given the presence of Tony La Russa, Pujols' former manager with the St. Louis Cardinals, but Yermin Mercedes has been a revelation as the team's DH. The Kansas City Royals, who reside near Pujols' hometown in the United States, might be an option. So might an NL team like the Cincinnati Reds, who could be without Joey Votto for a month after the veteran first baseman fractured his thumb.
The Angels talked through different options with Pujols on Wednesday night, but designating him for assignment was "the most agreeable to all of us," Carpino said. The team wanted to honor him in some way, but it would be awkward to do so before he announces his retirement.
"He wants to play every day at first base," Carpino said. "His passion is driving there. He really believes it. And I'm happy that he has that strong belief on what he does."
Pujols had actually been playing more than many would have expected. Dexter Fowler's season-ending knee surgery had prompted Walsh to spend time in right field, which made Pujols the first baseman for 17 of 20 games heading into Wednesday's matchup against Tampa Bay Rays lefty Ryan Yarbrough, who was scheduled to handle the bulk innings. A few days earlier, Angels manager Joe Maddon told Pujols he would play all week.
"But things changed," Maddon said.
When he realized he wasn't in the lineup, Pujols approached Maddon in his office and expressed his displeasure. But Maddon stressed that was not ultimately what ended his tenure; Minasian said he and the front office had been talking about the possibility of releasing Pujols for the past couple of weeks.
"He came to me, we had the conversation, he knew exactly where I was standing on the entire situation, and thus, what happened last night happened," said Maddon, who wasn't involved in the discussion with Pujols after the game. "But there was no tipping point involved. This was a decision made."
Pujols, who is making $30 million this season, ranks fifth in career home runs (667), second in RBIs since they became an official stat in 1920 (2,112) and 14th in hits (3,253). He has won three NL MVP Awards, two Gold Gloves and six Silver Sluggers and has been invited to 10 All-Star Games.
His first decade with the Cardinals -- consisting of a .331/.426/.624 slash line, 408 home runs and 1,230 RBIs -- stands as arguably the greatest 10-year run in baseball history. In Year 11, he finished fifth in NL MVP voting and won his second World Series ring.
But his prime didn't really make it to Anaheim. Pujols began his Angels career with a mystifying drought of 27 games without a home run. He recovered to post a highly productive season in 2012, then had his 2013 season cut short by plantar fasciitis and wasn't necessarily the same thereafter.
Pujols averaged 30 home runs and 105 RBIs from 2014 to 2017, but his slash line dropped to .257/.310/.448. From 2018 to 2021, he batted .239/.290/.414 and was worth a total of negative-0.1 Baseball-Reference wins above replacement. Twenty-four games into the 2021 season, he was batting .198. The Angels wanted Walsh to return to his natural position of first base, prompting Minasian to make a shocking recommendation to ownership.
In a statement, Angels owner Arte Moreno wrote that the team was "honored that he has worn an Angels jersey for nearly half of his Hall of Fame career."
"Albert's historical accomplishments, both on and off the field, serve as an inspiration to athletes everywhere, and his actions define what it means to be a true Superstar," Moreno's statement said. "Since his Rookie of the Year Season in 2001, Albert and his wife Deidre have generously given their time and resources to countless charities throughout the world. We are thankful to the entire Pujols Family."
Pujols is one of only two players, along with Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, to reach 600 home runs, 2,100 RBIs and 3,000 hits. And he is the only player in baseball history with 3,000 hits, 600 homers and multiple World Series titles. Pujols reached 500 homers, 600 homers, 3,000 hits and 2,000 RBIs with the Angels, and most of the signage honoring those accomplishments will remain at Angel Stadium, Carpino said.
Despite the criticism of the contract, which didn't help the Angels win a single postseason game, Carpino called Pujols' stint with the Angels "tremendous."
"He's just had an amazing amount of historic accomplishments while he was here, which the fans cherished," Carpino said. "It was a happy day the day we signed him, and yesterday's conversation was difficult."
The Angels -- World Series champions in 2002, division champions five times from 2004 to 2009 under longtime manager Mike Scioscia -- looked like World Series contenders when they shocked the winter meetings contingent from Dallas in December of 2011, signing Pujols and All-Star pitcher C.J. Wilson on the same day. Later that season, Mike Trout emerged as one of the game's best players.
But the Angels fell short of the postseason, unable to overcome a slow start. They followed by adding Josh Hamilton and a quartet of veteran pitchers and promptly imploded in 2013. The year after that, the team recovered, won 98 games and claimed the AL West, but were swept by the upstart Royals in the first round. The Angels haven't been to the playoffs since, largely because they have been unable to build an adequate pitching staff. Minasian represents the third GM since Pujols joined the team, while Maddon is the third manager.
Maddon raved about Pujols' work ethic, noting that he exhibited "the same zeal on a daily basis."
Minasian applauded Pujols' professionalism amid a tough conversation, saying he "gave him a big hug" after Wednesday's meeting wrapped.
"He's passionate," Carpino added. "I wouldn't view passionate as a negative or a confrontation. Was he passionate last night? Absolutely."
Pujols' deal with the Angels comes with a 10-year personal-services contract that will pay him an extra $1 million annually to basically serve as a public face for the organization. It's a role Pujols has previously expressed an interest in pursuing after his playing career is over, but an end date has not been determined.
"He's as motivated as he's ever been," Minasian said. "If the situation was different and there were at-bats for him to play here, it'd be different. But let me put it this way -- if he does go somewhere else, and pursue playing somewhere else, I would not bet against him."