Is the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani Signing the End for Albert Pujols?

When the Angels hired Billy Eppler in October 2015, it looked like the new general manager would need a near miracle to assemble a strong supporting cast before Mike Trout’s contract expired in 2020. With too much money committed to departed or unproductive players and no farm system to speak of, Eppler had little beyond Trout to work with at the major league level, and even less talent below that with which to enrich his active roster. Last year, Eppler built a capable bullpen out of spare parts and watched one of his earliest acquisitions, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, blossom in an MVP-caliber career year, and the 80–82 Angels still finished short of a winning record, let alone a playoff spot. As Sam Miller wrote in 2016, “It’s probably fair to say that the Angels have wasted Mike Trout to a degree that has almost no precedent in any major sport.” As of this Friday morning, it was probably fair to say that they would extend their Trout-wasting streak to next season.

On Friday afternoon, though, the Angels became the beneficiaries of the most improbable stroke of good fortune since Christopher Lloyd was invisibly interfering on their field: 23-year-old Shohei Ohtani, the sport’s singular two-way wunderkind, picked them, selecting the Angels over six other finalists — two of which could have offered bigger bonuses — that themselves were culled from a cast of 30 clubs that would have been happy to have him. Eppler’s Angels did, in fact, need a near miracle, and that’s what they got: a once-in-a-lifetime player on a once-in-a-lifetime contract who, when presented with the opportunity to leave Japan and spend the next several seasons in any North American city with MLB teams, decided that the one he wanted was Anaheim.

Such is Ohtani’s potential impact that the Angels, who projected to be on the 2018 playoff bubble before the signing, now look like a favorite for a wild-card slot. The Angels’ injury-racked rotation was the team’s greatest source of uncertainty, and while Ohtani — who made only five starts last season himself — is far from a guaranteed workhouse, he brings top-of-the-rotation talent to a team that desperately needs it. Between Trout, Ohtani, and Simmons, the Angels also look like a lock to lead the 2018 All-MLB.TV team, making them the default viewing choice for any neutral observer whose own team isn’t in action.

With Ohtani’s destination settled but the baseball world’s thirst for Ohtani content still unslaked, we can shift our attention to another Ohtani inquiry that’s almost as engrossing as the question of where he would sign: What position(s) will he play? And in Anaheim, the answer is murkier than it might have been almost anywhere else.

Ohtani, who hasn’t played outfield in an NPB game since 2014 — and hasn’t done so regularly since he was an 18-year-old rookie — was always unlikely to earn outfield appearances stateside outside of the odd Waxahachie swap, and his decision to sign with the Angels rules out regular outfield innings entirely. The club’s corner outfielders, Justin Upton and Kole Calhoun, are the Angels’ best returning players not named Trout or Simmons, which means that if Ohtani is going to get regular plate appearances, it’ll have to be at designated hitter. But at DH, the same problem presents itself: The Angels already have one. And while the incumbent’s performance might make him replaceable, his name makes him difficult to dislodge.

A decade ago, an in-his-prime Albert Pujols was the best player in baseball. As little pleasure as it gives anyone who witnessed his prime to point out, he’s now among the worst players in baseball. Pujols, who’s long since lost the plate discipline that defined his unparalleled peak, has seen a series of lower-body injuries sap every scrap of the speed and agility that once made him an above-average baserunner and an elite defender at first. Late-career Pujols is the sport’s slowest position player — and in his case, “position player” is a generous label, given that he played all of 50 innings in the field in 2017. Couple that absence of secondary skills with declining production at the plate — Pujols’s gimpy legs allow infielders to play him embarrassingly deep and steal seemingly certain base hits even as his extra-base power erodes — and you have a formula for a run-sucking black hole in the lineup. Pujols ranked dead last in the majors in WAR among hitters last season, and I don’t need to specify which WAR; he was worst in all of them.

Granted, Pujols timed his hits well in 2017, which helped make up for his overall subpar performance, but like almost all players, he doesn’t have a history of consistent clutchness. If he doesn’t display the same knack for big hits in 2018, the weakness of his sub-replacement stat line will be exposed for all to see. And sub-replacement-level players tend not to keep playing every day.

Sub-replacement players tend not to have top-10 salaries in the sport, either, but Pujols is still in line to crack that club. The 17-year veteran, who’ll turn 38 in January, is signed through 2021 — which would be his age-41 season — with $114 million due to him over the next four seasons (plus a 10-year, $10 million “personal-services contract” that kicks in after his contract expires). Even before the Angels landed Ohtani, Pujols seemed extremely unlikely to last that long. On a podcast late last month, my cohost and I estimated that Pujols might last only until early 2019, long enough to make it clear that he wouldn’t bounce back and long enough for the team to save some face for not being too hasty to cut a respected team leader and future Hall of Famer. By that point, we speculated, Pujols would have accepted that his skills had slipped and, rather than insist on playing out the string (and, perhaps, playing through pain, as he has for several seasons), might consider coming to terms with the team on an agreement that would let him retire without sacrificing the full balance of his salary.

Ohtani’s arrival increases the scrutiny on Pujols’s play, and it could accelerate that timeline. The Angels, of course, couldn’t worry about what would happen with Pujols while they were trying to sign this winter’s most valuable prize. Now that they have him, though, finding some resolution for the Pujols situation will move much closer to the top of their to-do list. From both a business perspective and a competitive standpoint, the Angels would be a better team in 2018 and beyond with Ohtani taking as many of Pujols’s plate appearances as possible. Even pessimistic evaluators think that Ohtani has the potential to be a league-average hitter, which Pujols roughly projects to be, and Pujols’s downside risk — which went from risk to certainty last season — is greater than the 23-year-old’s. The Angels are smack in the center of the win curve’s steepest point, where flipping the polarity of one position from negative to positive could make an outsized impact. And potential ticket-buyers would be much more motivated to come to the park on days when Ohtani isn’t pitching if he’s still scheduled to start somewhere else a few times per week.

In all likelihood, Pujols’s past achievements, respected status, and history with the team will grant him the chance to temporarily stave off the rookie’s two-way attack. In October, Eppler hinted that Pujols would be switching up his offseason training, conditioning, and nutrition plans, and manager Mike Scioscia predicted that the aged great would “come back with a vengeance.” Because Ohtani hasn’t yet proved that his roof-piercing NPB power will translate into a steady diet of dingers in the majors, the Angels could use spring training and the first few weeks of the season to evaluate their options. If Pujols shows signs of regaining his 2013–16 form as a moderately above-average bat with 30-homer power — or if Ohtani’s long-ish swing makes him look unexpectedly lost against big league heat, despite how hard his contact can be — the status quo could persist through next season, with Ohtani spelling Pujols from time to time but otherwise remaining on the mound. The Angels could claim, too, that Ohtani would benefit from being eased into the big leagues one job at a time — although for fans of Ohtani’s potential to break the mold, the worry will be that once the precedent is set for him to be primarily a pitcher, it will get harder and harder for him to change his manager’s mind.

If Pujols gets hurt, which isn’t unlikely, Ohtani will have an easy path to more playing time regardless. But if, like last year, Pujols is “healthy” but bad, Scioscia will have a sticky situation to finesse in the final leg of the 10-year extension he signed in 2009, which could conclude his nearly two-decade tenure with the team. Eppler is determined to raise the Angels’ OBP in 2018, and Pujols was one of its primary suppressors last season. If Pujols continues to pile up outs, every ohfer will increase the clamor for the experiment that every red-blooded baseball fan is already eager to see. And if Ohtani the pitcher performs as expected, matching or surpassing the stats of his most successful ex-NPB predecessors with his triple-digit heat and nasty slider and forkball, he’ll help vault the team into playoff contention, thereby increasing its need for Ohtani the hitter to ride to the rescue.

In persuading Ohtani to sign with their them, the Angels pulled off an incredible coup by appealing to one superstar’s psyche. Now, they’ll need to navigate another delicate dance with a high-profile player who boasts one of baseball’s best résumés, but whose best days — and possibly even his good days — are behind him. How they handle their playing-time problem will be one of the sport’s biggest stories next season — second only, perhaps, to the spectacle of Trout and Ohtani on the same roster. However they handle their DH dilemma, the Los Angeles Angels will start next season as the majors’ most interesting team. That’s not a sentence anyone was expecting to see.