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Albert Pujols disputes Angels’ stance that he didn’t want to be a bench player

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MLB veteran Albert Pujols talks to the media for the first time since signing a contract with the Dodgers.

The newest member of the Dodgers, the brawny bald-headed surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer with 667 career home runs on his resume and three National League MVPs on his mantle, roamed the infield at Dodger Stadium on Monday afternoon like a regular. He chatted with coaches. He joked with teammates. He sprayed line drives off a machine.

But Albert Pujols dressed in blue, not in red down the 5 Freeway or under The Gateway Arch, made for a strange sight as he prepared for his Dodgers debut before their 3-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. The Angels weren’t supposed to shock the baseball ecosystem and release Pujols last week, no matter how unproductive he became in the final years of his decadelong, $240-million contract. The Dodgers weren’t supposed to be desperate enough to sign a 41-year-old first baseman who’s been a below-average hitter for five seasons.

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But all that happened. The Angels pulled the trigger and the Dodgers, their questionable depth recently exposed by a rash of injuries, officially scooped him up Monday, signing him to a contract for the remainder of the season.

“We believe he can help us win a championship,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

Roberts thrust Pujols into action Monday; he started at first base and batted fourth, wearing No. 55, against the Diamondbacks (18-24) with left-hander Madison Bumgarner on the mound. He became the oldest clean-up hitter in Dodgers history and the oldest player to hit in the top four of their lineup since a 44-year-old Rickey Henderson in 2003.

Dodgers first baseman Albert Pujols singles to center field.
Dodgers first baseman Albert Pujols singles to center field driving in a run off Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner in the third inning at Dodger Stadium on Monday.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

“I feel like I still have some gasoline left in my tank,” Pujols said in a videoconference call Monday.

Pujols didn’t run on empty Monday. He delivered a two-out RBI single on an 0-and-2 cutter in the third inning to give the Dodgers (23-18) a 2-0 lead after Will Smith homered in the second. He went one for four before he was replaced as part of a defensive substitution in the ninth inning. He’s slated to start at first base again Tuesday.

“I was able to put a good barrel and was able to go through the infield,” Pujols said. “It felt awesome.”

Walker Buehler gave up an infield hit to the second batter of the game and didn’t surrender another one over his seven scoreless innings. He found trouble anyway in the fourth inning when he issued three straight walks — matching the walk total from his first seven starts — to load the bases. He then retired the final 11 hitters he faced. Kenley Jansen secured the final four outs for his eighth save.

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“Really surreal,” Roberts said of having Pujols on his team. “But it fit, and it felt normal.”

It was Pujols’ first game since May 4 because the Angels unexpectedly designated Pujols for assignment two days later. He was released Thursday after clearing waivers. He batted .198 with a .622 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and five home runs in 92 plate appearances with the Angels this season. He was seven for his last 43 before he was shown the door.

The Dodgers will pay him approximately $430,000 — the prorated share of the $570,500 league minimum. The Angels remain responsible for the rest of his $30-million salary in the final year of his 10-year, $240-million contract. The Angels are also on the hook for a 10-year, $10-million personal services contract that starts when he retires. Additionally, the St. Louis Cardinals, Pujols’ team for his first 11 major league seasons, are paying him $1.2 million per year in deferred money through 2029.

The events surrounding the Angels’ surprising decision to cut Pujols remain unclear. After the release, Angels manager Joe Maddon said Pujols “did not want to be a bench player of any kind.” Pujols disputed that version of events Monday. He acknowledged that he was “shocked, like everybody” but emphasized he doesn’t hold “hard feelings” toward the Angels.

“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.”

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Maddon was later asked about Pujols’ side of the story and declined to respond.

Albert Pujols is the latest iconic player to put on a Dodgers uniform, and the team gives him a prime opportunity to win one more World Series title.

“Listen, I’m not here to get into a semantical war of any kind,” Maddon said. “I wish Albert nothing but the best. I mean that sincerely.”

To make room on the 40-man roster for Pujols, the Dodgers transferred right-hander Tony Gonsolin to the 60-day injured list. Gonsolin was placed on the injured list with a shoulder injury April 4, retroactive to April 1, so he can’t return for at least another two weeks.

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The club later officially activated Pujols, infielder/outfielder Yoshi Tsutsugo and left-hander David Price. Catcher Keibert Ruiz, left-hander Alex Vesia and right-hander Mitch White were optioned to create space.

Pujols is a 10-time All-Star and the Dodgers’ fourth former MVP after Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger. The Dodgers didn’t strongly consider acquiring him at first, but the calculation changed over the next week as young players tasked to fill in holes continued falling short.

Dodgers first baseman Albert Pujols, left, walks away after batting practice before Monday's game.
Dodgers first baseman Albert Pujols, left, walks away after batting practice before Monday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, said he first reached out to Pujols’ agent, Dan Lozano, on Thursday, the day he cleared waivers. On Friday, Friedman and Roberts got on a call with Pujols and gave him their pitch. He was at Dodger Stadium on Saturday morning for a COVID-19 test.

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Pujols said that he heard from a “few” teams, but he bought into the Dodgers’ “great plan.” Friedman, Roberts and Pujols were all vague about his role, but he’s expected to be chiefly used as a pinch-hitter and occasionally play first base against left-handed pitchers as he did Monday.

The Dodgers can move Max Muncy to second base as they did Monday. Gavin Lux is already expected to log the bulk of the innings at shortstop until Corey Seager’s broken hand heals in four to eight weeks.

Pujols was effective against left-handers in a small sample size with the Angels this season, posting an .878 OPS with three home runs in 28 plate appearances. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have struggled versus left-handers. The club entered Monday ranked 24th in the majors in batting average (.217) against them and tied for 23rd in OPS (.659).

Corey Seager will miss at least a month because of a hand fracture, and that does not bode well for a Dodgers team that leans heavily on its stars.

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Both Friedman and Roberts said they believe there’s still “life” to Pujols’ bat, but Friedman didn’t say that the organization committed to keeping Pujols for the entire season when asked.

“I think the most important thing in that conversation was for everyone to be open and honest and transparent,” Friedman said. “And also to acknowledge that we don’t know exactly what things are going to look like a week from now, two weeks from now, a month from now.”

At the moment, Pujols is a Dodger, joining Henderson, Jim Thome, Frank Robinson, Greg Maddux, Juan Marichal and Gary Carter as future Hall Famers who stopped in Los Angeles in the twilight of their careers. It’s weird. It wasn’t supposed to happen. But it did and it went right for the Dodgers on Monday.


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