No one sure what to expect from post-prime Pujols
Will longtime superstar rebound from down first year in AL or decline further in 2013?
TEMPE, Ariz. -- There was that minor battle over billboards in those early days after Albert Pujols signed with the Angels. He took issue, just as he did in his St. Louis days, with the promotional references to him as "El Hombre," out of respect for Stan "The Man" Musial. And so the ads were appropriately adjusted.
These days, there would be no need to market Pujols as any variation of "The Man," anyway. The Angels' offensive dynamic has shifted so much in Pujols' short tenure that he is far from the sole focal point of production. That responsibility is now shared, of course, by Josh Hamilton and Mike Trout, with the former transitioning from one American League West juggernaut to another and the latter trying to follow up on an historic rookie campaign.
It's a good thing, too. Because with Opening Day just a little more than two weeks away, there are still lingering questions about Pujols' preparedness for the season proper, to go along with the general questions about what can be expected from the 33-year-old slugger in this post-prime stage of his career.
Pujols, now five months removed from right knee surgery, ran the bases in a Cactus League game the other day -- all by himself. It seems strange to even have to note that, but the Angels were granted the rare allowance of using a "courtesy runner" for Pujols in his three previous appearances this spring.
The condition of the right leg is still shaky enough to prevent Pujols from doing anything in the field, aside from fielding a few ground balls in morning workouts. When he'll be slotted in at first base is an ongoing matter of mystery.
"Right now, he's really just getting into the flow of running and making turns on the bases," manager Mike Scioscia said Friday. "I don't think you want to add another variable of playing defense right now. But he is taking groundballs."
Taking groundballs and taking his time with the recovery. Pujols may have famously recovered from a fractured wrist in a mere two weeks in the middle of the 2011 season, but "The Machine" is, nonetheless, a human being. And people will wonder whether the bum knee that sullied his September last season is but the beginning of the various physical tweaks that inevitably impact a player's production as he ages.
When the Angels signed Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million contract 15 months ago -- a contract that promises him $30 million in his age-41 season in 2021 -- they did so knowing full well that the back-end "value" equation would be way out of whack. That was all well and good, though, provided Pujols mashed like a monster in the front end of the deal.
It is a credit to Pujols' superior skillset that he recovered from his abysmal April acclimation to the AL enough to post a .285/.343/.516 slash line with 30 homers, 50 doubles and 105 RBIs by season's end. Un-Pujols-like, perhaps, but 99 percent of Major League position players would sign up for those stats right now.
This season, you would venture to guess that Pujols' increased comfort with his surroundings and eventual trust in his knee will allow him to repeat, and perhaps exceed, that level of production. But that's if and only if his body is cooperative. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here, but you'd hate to see this become an Alex Rodriguez redux in which a great talent sees his production drop precipitously.
Right now, Pujols moves in slow motion. And the uncertainty with his leg is enough to make him iffy for the Opening Day lineup, given that the Halos are forced to discard the DH at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. Pujols would be restricted to DH duties if the season were to start today, but he has been insistent that he'll be ready to play his position come April 1.
"In the batter's box, he'd be ready," Scioscia said. "The guesswork is going to come with how much he's able to play defense, how much he's going to have to DH. Right now, it's a little bit of a gray area. He'll probably get out on the field in the next week or so, and we'll see how he rebounds."
The Angels are stacked enough that they don't need the uber Pujols production of old. It is, however, the general expectation that the offense is going to have to bear the burden for a starting staff that is patchy beyond Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. So while Pujols is no longer the sole focal point, he remains an awfully important point.
"Albert's a unique guy, because I think there's no doubt he takes a lot on his shoulders to be the guy who carries a team," Scioscia said. "But I don't think that's going to change his expectations for what he can do. He has the most talent around him that he's had in his career. I don't think it's going to change what his expectations are."
Perhaps having Hamilton hitting behind him will prompt Pujols to return to his more selective ways. According to FanGraphs.com, Pujols swung at 36.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone in 2012 -- a huge rise from his 22.9 career percentage. As a result, he drew a walk in just 7.8 percent of his plate appearances, way down from his 12.7 career walk rate.
That could be the area most affected by Pujols' improved comfort level and improved protection in this loaded lineup.
"In the batter's box right now, he feels much stronger than he did at any time in September," said Scioscia, "and we're trying to manage that with what his workload will be, as far as playing defense right now."
One of Scioscia's many tasks this season will be determining how much DH time Pujols needs to maintain an elite level at the plate. Pujols made 34 starts in the DH slot in his inaugural AL season, and that number could be on the rise in 2013, especially in April. On those days, Pujols will be half "The Man" he used to be.