Who’s going to protect Albert?
Now that everyone has had time to take a deep breath, it could become an all-consuming question for the Angels, who could see their $254 million investment, Albert Pujols, turn into a walk machine. It was largely to provide protection that the St. Louis Cardinals signed Matt Holliday to a seven-year, $120 million contract before the 2010 season.
First up in the search for a hitter behind Pujols: Kendrys Morales, who mashed 34 home runs and 43 doubles in his breakout 2009 season before a fractured left ankle cost him nearly two seasons. The Angels aren’t banking on his return, but they’re sure hoping for it.
“One thing that sets us up really well is if Kendrys Morales can come back, just his presence from the left side,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “Right now, with a player like Albert, there are really only two ways to protect him: One is getting guys on base in front of him. Another is having some depth behind him, because he gets on base a lot.”
At first, it seemed that Morales’ return was less important when the Angels signed Pujols. Now, it could be paramount. If Morales is healthy and the Angels can squeeze him and Mark Trumbo into their lineup (Morales as designated hitter and Trumbo at third base or left field), they would have five players in their lineup capable of hitting 30 home runs.
It could be the difference between having a lineup as deep as the powerhouses of the league -- Texas, Detroit, Boston and New York -- and having a massive drop-off following the No. 3 hitter. Even after signing perhaps the best hitter alive, the offense could be the biggest question mark heading into 2012.
Angels cleanup hitters last season had a .739 OPS (on-base plus slugging), good for 10th in the AL. Their leadoff men had a .325 on-base percentage, seventh-best in the league.
Pujols walked 115 times in 2009. After the Holliday deal, he averaged 82 walks in each of the next two seasons. His lifetime OBP (.420) is .054 points higher than the Angels’ OBP leader last season, Alberto Callaspo.
The phrase that got tossed around a lot during the Pujols ceremony Saturday: makes everyone else better. It’s pretty straightforward. Anyone hitting in front of him will get more fastballs, because pitchers are wary of turning a solo home run into a two- or three-run shot. Anyone hitting behind him figures to have more RBI opportunities than he did a year ago. But it’s a two-way street. For Pujols to produce at his typical career levels, the Angels have to find people who have his back.