Monday, February 13, 2012
Question No. 1: Albert Pujols and new scenery
By Mark Saxon
In the weeks leading up to spring training, we're counting down the biggest questions the Angels face in 2012.
Albert Pujols has never stood in the on-deck circle at Minnesota's Target Field in the regular season, a drought that will end within a week of Opening Day. He has never faced Felix Hernandez, but he figures to see the Seattle Mariners' ace four times or more in the next eight months.
It will be a season of new work experiences for Pujols, who signed a 10-year, $240 million contract to be the Angels' first baseman after 11 seasons playing for the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League. It figures to be such a jarring transition, in fact, that Pujols' production will be ... at least as good, maybe better?
That seemed to be the consensus of three veteran scouts I called to find out how they think Pujols will fare with the change of scenery. How he hits in the middle of the Angels' order will largely dictate the team's fortunes entering a highly anticipated 2012 season.
Each of the three scouts, who spoke on condition of anonymity, seemed to think Pujols was poised for some monster seasons in the early part of his deal. They don't envision much of a transition period to a new set of pitchers and hitting backdrops.
"I recall scouting Edgar Martinez, who I had to advance for a while. I never could think of a way to get him out," said one scout. "This man just didn't have any holes in his swing. He could handle every pitch. Albert's that kind of guy on a grander scale."
Interleague play and Pujols' nine All-Star appearances and three World Series figure to help him move more seamlessly between leagues, the talent evaluators said. He also will have the benefit of Cactus League play next month to study many of the pitchers he'll see in the coming months. Each of the Angels' three American League West rivals plays in Arizona as do three other AL teams.
"I'm not trying to be smart or anything, but with what they gave him, I don't think they anticipate problems," one scout said. "I just don't think it's an issue at all. If you're talking about a marginal player, that would probably hold true, but he'll catch up to this league quickly."
The traditional view is that AL pitchers throw more breaking pitches than their NL counterparts, but the scouts shrugged this off as an impediment for Pujols. He has better career numbers (.342/.423/.637) against finesse pitchers than he does against hard throwers (.292/.405/.556).
"He doesn't have a lot of excessive movement at the plate and that bodes well for his ability to track off-speed pitches and breaking balls," a scout said. "He has a compact swing, a very simple loading mechanism using his front foot and he doesn't stride hardly at all. There's less to go wrong adjusting to breaking stuff."
One scout thought it would have been harder for Pujols to switch from the AL to the NL in mid-career, because with pitchers and weak No. 8 hitters, NL teams have fewer people to protect him or fill the bases in front of him.
"He's a hard-working guy who listens to coaches and handles everything professionally," the scout said. "What he'll end up running into would be physical issues rather than the circumstances of league changes or pitchers, I would think. Most scouts probably felt 10 years was a little long for a 32-year-old man whose body is beginning to give way."
Which, of course, raises another key difference between leagues. On days when Pujols is feeling sore or tired, he'll have the luxury of getting his at-bats at designated hitter.