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Sunday, April 8, 2012
Is there a soft spot in the middle?


Probably the most fitting comment in the aftermath of a disappointing opening series against the Kansas City Royals came from second baseman Howie Kendrick, whose leadership skills seem to be growing by the day.

Vernon Wells
Vernon Wells and the rest of the Angels' lineup behind Albert Pujols are off to a troubling slow start.
"It's only three games into the season," Kendrick said. "You guys can predict whatever... It's early and guys are still fine-tuning their games. You've just got to stay with us and know we're working hard."

The Angels have played 1.8 percent of their season. A three-game series in the scale of a baseball season is the equivalent of starting your car's engine in the scale of your work day. It doesn't tell you much, but it can get you in a cranky mood right away.

Sunday's 7-3 loss to the Kansas City Royals started hinting at one worrisome trend that's worth tracking in these early weeks and months. It's not so much whether the Angels can protect Albert Pujols, but whether they can maximize his skill set.

Remember, Pujols hasn't just been a run-producing machine in his career, he's been an on-base machine -- .420 lifetime OBP -- and, consequently, a run-scoring machine. He has averaged 123 runs scored per season since he broke into the majors.

Sunday, he got hung out on the bases, stranded four times, when Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells and Kendrys Morales combined to go 1-for-14 with seven strikeouts. It might be as simple as this: The Angels will score a lot of runs if the guys who hit behind Pujols produce. If they don't, they won't.

"Albert's going to create for guys behind him as much as he's going to knock in guys in front of him," manager Mike Scioscia said. "Today we didn't get it done in some parts of our lineup, but we didn't have the game on our terms."

That, of course, has more to do with a second straight wobbly start from the Angels' rotation, Ervin Santana putting the Angels in a 5-2 hole by the fifth inning. Nothing about the recent track records of Dan Haren and Santana, however, hints at any long-term trends, but the same can't be said of the guys who hit behind Pujols.

Wells batted .218 last year and is off to another rough start (.154, four strikeouts). Hunter still plays the game the right way, evidenced by his run-scoring groundout in the third inning, but he's 36 and might not have the same bat speed. He didn't homer all spring. Morales had been smoking the ball until Sunday's 0-for-5, but it's going to take a while before we know how that two-year layoff will affect his production.

It's still wait-and-see mode on this offense, and Pujols won't be the only one under scrutiny.