Los Angeles Angels: St. Louis Cardinals

Albert Pujols still searching in vain

May, 3, 2012
Albert Pujols sounded like the Defensive Player of the Year on Thursday night.

After virtually every question someone asked, he sounded defensive.

Did he shave his goatee to switch up his luck?

"I don't believe in luck, man. Sorry about that. That's not who I am. I believe in God. Luck is for people who are desperate, and I'm not desperate. I'm blessed. And I probably do it three or four times a year, so if you watch over my 11- or 12-year career, you'll see that. Maybe go back and see some videos."

OK, are you frustrated?

"Frustrated? Pffsh. I don't use that word. This is the big leagues, man, and anybody out there out of this locker room wishes they could have this opportunity to wear this uniform."

You're hitting some balls hard, but you don't seem to be getting as much lift on the ball. Do you know why?

"I don't know where you're trying to go with that question, but I never try to get lift in my swing. I try to keep it simple, keep it short. If I get through the baseball, I know it's going to carry no matter what ballpark I play in."

OK, but he's played in five ballparks so far this season, and he still hasn't gotten enough lift to hit a ball over the fence. Pujols now has gone 104 at-bats without hitting a home run, one shy of the longest drought in his career, and it seems like a reasonable question: Can this team compete if he keeps hitting like this?

The amazing part is Pujols still sounds as confident as ever. Maybe he is. Maybe it's simply a matter of brilliant pitching against him or a lot of balls going straight into gloves. Clearly, they are pounding him inside with fastballs, and, yes, he has had more than his share of tough-break outs.

But the sample size at this point suggests it's something a little beyond that.

This Angels season just might hinge on the depths of this Pujols slump. If it's a spiraling, disastrous, season-long kind -- such as the one Vernon Wells endured a year ago -- there's no telling how far it could drag them. If it's just a bad month or even six weeks, order could be quickly restored and the goals won't need to be recalibrated.

But this is deep. Pujols is one of only six No. 3 hitters in the majors without a home run. He's got the second-lowest batting average (.202) after Jose Bautista and second-lowest OPS (.539) after Jimmy Rollins of any No. 3 hitter in the majors.

He might want to consider changing his number from "5" to "53" in honor of all the ground balls he's hitting to the third baseman.

The Angels, not to mention the baseball-watching world, are fairly stumped at this point.

"He's obviously scuffling; I mean, everyone knows that," pitcher Dan Haren said. "I think he cares more than anybody else. He's one of the first guys here. He's constantly looking at video, in the batting cage. It's definitely not for a lack of effort. The guy's an amazing worker. It'll turn around. He's one of the greatest players of all time."

The second part is impossible to argue. The first part is probable. But when and how it turns around is starting to feel like the fulcrum of this 2012 Angels season.

Jim Edmonds offers his two cents

May, 2, 2012
Jim Edmonds knows how difficult it is to hit home runs at Angel Stadium, because it was his home stadium for the first six years of his career. He also knows how good Albert Pujols is, though, from having played with him in St. Louis from 2001 to 2007.

Edmonds, the ex-All-Star outfielder, admits he was a little surprised when he returned from a three-week trip abroad and someone informed him that Pujols has yet to hit a home run with the Angels.

"I said, 'You've got to be kidding me,' " Edmonds said.

Edmonds, who was a guest in Pujols' suite at Wednesday's game against the Minnesota Twins, said he thinks Pujols is putting too much pressure on himself after signing a 10-year, $240 million contract to leave St. Louis and come to Anaheim.

"When you're the best hitter in baseball and you start to feel uncomfortable and you start to feel a little pressure, whether it's him or anybody, it makes it tougher," Edmonds said. "I've been in that situation."

"I just try to lend a hand when I can and be a friendly face, just kind of watch and be around for him."

Pujols has gone homerless in his first 96 at-bats this season and he was hitting .208 with five RBIs heading into Wednesday's game. On the bright side, he's in good company. Of the Top 10 players on the all-time home run list, the one with the longest homerless stretch -- 173 at-bats -- is Babe Ruth.

Albert Pujols finds his groove early

March, 14, 2012

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- From the day he arrived through this second week of spring games, Albert Pujols has looked as comfortable as if this were his 10th season with the Angels, not his first.

That might bode well for his first season in Anaheim.

It hasn't taken Pujols long to get his swing locked in. He is 8-for-16 with three doubles and eight RBIs in Cactus League play. Wednesday he hit a pair of impressive home runs, one of them a massive, arcing shot into the picnic area in left field. None of this is going to matter in a few weeks, of course, but it's encouraging to the Angels that he looks comfortable.

A year ago in Florida, Pujols was dealing with the uncertainty of impending free agency and he struggled early in the season.

"Whenever you see it on the baseball card, then you worry about it," Pujols said. "Right here, you can hit .500 and you're never going to see it. It's good for yourself, all the hard work, but at the end you concentrate on trying to get your at-bats, see the ball, track the ball and make sure you put a good swing on."

Said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, "We hope we're going to see that often this year. It's great to see him getting comfortable in the box."

Question No. 1: Albert Pujols and new scenery

February, 13, 2012
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."

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Position previews: First base

February, 2, 2012
Signing Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million contract may not have been a reaction to losing Mark Teixeira to the New York Yankees three years earlier, but it might finally answer the question: What have the Angels been missing?

Since Teixeira left after 2008, the Angels have struggled to squeeze sufficient offense out of the game's most offensively potent position.

Last year, even with Mark Trumbo's Rookie of the Year runner-up season, Angels first basemen finished sixth in the American League with a .778 OPS. Much of that is a reflection of Trumbo's aggressive hitting style. He hit 29 home runs, but also had a poor .291 on-base percentage.

In 2010, with a carousel of players wearing a first baseman's mitt (remember Paul McAnulty), Angels at that position finished eighth in OPS (.755). The year before, when Kendrys Morales broke onto the scene (as opposed to broke his leg on the scene), they still ranked sixth (.881).

Unless history is no indicator at all, that's all about to change.

Pujols has finished in the top five of MVP voting 10 times. Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Stan Musial did it nine times. Only Barry Bonds (12) did it more. They don't call Pujols The Machine for nothing.

Analyst Bill James projects a big bounceback season from Pujols, who last year had career lows in virtually every offensive category. James has Pujols batting .316/.414/.591, with 41 home runs, 115 runs scored and 120 RBIs.

Pujols, a two-time Gold Glove winner, should also stabilize the Angels' defense on the right side. Even at 31 last year, he had an Ultimate Zone Rating of 2.4, a big drop-off from his pre-2009 form but an improvement over 2010. Pujols may not supplant Teixeira or Adrian Gonzalez for the AL Gold Glove, but he could be an improvement over Trumbo, whose defensive struggles figure to be exacerbated at third base.

The big question, of course, is age. Was last season the beginning of Pujols' decline or a temporary blip? The option of using Pujols at designated hitter should help him get through the long season and reach his usual 590-or-so at-bats. Barring a trade, the Angels have plenty of backups -- Trumbo, Morales and Howie Kendrick -- if Pujols needs a day off his feet.

Even if Pujols doesn't do what he used to do in Machine-like fashion, he should help erase the memory of Teixeira in an Angels uniform. He'll certainly make everyone forget McAnulty.

Will Angel Stadium boost Albert Pujols' power?

January, 17, 2012
Ask most American League hitters and they'll tell you: It takes a well-struck baseball to leave Angel Stadium. Pitchers generally love it. The Angels rarely play day games and the Pacific Ocean helps keep things cool at night, so conditions combine with deep dimensions to make it fair, but slightly skewed in the pitchers' favor.

And yet, according to some, Albert Pujols could actually gain by switching ballparks. Busch Stadium negated much of Pujols' power to right-center, costing him home runs. He hit 37 last year and, in the above link, it's conjectured that he might have hit as many as 16 more if Angel Stadium were his home park. Especially in day games, the right-center power alley is one of the few areas of Angel Stadium susceptible to home runs. Mike Napoli likes to hit them over that scoreboard.

Hard to believe that Angel Stadium could actually help a hitter, but maybe it'll be good for a small spike?

According to ESPN's Park Factors under the "Resources" tab, Busch Stadium was one of only five major-league stadiums where it was harder to hit a home run than Angel Stadium. Of course, these things are dicey. For one thing, the Angels had the advantage of playing about 20 games at home against the weak-hitting Seattle Mariners and Oakland A's. They also had the advantage of being able to use Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and the rest of their well-above-average pitching staff. So, maybe it will be worth even more to Pujols to get out of Busch.

Changing stadiums: Yet one more reason to be excited to see what Pujols does this year.

Arte Moreno continues to bet on Southland baseball

December, 12, 2011
Angels owner Arte Moreno is painfully aware of what many baseball analysts have said and written about him since last week, when he committed $254 million over 10 years to 31-year-old slugger Albert Pujols.

“They’re going to say this is a dumb move,” Moreno said. “They’ve been saying that about me my whole career.”

At this point, maybe it’s prudent to assume Moreno knows what he’s doing, or at least has run the numbers a few times. A self-made billionaire who sold his billboard company in 1999 and parlayed that into a spot on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, Moreno bought the Angels for $183 million in 2003, about one-third what they were worth, before he signed Pujols and polished off a new TV deal worth more than $2 billion over the next 20 years.

Moreno has never been one for incremental moves. At 65, he had another chance to stun his industry and he didn’t hesitate at the moment of truth, shelling out more than $330 million in a matter of days for Pujols and pitcher C.J. Wilson.

The moves were about baseball in the sense that Pujols and Wilson have to keep producing to make them work, but it was really about two brands: one called Albert Pujols and one called the Angels, a merger that could change the geography of the game. The center of the baseball universe shifted a little bit west and a little bit south.

“I’m not as young as I used to be, but I’m a marketing guy and I just thought, ‘What’s it mean to our fans to bring a player of this caliber here?’“ Moreno said. “That’s when, all of a sudden, all your objectivity and budgets and stuff go out the window and you go, ‘Can you really get this player?’“

One of the topics Moreno and Pujols discussed in a series of phone calls leading up to last Thursday’s deal was a personal services clause that will tie Pujols to the Angels for at least 10 years after his playing days are over. It appealed to Pujols, a religious man who speaks freely about his charity work in the community, and it appealed to Moreno, who rarely speaks for more than a minute without mentioning the fans.

One moment in his career as a baseball owner continues to tug at Moreno. You can tell because he brings it up, unprompted, virtually every time he speaks to reporters. It was the breakdown in negotiations between him and agent Scott Boras over Mark Teixeira in the winter of 2008. Moreno feels his $160 million offer over eight years was used to simply drive up the price for the New York Yankees, who eventually agreed to pay $180 million.

To Boras, it was business: Moreno didn’t win the bidding.

It has always been more personal to Moreno.

No subsequent failings by the Angels to land top-flight free agents -- whether Adrian Beltre or Carl Crawford -- have stuck with Moreno like that one. Unlike three seasons earlier, Moreno didn’t linger long at the negotiating table with Pujols. He played the role typically played by the Yankees or Boston Red Sox, coming in late with the best offer and closing quickly.

That tells you something about his belief in his market. So far, Orange County, Los Angeles, Southern California -- whatever you define as his marketplace -- hasn’t let him down.

“He puts it out there,” Angels right fielder Torii Hunter said. “Those guys just chose to go to big markets like Boston and New York. Albert Pujols chose to come over here. I’m grateful the best hitter and the best player in baseball chose the Angels.”

Angels' charge would be historic

September, 16, 2011

The Angels are trying to do something no American League team has ever done. Believe it or not, no AL team has ever won its division and/or league while trailing by as many as 3 1/2 games with exactly 13 games left.

On the other hand, five teams in the NL have done it, starting with the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals, who charged back from a deficit of 6 1/2 games to take the NL pennant from Gene Mauch's Philadelphia Phillies. The Cardinals beat the New York Yankees in the World Series that year.

Connections: Mauch later managed the Angels; Mike Scioscia grew up outside Philadelphia and was about to turn six.

Here are the precedents for what the Angels are trying to accomplish:

Year Team GB

2007 Phillies 3.5

2001 Cardinals 3.5

1973 Mets 3.5

1965 Dodgers 3.5

1964 Cardinals 6.5



Mike Trout
.338 5 13 14
HRM. Trout 5
RBIM. Trout 13
RM. Trout 14
OPSM. Trout 1.076
WC. Wilson 2
ERAG. Richards 2.84
SOC. Wilson 24