May 15, 2012
Forget for a moment, if you can, the money. Consider instead Albert Pujols, the player, and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the team.
Ponder the idea of the manager and front office committed to the idea of fielding the best, most competitive team possible any time the game is played. Recall the nature of the game, idealized though it may be, before Big Money made it the game it is today. Chew awhile on the quaint idea of a time when someone who was still mired in a season-long slump on May 15, even if he was the team’s star player, would be ripe for an assignment to the minor leagues -- or at least being moved down in the batting order after riding the bench for a few games.
But what about someone the Angels just paid more than $240 million to acquire? How would that play in Orange County? How would that play in St. Louis, for that matter?
One thing is certain: Pujols has never played this poorly for this long at any point in his storied career. Since blasting his first homer on May 6, 111 at-bats into the season, the once-fearsome slugger is 5-for-25 with three RBIs over the course of six games. His average in mid-May stands at .197, 28-for-138 -- hardly the Pujolian numbers to which the baseball world has grown accustomed.
And yet, there remains the sense that this three-time MVP – a man who joined Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only players to ever hit three homers in single World Series with his Game Four performance in the 2011 Fall Classic – could break out of it at any moment and take the whole team with him.
Or is that just wishful thinking? Most fans used to sense Pujols' inevitable resurgence, but has he already disappointed the Angels’ faithful so much that, on some level, a significant portion of the fan base expects him to remain a bust?
Pujols could bat against the Cubs once again
As of May 15, the Angels’ AAA farm club, the Salt Lake Bees, sit in third place at 19-20 in the Pacific Coast Pacific Northern division, just 1.5 games behind the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. Imagine the lift to Pujols’ confidence if he could bash a few homers and boost the Bees into first place over a four-game Triple A stint before rejoining the Angels next week for the rest of his 10-year contract. It’s a long time until the last game of the 2021 season is played (no, that’s not a typo, that’s how long Pujols is signed to play for the Angels). Unless Pujols can recapture that feel of 100 percent confidence at the plate, it’s going to be a long decade in Anaheim.
The Bees wrap up a three-game home series with the Albuquerque Isotopes today, with a day off Wednesday before traveling to Iowa for a four-game series with the Iowa Cubs of the PCL’s American Northern division. This would be the perfect time to send Pujols down if he doesn’t pick up the pace for the Angels Tuesday against the visiting Oakland A’s and Wednesday against visiting Chicago White Sox.
Almost like the glory days
In Iowa, Pujols would get at least a faint whiff of that old St. Louis-Chicago rivalry that used to really get the juices going, and the Angels would have a chance to bring up promising 26-year-old Efren Navarro to play first while Pujols was once more terrorizing the Midwest with his mighty stick.
Given the huge amount of money the Angels spent on the Pujols deal, the team might be happy to learn that Southwest has a flight scheduled to leave John Wayne airport in Orange County at 6:45 a.m. Thursday, arriving in Omaha at 2:15 p.m. The cost for a one-way ticket is slightly over $500. Pujols could rent a car from the Omaha airport and make the two-hour drive to Des Moines in plenty of time to suit up for the 5:35 p.m. game.
If No. 5 finds his stroke against the AAA Cubs in Des Moines, it would be almost like playing for St. Louis again. A brief taste of the glory days could be exactly what Pujols needs to carry some of that swagger back into American League West. If not, it’s a pretty good bet that attendance in Salt Lake, Des Moines and all across the PCL would set records for as long as it took the one they used to call “The Machine” to get his bat in gear.
UPDATE of 5-17-12: Pujols went 3-for-4 with two RBIs Tuesday and 1-for-4 with a home run and three RBIs on Wednesday, putting an end to any speculation about sending him to AAA ball...at least for the time being.
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