Published November 20, 2014
On the first day of spring training, Albert Pujols stood before microphones in Arizona to formally introduce a new era for the Los Angeles Angels.
"Here I am," he said.
Nearly a month into the regular season, Angels fans can be excused for wondering if the announcement wasn't a bit premature. So far, the slugger team owner Arte Moreno shelled out $240 million for has yet to even show up.
It is early, and there's still a lot of baseball to be played. No reason to panic about his hitting or sudden lack of power, even as the Angels are starting to panic about a start that has them floundering in last place in the American League West, nine games behind the Texas Rangers.
In the last few days alone, they cut a player making $9 million a year, and demoted their closer. Players held their own team meeting behind closed doors to try and figure out what has gone wrong.
But there's not much they can do about Pujols other than wait and hope.
Wait for him to start hitting like the stud he always was in St. Louis. Hope that his power outage is just an aberration, not a painful glimpse of what the next 10 years might be like.
"It's a short sample to look at anything that's going on to give any trends right now," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "There's some things he will do as he gets comfortable in the batters' box that we'll start to see."
Indeed, there are reasons to believe Pujols will become the player everyone expects him to be in Anaheim. He's getting used to a new team, a new league, a home stadium not built for the long ball, and a bunch of new pitchers he's never faced before. And he did have a similar power drought early last season, before finishing with 37 home runs and leading the Cardinals to a World Series win.
But Pujols has been struggling just to get hits, much less home runs. He did manage to snap a career-worst hitless streak of 21 at-bats with a ground single against Tampa Bay earlier in the week, but is hitting just .226, well below his career average of .328 with the Cardinals.
Other teams are taking notice, and taking advantage. With the game on the line with two outs in the eighth inning Friday night and a runner on second base, the Indians pitched to Pujols instead of giving him the open base. Pujols responded by popping up to first base, and the Angels ended up losing their fifth in a row.
No reason not to pitch to him. In 21 games this year, Pujols has only four RBIs and has yet to hit a home run. His regular-season homerless drought is now at a career-worst 113 at-bats, dating back to Sept. 22.
Hardly what Moreno expected when he paid more to get Pujols in an Angels uniform than he did to buy the team nine years ago. Hardly what Pujols expected, either, when he signed the deal that will pay him nearly a quarter billion dollars.
"I know I have power. I know I can hit the ball from corner to corner," Pujols said last week in Anaheim. "I know all that, but I'm not going to think about getting caught up and saying, 'Man, I haven't hit a home run.' ... I have, what, 445 (career home runs) for a reason."
Pujols was the centerpiece of an off-season buying spree by the Angels, who also paid $77.5 million for five years for starting pitcher C.J. Wilson. The two were expected to not only help the Angels contend against the Texas Rangers, but to contend for the hearts of Southern California baseball fans against the Dodgers.
But the Dodgers have a vibrant new owner in Magic Johnson. They have a great player having a great year in Matt Kemp. They're also in first place in the National League West, and still very much the premier team in the Los Angeles area.
The Angels aren't even the same team that started the season. They released veteran outfielder Bobby Abreu on Friday despite having $9 million left on his contract, and have replaced Jordan Walden as the closer. Players held a meeting earlier in the week, a day after outfielder Torii Hunter said the team appeared to be just going through the motions.
The Angels did manage to snap their losing streak Saturday in Cleveland, beating the Indians 2-1 and getting a save from new closer Scott Downs. The struggles continued for Pujols, though, who singled in the first inning but didn't hit the ball out of the infield in his last three at-bats.
Surely he'll get hot at some point and produce some Pujols-like numbers. But he's coming off career lows in both batting average and RBIs, and at the age of 32 it's entirely possible that his best years are already behind him.
The thinking around baseball was that Moreno paid huge money over 10 years for Pujols not because he thought the slugger would be hitting a lot of home runs at the end of his contract, but because he would deliver early. Indeed, the money would be considered well-spent should Pujols revert to form and maybe even lead the Angels to the World Series in the first few years of his deal.
So far, though, there's no sign of that happening. And the more Pujols struggles, the more ridiculous his 10-year deal seems.
Right now, he's nothing more than a $240 million mistake.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg