Albert Pujols makes his American League debut this evening when the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim open their 2012 season against the Kansas City Royals at Angel Stadium.
After spending 11 marvelous seasons in St. Louis, Pujols stunned the baseball world this winter, as he chose to leave the Cardinals after winning a second World Series title with them, opting to sign a monster 10-year, $240 million deal with the Angels.
However, Pujols, who won three MVP awards in St. Louis, is coming off a sub- par season by his standards in 2011. He hit under .300 with fewer than 100 RBI for the first time in his career (.299, 99 RBI), while swatting 37 homers.
"The game doesn't change," said Pujols. "When I got into the big leagues in 2001, I didn't know anyone in the National League, so that's how I'm going to take it. It's a different league, but I came in in 2001 and didn't know any pitchers around the league."
He won't be the only new face in the Angels' dugout, though.
Shortly after the Pujols news broke at the Winter Meetings, the Angels not only strengthened their own pitching staff but significantly weakened the Texas Rangers' in the process by inking left-hander C.J. Wilson to a five-year contract worth $77.5 million.
Wilson joins an already loaded rotation that includes Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana.
Weaver takes the ball tonight after a terrific 2011 that saw him go 18-8 with a 2.41 ERA and 198 strikeouts. The 29-year-old hurler was dominant throughout the year and posted three months with an ERA lower than 2.00. He also started the season with six straight victories.
Nobody is happier that Pujols is on board than Weaver, who posted those big numbers last season, despite having the second-lowest run support in the AL. Over the past three seasons, Weaver now ranks fifth in the majors in wins (47), eighth in innings (671) and 10th in ERA (3.03).
"This is, I think, the best team on paper that we've had since I've been here, no doubt about it, in terms of the rotation and obviously the lineup," said Weaver, who will be starting on Opening Day for the third straight year. "But there was a couple of other teams that looked good on paper last year and didn't quite accomplish what they wanted to do. That's why baseball's such a great game. Nobody's got a crystal ball and anything can happen. It looks good on paper, and we just have to make it work."
For years we have heard how deep and talented the Kansas City Royals farm system was. In 2011 that young talent started to boil over at the major league level and now for the first time in a long time, people are excited about baseball again in Kansas City.
Eric Hosmer is one of the reasons for the renewed optimism. The young first baseman emerged last season and put himself in American League Rookie of the Year consideration, while former prospect Alex Gordon started to realize the potential that once made him the second overall pick.
Those two combined with another burgeoning start in Mike Moustakas, plus the fact that the team went 15-10 down the stretch and finished out of last place in the American League Central has people in Kansas City thinking the future is now.
Still, though, there is work to be done, as despite the strong finish the team finished 20 games below .500 at 71-91.
Kansas City did not do much of adding pieces this offseason, but did bolster its starting rotation. In addition to re-signing reliable left-hander Bruce Chen, the team went out and acquired another lefty in Jonathan Sanchez from the San Francisco Giants in exchange for outfielder Melky Cabrera.
Sanchez gives the Royals a dependable No. 2 behind Luke Hochevar and one with a postseason track record. However, Sanchez struggled in 19 starts last season, going 4-7 with a 4.26 earned run average.
Getting the ball tonight, though, will be Chen, who will be making his first Opening Night Start. Chen once again led the Royals in wins last season, going 12-8 with a 3.77 ERA.
Chen has pitched for 10 teams in his 14-year career, but this is his fourth with Kansas City, his longest run with any club.
"People will say, 'Bruce Chen is your No. 1 starter? You've got to be nuts!'" manager Ned Yost told the team's website. "Well, the stigma of being the No. 1 starter is one game. It's Opening Day. One game. The concept of it is big because it's Opening Day, but it doesn't mean anything in the real world."
Should the Royals hold a late lead, Yost will turn to righty Jonathan Broxton. Long-time closer Joakim Soria will be lost for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Kansas City won seven of its 10 matchups with the Halos a year ago.