What a difference 162 games can make.
Pujols helped St. Louis fans to breathe a sigh of relief last year with the slowest of slow starts, hitting less than .200 through the Angels' first 35 games and not cracking the .250 mark until game number 58. He ended the year with his worst season batting average by 14 points and his most modest home run of his 12-year career. This season he's giving them an encore with a knee that's been slow to recover from off-season surgery. He hasn't been cleared to run the bases on the offending joint yet, much less play a spring training game on it.
The three-time National League MVP has always taken spring training very seriously with his standard line, no matter how many millions of dollars he was making, that he was concerned with whether or not he would make the team. This year he's grouchily dismissing Southern California reporters who think he needs to play in any spring training games at all.
Asked by the Los Angeles Times how many exhibition games he'd need to be ready for the season opener April 1, Pujols replied "None. As long as my body feels good, I'm ready to go. He was serious, the paper observed. "I've got 8,000 at-bats in the big leagues," Pujols said. "I think I've got plenty."
It also raised my eyebrow that Pujols has stated he's ready to play second banana to new Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton, signed away from the Texas Rangers in the Halo's latest free agent raid. Pujols said he's "ready to step out of the spotlight."
Pardon me, Albert. But doesn't that 10-year, $240-million contract you signed dictate that you're supposed to be the centerpiece of the Angels franchise for a decade, not just one season? Pujols chaffed at getting paid less than Matt Holliday his last two seasons in St. Louis. But one year after he demanded to be paid as the best player in baseball, he's content to not even be the star player of his team?
I shudder to think about Albert Pujols without his intense passion to be the best player in the history of the game.
Honestly, in hindsight it is clear that Anaheim could afford to overpay for an aging Pujols. If he hits .285 with 30 homers again, he's a nice compliment to Hamilton and second year superstar Mike Trout. But if the Cardinals paid $25 million a season with a $115 million payroll, they'd be in serious trouble. There would be no way the team could afford to re-sign Adam Wainwright, for sure.
I'm not trying to be disrespectful of Pujols. He was a great Cardinal for a lot of years. And after the calender turned to June, he started playing like we were used to at Busch Stadium. But, with four years in a row of declining production numbers, it gives me a chill to think about if the Redbirds gave in to the emotional temptation to keep him in a St. Louis uniform for his entire career. With their gigantic new local television contract, the Angels might be able to afford to pay Pujols nearly a quarter billion dollars over a decade to go from great to pretty good. But the Cardinals certainly couldn't have afforded that.
And I can't remember the last time I heard a Cardinals fan say that they wish the team would have re-signed the greatest player the franchise has known since Stan Musial retired in 1963.
Scott Wuerz has been a reporter and columnist at the Belleville News-Democrat, located in suburban St. Louis, since 1998. During that time he has covered three St. Louis Cardinals World Series appearances, the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star game and Mark McGwire's chase to break Roger Maris' home run record. He has penned the View From the Cheap Seats Cardinals fan blog for the News-Democrat since 2007.