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Albert Pujols begins his second season in a Los Angeles Angels uniform with a huge question hanging over him.
Was last year just a blip in his career -- caused by unfamiliarity with a new team, the pressure of expectations and a sore knee -- or was it the start of his decline?
In a sense, it's a little ridiculous to worry too much about what Pujols will do. In the worst year of his career, in 2012, he still hit .285 with 30 homers and 105 RBI. He was one of only 12 players in the majors to hit at least 30 homers and drive in at least 100 runs.
But his average, on-base percentage (.343) and slugging percentage (.516) were career lows.
To general manager, Jerry Dipoto, there isn't much question that Pujols, 33, will continue to be a premium player.
"My expectation," Dipoto said, "is that he continues to be Albert Pujols. He's a remarkable guy. He really is. He's a great person. His work ethic is unquestionable. He's a quiet leader. And he still swings a huge bat."
Most of Pujols' problems last year came at the beginning of the season. He was hitting .194 with zero homers through the first five weeks. Pujols admitted that he pressed early in the season to try to live up to the responsibility of his new $240 million contract.
"Maybe I tried to do a little too much last year in the first month," Pujols said. "We were all trying to do too much. We knew we were better than our record was showing and we tried to press. If you don't do that you aren't human. I spread the strike zone a little bit, tried to hit a two-run home run with nobody on base. It happens. I'm glad it did happen because it taught me a lot, to relax and go back to myself and keep it simple."
Pujols sizzled through the middle of the season, but then he had a little trouble at the end when his right knee began to bark. Pujols said he had to change his approach at the plate because of the sore knee.
Pujols had surgery in October to clean out his knee. Although the Angels took the rehab slowly in spring training, by the end Pujols was showing no signs of problems. He sprinted from first to third on a single late in spring training, sliding in to avoid a close play. While running and playing defense were the final hurdles for Pujols to overcome in his rehab, he said there is a difference at the plate, too.
"Last year (the knee) bothered me hitting, and now it doesn't bother me, so I know things are coming along well," Pujols said.
When you add all of those factors together, the Angels and Pujols are optimistic that this year will be different.
"Albert is a great player," Dipoto said. "He's an extraordinary player. He's a centerpiece to any organization, and he is to us."