Now batting in Seattle: Albert Pujols
Albert Pujols facing the New York Yankees in one of his first games as a Los Angeles Angel. Credit: Marianne O'Leary/Flickr
Yes, ladies and gents, it was Albert Pujols, as advertised.
That was the case Thursday (May 24), anyway, 45 Los Angeles Angels games into the season, when the Seattle Mariners saw the supposed savior of the Haloes' franchise for the first time as a division nemesis.
When Pujols came to the plate during the first inning, the consensus greatest player of the past decade, weighted down lately by a contract paying him the equivalent of Mitt Romney's supposed personal fortune (a quarter-billion dollars, if you care), had been playing less like a multi-millionaire than a minor-league hundredaire.
Statistically, in fairness, the 32-year-old was more of a two-hundred-aire, averaging .213 when, in the first inning, he took a Jason Vargas pitch into the left-field second deck at Safeco Field to give L.A. a 2-0 lead and notch his 450th career round-tripper. It was all his team would need for a 3-0 victory. It was the Big Hit that Pujols is supposed to be delivering more often than not in a division that pre-season arbiters (only half right so far) said would be dominated by L.A. and Texas.
But Pujols' slow start has been not just a fan disaster for the Angels franchise, last in the division at game time. It also has functioned as a cautionary tale for every major-league-baseball exec who might have been (or may still be) tempted to offer A-Rod-like compensation to a player who would seem to need a run of triple-crown seasons to justify the dough he'll be "earning."
When Pujols took the field Thursday his batting average was lower than those of most starters for a Mariners team with weaker hitting than most of the teams in the league. As he stood there during the first inning, he might as well have been the M's Justin Smoak: a competent first-baseman mired in a statistical hitting trough yet depended upon to turn around his output on offense and justify his hype.
When Pujols came up during the fourth, the three-time National League MVP for the Cardinals slipped a base hit into left field. He might've scored due to an Ichiro brain lapse but he died at third.
By night's end Pujols indeed seemed to be as advertised, at least if you forgot the first eight weeks of the season. His three-hit effort (one fewer than the total the M's could muster against a dominant Dan Haren) bumped his average to .225: not exactly all-star level but promising for impatient L.A. fans. To reach his remarkable career averages of 42 home runs, 125 runs batted in and a batting average of .325, Pujols would have to go on a hitting tear nearly unprecedented in major-league baseball.
This is all by way of suggesting that fans need to be aware at all times of the possible consequences of management committing big money to one marquee star. Mariners management obviously has had more than its share of instances of gambling that players beyond their primes are justifiable major-contract investments; Chone Figgins comes to mind.
The Angels may yet prove to be the class of the American League West. As Friday dawned Los Angeles was just six and a half games in back of Texas with four months left to play. Pujols may have the last laugh if his franchise winds up deep in the playoffs.
But what about subsequent seasons? If he came out of the gate as meekly as he did this year, then what's Pujols' production going to be like if he struggles his way to the final year of his current contract a decade hence? He actually has clauses paying him beyond his playing years (ESPN breaks down Prince Albert's pay-outs here).
Mariners partisans, if nothing else, better get used to watching what happens with Pujols because they'll be seeing plenty of him — this unless you believe any other franchise would trade for him and pick up whatever would be left on a quarter-billion-dollar contract.