With Mike Trout emerging as, arguably, the best baseball player in the world over the past two years, I'm guessing you've probably wondered how good this Los Angeles Angels team would be if Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols were still the MVP-caliber hitters they were with the Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals, respectively.
The thought of those three at the top of their game and in the same lineup is enticing for any baseball fan aside from those rooting for the opposing team.
But if you watched Pujols battle through his age-33 season in 2013 with a painful foot injury—while putting together, by far, his least productive season as a big leaguer—and Hamilton look completely lost at the plate for the better part of his Angels debut, you probably didn't think that was a very realistic possibility.
Fast-forward to the first inning of Tuesday's game against the Seattle Mariners, though, and a ray of hope was beginning to form.
Pujols followed a Trout single with his first home run of the season, a towering shot against rookie left-hander James Paxton that was reminiscent of his days when he was the most feared hitter in the game.
At that very moment, the stat lines of the Angels' trio read like this...
Trout: .321 BA (9-for-28), 2 HR, 2B, 3B, 5 R
Pujols: .226 BA (7-for-31), HR, 4 2B, 3 RBI
Hamilton: .500 BA (12-for-25), 2 HR, 2 2B, 6 RBI, 6 BB
While Pujols had started slowly, he was coming off of a terrific spring (17-for-41, HR, 7 2B after 1-for-15 start) and sure didn't look like a hitter on the decline on that homer—and the Mariners seemed to agree, because they walked him in two of his next three at-bats. Hamilton also looked like he was back on track, and the 22-year-old Trout looked like a guy who was on his way to winning his first AL MVP award.
Angels fans, despite the team losing four of seven up until that point, had reason for optimism. But that optimism lasted only about six more innings.
The 32-year-old Hamilton injured his thumb in the seventh inning while sliding head-first into first base trying to beat out a grounder to short. An MRI taken on Wednesday revealed a torn ulnar collateral ligament and capsule, which will sideline the former MVP for at least six to eight weeks.
There goes any chance the Angels had of winning the AL West, right? Wrong.
Not only are the Oakland A's, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers dealing with their own assortment of injuries, but not one of those three teams appear strong enough to run away from the pack anytime soon. A lineup with Trout and a resurgent Pujols cannot be counted out.
But is it too early to say that Pujols has returned to his pre-2013 form when he posted a 1.022 OPS and averaged 40 homers, 42 doubles and 120 runs batted in per season over a 12-year span? Yes. It's way too early.
It's also wrong, though, to say without a doubt that he's finished at age 34. Hitting a baseball isn't easy when you're completely healthy. Now try hitting a baseball while suffering from plantar fasciitis, which eventually required surgery. On top of that, Pujols' knee was sore quite often as a result of the arthroscopic knee surgery he underwent the previous year.
Since his first-inning homer on Tuesday, Pujols has two walks, a single and another two-run homer, this time in Wednesday night's 2-0 victory over the Mariners.
It's a small two-game sample, but Pujols is dialed in.
And this group of Angels hitters certainly needs Pujols to step up and carry the team on his back right now. Through nine games, Kole Calhoun (.626 OPS) is the lone regular aside from Trout, Pujols and Hamilton to have an OPS over .600.
Pujols understands just how important he is to this team, and according to manager Mike Scioscia, he embraces that responsibility. Per The Associated Press (h/t to USA Today):
Albert has very high expectations for what he needs to do. He takes it very seriously. He assumes the leadership role, he wants to be the cornerstone of the lineup and he takes that responsibility. It's good to see him do some of the things he's capable of and hopefully it'll be there for a long time.
If the starting rotation, which was the biggest concern heading into the offseason, can continue to get strong contributions from pitchers other than Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson—Garrett Richards allowed just one hit in seven shutout innings on Wednesday, and Tyler Skaggs pitched eight shutout innings in his Angels debut—and a few of the hitters, such as veteran newcomers David Freese and Raul Ibanez or second baseman Howie Kendrick, can heat up, the Angels should be able to keep pace.
And if they are within striking range of a playoff spot and Hamilton can return this summer as the same player he was early in the season—B/R columnist Joel Reuter examined that possibility shortly after the news broke—the Angels could be a force down the stretch.