Is Albert Pujols' Poor Spring Foreshadowing Another Letdown Season?

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterMarch 18, 2014

AP Images

The Los Angeles Angels and Albert Pujols have to be hoping the third time's the charm.

During Pujols' first two seasons with the team, the club's performance as a whole has been disappointing, while Pujols' individual production in each year might best be described as an acceptable progression of a decline (2012) followed by injury-marred disaster (2013).

So far this spring, here are his numbers through Monday's game: .258 batting average, .351 on-base percentage and .323 slugging percentage.

That's right, the man with eight years and more than $200 million left on his contract who needs all of eight more homers to reach 500 for his career is currently sporting an S-L-G lower than his O-B-P.

Albert Pujols' Slugging Percentages in Spring Training (Since 2010)

While it's perfectly justifiable to be shouting, "But it's only spring training!" at your computer screen right now, it's just as justifiable to remind you that Pujols and the Angels both need 2014 to start off a lot better than either of his first two years in Los Angeles did.

To that point, entering May 2012, the Halos were just 8-15 while Pujols' OPS was a mere .570—the lowest ever in his career and it came in his first month with his new team!—and after April 2013, those numbers were 9-17 and .762, respectively.

As for March 2014, Pujols told Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com, "Compared to last year when I came here, by the second week of spring training, it was my plantar. I was really frustrated. So I'm really excited and happy how I'm playing first base and how I'm moving."

Indeed, it's good to see Pujols, who was one of the better defenders at first base for several years before injuries hampered his lower half, getting back into a groove in the field. This month, he's already made a handful of nice plays with the glove, while also showing improved movement, both side to side like this:

And this:

As well as coming in on the ball quickly, like so:

With the stick, it's been a bit of a different story to this point, as mentioned above.

With exactly two weeks left until the Angels opener on March 31 against the Seattle Mariners, Pujols has managed eight hits in 31 at-bats for a respectable enough average (.258), and he's walked as many times as he's whiffed (four apiece), which suggests he's seeing the ball well enough. Still, with only two of those knocks going for extra bases—both doubles—it's fair to wonder: Where's the power?

Chances are, it'll be there during the games that count, especially if Pujols really is healthy and feeling better in his lower half. Remember, this is a guy who had knee surgery in the winter leading up to last season and then dealt with chronic plantar fasciitis pretty much all year—until he flat-out tore the connective tissue in the arch of his left foot early in the second half.

That ended Pujols' season after just 99 games, only 34 of which came at first base, simply because he was hurting too much to play the field on a regular basis. In all likelihood, at least some of Pujols' struggles in his career-worst campaign can be attributed to both of those ailments.

While the hits, particularly those of the extra-base variety, have been few and far between during the first portion of spring training, evidence does exist that vintage Pujols is in fact still around, getting his timing back and could be coming out to play more than he did last year:

As Pujols told Gonzalez:

Remember, I missed 300 at-bats last year. I've never gone this long without seeing live pitching. This is my first time in my 13-, 14-year career. But I feel better. It seems like my first week I was a little bit uncomfortable, but I started seeing the ball better, getting better at-bats, seeing pitches.

Of course, it wasn't a good thing Pujols missed the final two months of 2013, but perhaps it wasn't exactly a bad thing, either. When he fully tore his plantar fascia while hitting a two-run single last July, Pujols essentially gave himself the surgery he had been needing for quite some time—and also gave himself a chance to rest up and recover for an extra eight weeks.

While Pujols, now 34 and amid the second half of his Hall of Fame career, is clearly regressing, ultimately, his health, which failed him miserably last year and led to his worst-ever season, made the pace of that decline look a lot more accelerated than it might actually be.

Will Pujols bounce back to the superstar he was when he was the best hitter on the planet only a few years ago? No, but a return to health could help him approach his 2012 level of production, when he hit .285/.343/.516 with 30 homers and 105 RBI.

On this third time around for Pujols and the Angels, the hope has to be that a healthy left foot will be the charm to help him and the team get off on the right foot.

Statistics come from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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