Angels first baseman Albert Pujols chuckles as a fan jeers him during an… (Paul Connors / Associated…)
Albert Pujols has entered a season with a team defending its World Series victory. That team of great expectations finished with a losing record.
The season before Pujols led the St. Louis Cardinals to last year’s World Series, the team failed to make the playoffs.
So do big expectations like those confronting the Angels and $240-million addition Pujols help or hurt?
“You guys are the ones picking us to win,” Pujols said Monday before making his Anaheim Stadium debut against the Dodgers in the opener of the three-game Freeway Series that will move to Dodger Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“The main thing is not to get too caught up in that.”
By adding the three-time National League most valuable player, the Angels now stand as the fourth favorite in Las Vegas sports books to win the World Series a year after missing the playoffs.
MGM Resorts Race and Sports Book director Jay Rood said the Angels share 8-1 odds to win the World Series with the Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants, behind the favored Philadelphia Phillies (9-2), Detroit Tigers (5-1) and New York Yankees (11-2).
“The beauty of this game is that we don’t have a magic ball” to see the future, Pujols said. “We’re all equal. Anything can happen in the season. We’ll go out and battle.
“We can’t worry about the future. We need to concentrate on what we need to do right now.”
Pujols took a .407 spring batting average with six home runs and 17 runs batted in to Monday night’s game.
The slugger said he feels strong after maintaining a busy spring in Arizona that included 54 at-bats.
“Why change something that has worked for 11 years [as a major leaguer]?” Pujols said. “Get there early, get my work done and be ready for opening day. That’s the goal.”
Pujols said he worked to forge bonds with veteran and young teammates alike, and expressed little concern at how the change in uniform will alter his annual focus to pursue a championship.
“I’ve been feeling pressure for 13 years,” Pujols said. “There’s three times I feel pressure in a season: my first at-bat of spring, my first at-bat on opening day and my first at-bat of the playoffs.
“The rest is baseball. You can’t worry about making a mistake. I know how to play the game. We have a good ballclub.... That takes the pressure off.”
ROTATION SETTLING: Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said his starting rotation of Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana, C.J. Wilson and a fifth starter not needed until April 15 was “set up for versatility.”
“There’s not a one, two, three or four on this staff,” Scioscia said of the deep unit, clarifying that Wilson’s start in the Angels’ fourth game April 9 in Minnesota gives the manager flexibility to adjust should Weaver, Haren or Santana need to take a start off.
The Angels shrank their roster to 32 players by moving possible No. 5 starter Garrett Richards to triple-A Salt Lake over the weekend, ensuring he’ll get two starts before possibly being summoned for the April 15 road start against the Yankees.
Jerome Williams, whose expected spot at No. 5 was compromised because of a spring hamstring strain, is also expected to make minor league starts Thursday and April 10.
Based on those results, Scioscia said elusively the No. 5 starter will emerge by April 14 at the latest.
UNCOMMITTED: Scioscia didn’t tip his hand about which two players will stick on the final roster: infielders Alexi Amarista, Jorge Cantu or outfielder Bobby Abreu.
Amarista, 22, is batting .333 with 13 RBIs and six stolen bases this spring. Abreu struggled mightily this spring and was the subject of a trade rumor, but Scioscia said before Monday’s game, “If you saw his last six at-bats, you’d be very encouraged.... He finally found his path to the ball.”
Cantu is not on the 40-man roster, but has hit at opportune times this spring. He could leave the organization if sent to the minors and kept there until May 1.
“Roles are certainly subject to being moved around, we’ll see how that goes,” Scioscia said, adding that the three Freeway Series games will likely not change the roster decisions as they stand. “But as you get into the season, [yes],” needs will clarify.
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