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For Albert Pujols and Angels, numbers don't lie . . . or do they?

Albert Pujols' age (32 this season) and recent decline in production suggest Angels may live to regret giving him a 10-year, $240-million deal. But some who know him say team will be amply rewarded.

February 12, 2012|By Mike DiGiovanna
  • Angels fans clamor for autographs from Albert Pujols during the Angel Stadium news conference to herald his free-agent signing.
Angels fans clamor for autographs from Albert Pujols during the Angel Stadium… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from St. Louis -- There are certain numbers related to Albert Pujols that should concern the Angels.

The first is 32, the slugger's age this season, the first in a 10-year contract.

Then there's the set that shows a steady decline in production the last two years in every major offensive category.

And finally, there are the figures at the back half of his $240-million contract. Starting in 2017, when he'll be 37, Pujols will make $26 million, with million-dollar raises due in each of the final four years of the deal.

It all adds up to a potentially huge risk for the Angels, but not in the eyes of the man who managed Pujols for 11 years with the St. Louis Cardinals.

"I'd bet significant money that in the second half of his contract, Albert will be a productive, Hall of Fame-caliber player," said Tony La Russa, who retired in October after guiding the Cardinals to their second World Series championship in six seasons.

That's the high-stakes bet Angels owner Arte Moreno made in December when he signed Pujols to the third-richest deal in baseball history.

La Russa thinks it was a smart play.

"He's dedicated to his conditioning, exercise and work habits," he said of Pujols. "He doesn't drink or smoke. And, more importantly, Albert knows he has a chance to be one of the greatest players of all time. He lives with that responsibility."

Mark McGwire, a teammate of Pujols' in 2001 and the Cardinals' hitting coach the last two seasons, thinks critics of the Angels' investment have overlooked a key factor.

"Nobody has brought up how being on the West Coast should benefit Albert," said McGwire, who ranks 10th on baseball's career home run list with 583. "He'll get away from the Midwest summer heat and into cooler nights with less humidity.

"I played in Oakland for 11 years, and when we came back from a hot summer city it was refreshing; your body felt a lot better. I truly believe the weather, plus using Albert as a designated hitter, will add three years to his career."

What about the pressure to live up to his monster deal?

Pujols, through his agent, declined to be interviewed for this story, but La Russa, who is close to him, doesn't foresee a problem.

"Pressure is his friend; he embraces it," La Russa said. "He'll want to prove to the Angels organization, his teammates and fans that he's a legitimate player. He knows how to come through in the clutch. All he has to do is be himself."

And just who is that?

He's a manager's dream, a player who hits for power to all fields, plays Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base, runs the bases smartly and aggressively, fights through nagging injuries, is ultra-prepared and will do anything to win.

"All [Angels Manager] Mike Scioscia has to do is tell Albert the game starts at 7 and we're playing the A's," La Russa said. "That's how easy it is to manage Albert."

To teammates, Pujols is a mentor, hitting guru and cheerleader.

"He could be 0 for 4 in the ninth inning, a rally starts, and he's on the top step cheering his team on," La Russa said. "How many superstars do that?"

To the media, Pujols can be an enigma, a guy who has spent his entire career in the spotlight but rarely basks in it.

"He's totally into whatever his teammates need, but if your editor says you need to do this on Albert, he'll stiff-arm you because he won't let you get in the way of his preparation," La Russa said. "He has a job to do. He takes it serious, so he's not as approachable as you'd like him to be."

To the Cardinals and their fans, he is a memory, an iconic, face-of-the-franchise player who leaves a huge void.

"There is no cute or clever answer to how we replace him," General Manager John Mozeliak said. "He'll be missed, but we also understand time moves on. Feeling sorry for ourselves isn't real beneficial."

St. Louis made what Mozeliak called a "robust offer" to Pujols — believed to be in the 10-year, $200-million area with $40 million deferred. But without the kind of $2-billion television deal that fueled the Angels' bid, the Cardinals couldn't keep up.

"We have to recognize who we are and what our market is," Mozeliak said. "For us to overexpose ourselves on any one player is a very slippery slope."

There was anger in St. Louis on Dec. 8, when news of Pujols' deal broke. A few Pujols jerseys were burned. Some shop owners gave away Pujols apparel. Business at Pujols 5, the Westport-area restaurant named after the slugger, declined so much the establishment recently removed Pujols' name.

"At first, I was mad," said Scott Ferranto, 38, a server at Mike Shannon's Steakhouse downtown. "I thought he betrayed the city."

Three months after Pujols helped the Cardinals win a dramatic seven-game World Series against Texas, the only remaining Pujols apparel at the Busch Stadium team store was a few jerseys on a 50%-off rack.

But over time, at least some St. Louis fans have come to grips with Pujols' departure.

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