Albert Pujols reported to spring training with the Angels early, feeling… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
TEMPE, Ariz. — Albert Pujols reported to spring training along with Angels pitchers and catchers Thursday, and his mood seemed to mirror his health.
The left-heel injury that hobbled him for four months last season before giving out in late July is fully healed. The surgically repaired right knee that flared up several times in 2013 is sound.
Pujols is seven pounds lighter than he was last September, his 6-foot-3, 236-pound frame lean and chiseled from a winter of workouts. And while he will never be compared to Mike Trout on the basepaths, Pujols is feeling as frisky as the 22-year-old speedster.
"You're going to see it when I run and move around," Pujols, 34, said. "I'll let your eyes be the judge. I might steal five or six bags this year."
Pujols could barely run from home to first, let alone steal second, last season. Playing with painful plantar fasciitis in his left heel, Pujols gutted his way through 99 games, hitting .258 with 17 homers and 64 runs batted in.
"It was like having a flat tire and a broken rim," Pujols said. "This game is tough enough being 100%. Imagine having an injury to deal with. It's hard."
Pujols' left heel could not have given out at a better time. The season-ending blowout July 26 — a painful tear — essentially replicated the surgery the slugger would have had in October and gave him a two-month head start on rehabilitation.
That allowed Pujols to resume hitting in October and have a "normal' off-season.
"I can't recall a moment in the off-season where I thought, 'Oh, that didn't feel good,' " Pujols said. "Everything has felt great — hitting, running the treadmill, doing agility drills, jumping rope.
"It stunk to be on the bench for the last two months, but at the same time it was for the best, because I didn't have to have surgery and miss some of my off-season training. If I had surgery, it would have been four or five months [to recover]. Do the math. That would have pushed toward spring training."
Pujols, who started 65 games at designated hitter, is confident he'll be able to play first base regularly in 2014. With a sound body comes a better chance of Pujols being the offensive force the Angels envisioned when they gave him a 10-year, $240-million deal before 2012.
"As long as I stay healthy, I'm going to hit," said Pujols, who won three National League most valuable player awards and two World Series titles in 11 years with the St. Louis Cardinals. "I'm going to play as hard as I can and try to put some big smiles on faces and try to help this organization win a championship."
How Pujols and Josh Hamilton bounce back from subpar years could go a long way toward determining whether the Angels snap their four-year playoff drought.
After signing a five-year, $125-million deal with the Angels, Hamilton was a shadow of the player who won AL MVP honors with Texas in 2010, hitting .217 in his first 106 games before rebounding with a .329 mark in his final 45 games.
The left fielder put on about 20 pounds this winter and has been working with a "functional movement coach" in an effort to regain the mechanics of a swing that made him one of baseball's most feared sluggers.
"No doubt, there's a little different look that he has," said Scioscia, who saw Hamilton last week. "I'm very confident we're going to see a different Josh, particularly earlier in the year."
Pujols has a similar look this spring.
"I think he feels good because he's healthy," Scioscia said. "A player who has done as much as Albert and has been around as long as he has certainly has a feel for when their body can do some of the things they're used to doing. I think he's there."
After hitting .205 with a .355 on-base percentage and .333 slugging percentage in the first four months of 2013, Chris Iannetta made more consistent contact in August and September, when he compiled a .264/.366/.453 slash line.
"I got contacts — that helped," the catcher said. "I was focusing so hard to find a pitcher's release point, I wasn't reacting as well as I could, and I didn't really know why. I started noticing [a problem] when I was having a tough time differentiating signs from the dugout late in games. Once I put the contacts on, I could see."
Iannetta, who will join pitchers and catchers for the team's first workout on Friday, said he had 20-20 vision but his eyes would fatigue later in games. With contacts, he has 20-15 vision.
"The power in my contacts is next to nothing," said Iannetta, who finished with a .225/.372/.358 slash line, 11 homers and 39 RBIs. "But it's just enough to relax my eyes, and then everything else relaxed."