We are quickly approaching the end of January, entering the traditional time period where every player to ever pick up a baseball is “in the best shape of his life,” no matter how they spent their offseason. Not excluded from that pool is the Angels’ Albert Pujols, who says, per Jon Heyman, that he’s ready to make a return to playing first base, and that he’s “100% healthy.”
Albert Pujols is 38 years old. In 2017, there were only 15 active players between the ages of 37 and 38 — eight fielders and seven pitchers. He’s entering rarefied air as far as career length is concerned, though many have attempted to declare his career over before he was ready to retire over the last few years. If he doesn’t retire, the Angels hold his contract through 2021, or Pujols’ age 41 season.
The Angels, however, are actually in a preseason position to contend for the first time in years. Smart moves and a maintenance season from the Los Angeles front office have made the Angels one of the teams to watch, if just to see how Shohei Ohtani handles moving to Major League Baseball. More importantly, they’re in a position to contend without even counting on the production of a player who, despite the “number of runs he knocked in,” had one of the worst offensive seasons of his career in 2017 while dealing with a chronic plantar fasciitis issue that kept him from playing in the field.
Pujols says he can play first, however, and there’s likely something to it. With Ohtani, the Angels need to open up the DH spot somehow if they’re going to abide by what they’ve said and let the young two-way player hit. Pujols would either only get to play once every four or five days, or will need to be able to hold up to the physical stresses of playing at first base. If he can handle first base for stretches at a time, that gives the Angels more flexibility to their roster, especially throughout the normal wear and tear of a season. In fact, not absolutely having to rely on Pujols may mean that they can have a better Pujols. More chances for rest may be just what he needs to rebound from last season.
All the prognosticating above aside, however, do the Angels need a healthy Albert Pujols? At this point, the answer looks to be no — though he would certainly be a help. When healthy, Pujols is still capable of being an incredibly talented hitter, someone who would bolster any lineup power-wise. There’s never a bad time to add that to a team, or to be able to access it when needed, but this team isn’t keyed to him, not anymore. Mike Trout long ago came in and made himself the center of this team, and he’s the one that all attempts to get a ring are for.
This isn’t unexpected, though. All players age (time is undefeated) and as they age teams rely on their production less and the other, perhaps intangible, things more. Pujols’ aging curve has been part of the current front office’s calculations since the day they took power, and those calculations include figuring out how to work around his weaknesses to hopefully promote his strengths — and put together the strongest team possible in doing so.
The Angels may not have too many good players, but exactly the right amount. It’s a luxury to have the possibility of production that you don’t have to count on for success. That’s a luxury the Angels haven’t known in a fair while.