Wow. Who would have thought we'd be seeing headlines like that only two years into the Pujols contract. Most people speculated we wouldn't be seeing any significant problems with him until about 5-6 years into the contract. It seems now that the Angels have some serious deliberating to do on the topic of what is going to happen with Pujols. I don't want to come off as sensationalist or anything, but Pujols has been facing some problems that have caused his on-field play to suffer in a big way. Fortunately these are problems that can be easily overcome, we can see Pujols get back to form, but it's going to take proactive measurements on the part of the Angels brass. Letting Pujols stick in the 3-hole indefinitely where he can rot away due to his foot and knee problems have already proven to do farm more harm to this team than good. On ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball this past weekend the announcers working over the Angels/White Sox game were in marvel at the fact that Pujols was playing through serious pain. They used words like "grinding" to describe his incredible fortitude to stay on the field every day and help his team win. They made it sound like a positive he's working through pain to play right now, but the fact is it's not even close to a positive.
Pujols' plantar fasciitis and weakened knee from offseason surgery are sapping his ability to drive the ball on consistent basis. No major league hitter can be expected to drive a ball on a consistent basis when they're losing a serious amount of drive from the lower body. No torque and no momentum to carry the upper body can do damage to a hitters power stroke, which has been made clear by Pujols dipping SLG%. From April 20th to May 14th Pujols SLG% had dropped nearly 100 points, from 508. to 416., marking a drop in his ability to drive a ball. We all know how much pride Pujols has, and as a veteran he wants to be able to inject leadership into the club and by that he wants to be on the field every day. However, should he be hitting in the lineup every day when his problems are costing this team?
As much as Pujols doesn't like it he needs to spend some time on the DL; not a lot of time, but enough to rest his feet and legs. It might seem daunting to lose Pujols to the 15 day DL when the Angels are strapped for depth and serious power hitters, but in all truthfulness are they really that strapped? If Pujols were to hit the DL Trumbo could easily man 1B every day, and while nobody wants to see J.B Shuck playing every single day he can hold down LF without serious problems. Even if the Angels don't want to see Shuck out there every day they could shift Trumbo to the OF and have Luis Jimenez play 1B every now and again, as he's proved to be able to do so. We all know how big the Angels fetish is for turning everyone on the roster into super-utility players; with Jimenez, Trumbo, Harris, Shuck and eventually Kole Calhoun, the Angels have enough depth to cover the field in Pujols absence.
The DH spot is a different story however; the only real option here is to have Conger absorbing a significant amount of AB's at DH with Trumbo filling in here and there when he isn't playing the field. An out there idea could be to promote someone to cover DH for a couple weeks, give one of the kids down in the system a chance to experience ML pitching and take that back with him to the minors. This would be incredibly beneficial to the long-term effects on the club/player, giving a chance to face ML pitching every day or so for a couple weeks with help them mature quicker as a player and possibly get them ready for the majors sooner than expected. My only real option here is C.J Cron, a monster power hitter currently residing in AA Arkansas. Cron has proved to be able to crush the pitchers he's faced in the minor league system so far, posting a .500+ SLG%, 42 HRs, and 187 RBIs, in only 3 seasons across the minors. He's currently hitting .319/.370/.452 in 146 PA's in AA, and while his HR totals aren't there yet (only 2 so far) he's still showing he can drive the ball with 10 doubles. Cron has the ability to get on base when he isn't pounding the ball, something not too common in power hitters of his type; his eye is better developed than what you'd expect.
The Angels will most likely be able to cover Pujols without dipping too deep into the minor league system, but what happens when he comes back? Let's say he goes on the 15 day DL next week, his timeframe for return would be somewhere in the same ballpark as Peter Bourjos'. I know this is something that everyone is saying/thinking, but don't really want to hear. Pujols needs to be dropped in the order, in the realistic sense of improving the lineup long-term it has to happen. Pujols can't anchor an offense like he used to anymore, he's an amazing supplemental piece to Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo, but he isn't the big dog in the house anymore. He can still hit 30 dingers and drive in 90-100 runs, but it won't happen in the 3 hole. The Angels need to go back to the basics, what made them so wildly successful years before. They need to tap back into the running game and the best way to do that would be to let Bourjos return to the leadoff spot with Aybar batting 2nd.
Bourjos proved, against all detractors, that he can be greatly successful leading off. He's improved hitting from last season to the point where he can take pitches, he can work a good count, he can drive a ball, he can slap something down for a single; anything you need off a leadoff man he can do. Once he gets on base having one of the best bunters in the game hitting behind him would put incredible pressure on the defense. Bourjos can run and utilizing Aybars ability to bunt for a base hit can put the Angels into RBI spots very early in the game. All of a sudden the Angels have a man in scoring position with one out, or a man on 1st and 3rd with no one gone. Now you have the most dangerous hitter in the game batting with multiple runners on base, that could easily spell destruction for any opposing team. The Angels could put a run on the board like that if Bourjos can hit himself into scoring position immediately with Aybar following him, then with Trout coming up there’s no telling what could happen. The Angels can't run with Shuck/Aybar leading off and Trout hitting 2nd, Scioscia wouldn't risk the outs anymore especially with Trout at the plate. With Pujols hitting behind Trout Scioscia is especially against letting his players run on the base paths, especially with the atrocious job they've been doing as of late. Having Bourjos/Aybar/Trout changes the dynamic of the lineup in the sense that it allows the Angels to run more and utilize more small ball instead of hoping for big hits from Trout/Pujols/Trumbo.
I favor this scenario because Trumbo needs to be hitting behind Trout to increase RBI potential, Pujols isn't doing even close to what Trumbo is doing at the plate at this would maximize offensive output. The only problem with this is where to hit Pujols, would it be 5th or 6th? I'd rather have Pujols batting 6th in order to have a good R/L/R matchup in the lineup; this would make hell on any opposing bullpen late in the game. Having Trumbo/Pujols/Hamilton is still effective, but it makes it easier to play the matchup on the Angels. Scioscia needs to worry about being able to out manage the man sitting in the dugout across the field, and making his bullpen management as miserable as possible is the way to do that. It's not just that his job is being complicated by a simple R/L/R hitter’s matchup, those hitters are the incredibly powerful and always imposing Trumbo, Hamilton, and Pujols. These are guys that can destroy a ball if a mistake is made; no manager wants to deal with that.
Unfortunately it would likely be a hard sell to get Pujols to move as far down as 6th in the lineup, he would probably have problems going to the 5 hole as well. The thing is that everyone knows Mike Trout is going to move to 3rd soon, it's very possible he'll be there by the end of this season if not the start of next. We all saw how quickly he was moved from leadoff to 2nd; why not just make the jump to 3rd? I know Albert Pujols is Albert Pujols, but the Angels can't just go and build the lineup around him anymore, that's what Mike Trout is for. The Angels need to build the lineup around Trout hitting 3rd in order to maximize the output of EVERY facet in this lineup. From the power production to the running game to utilization of small ball at the top of the order; hitting Trout 3rd would drastically change the dynamic of this lineup. I know people like to argue that shuffling the lineup doesn't affect much in the long-run, but this shuffling allows the Angels to run far more effectively and score runs without having to sit on the big hit.
All of this rests on Pujols ability to recognize the Angels need to build around Mike Trout. If he can accept a short DL stint in stride, for the sake of his health, that would be highly beneficial to the team. If he can accept dropping down in the order it would reap more benefits than one could hope for. It takes the pressure off Pujols to deliver big hits when you have Trout and Trumbo knocking in runs ahead of him and allows him to do his thing worry free. It's no secret that having to worry about playing through pain, keeping your team afloat, and delivering big hits in high pressure situations is extremely draining on Pujols. All this wouldn't just be beneficial to the team, but Pujols career in the short-term and long-term. He would find a return to playing baseball comfortably and his numbers would more than likely come back almost immediately.
Here's to hoping this is the longshot that hits the mark.