Addition of Pujols makes Angels team to beat

Fantastic starting rotation also a huge plus

TEMPE, Ariz. — Like a fish that refused to be reeled in, Albert Pujols kept slipping off the hook last fall.

Three different times he played what could have been his last game at Busch Stadium for the Cardinals — in the regular season, the Division Series against the Phillies and most dramatically Game 6 of the World Series, when the Rangers had five leads, and each time his team found a way to win.

That meant the last official sighting of Pujols in St. Louis was riding in a pickup truck in the World Series parade.

Don't ask him about that now.

"You know what, great memories, but I don't get caught up into those memories," Pujols said Monday, surrounded by his Angels teammates. "It's a new season. Hopefully, we can make new memories. You don't get caught up in that stuff. You have to make sure that you move on.

"Those guys with the Cardinals can tell you the same thing. They were the world champions last year. It's time to move on. It's a new season."

In a move that shifted baseball's balance of power westward, Pujols put St. Louis in his rearview mirror with a 10-year, $240 milion deal with the Angels, who announced the signing of Rangers ace C.J. Wilson later the same day.

Owner Arte Moreno, whose team had gone to the playoffs in six of eight seasons from 2002 through '09, wasn't ready to watch the baseball world revolve around Nolan Ryan every October.

"I was shocked with Albert," Angels right-hander Dan Haren said. "I played with him a little in St. Louis. I never thought he'd leave. … I found out early in the morning (that he'd agreed to the deal). I got a few text messages. I woke my wife up to tell her we got Albert."

The path to the World Series figures to travel through Angel Stadium, and it is already showing up in the Cactus League.

According to scouts, Mike Scioscia's Angels have been one of the most impressive teams in Arizona. They've long been a National League-style team in the American League, and now in Wilson (five years, $77.5 million), Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana and Haren have four starters who averaged 232 innings with a 2.97 ERA last year.

No team can say that, not even the Phillies and Giants.

"Any of those four guys could be a Cy Young candidate any year," catcher Chris Iannetta said.

And with the signing of Pujols to an unusually large inventory of dangerous hitters, the Angels have addressed their one glaring weakness — a lack of power hitting.

With the Rangers turning first Vladimir Guerrero and then Mike Napoli against their old team, the Rangers outscored the Angels by 282 runs the last two seasons, hitting 62 more home runs. That advantage has been neutralized, at the least, and could turn into a plus for the Angels if Kendry Morales recovers from his broken leg, Vernon Wells rediscovers his stroke after winter work with Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, and Mark Trumbo, who hit 29 homers as the first baseman last year, is solid enough as a fielder to share third base with Alberto Callaspo.

"We will be better in slugging percentage this year just because of the talent we have," Scioscia said. "We haven't had as dangerous of a lineup as this."

The Angels have little concern about what they'll get from Pujols, a three-time MVP who finished second four other times. He has never hit fewer than 32 home runs or driven in less than 99 runs, and those numbers may pale below his production as he moves into a league with smaller ballparks and deeper lineups.

Pujols maintained familiar routines this spring, getting to the ballpark early and doing his usual drills. He had time to absorb the uniform change before he got to Arizona.

"I mean, I didn't change (teams) during the season," he said. "It was in the offseason. I got a little bit of time to marinate and to realize I wasn't with the Cardinals anymore. Now I'm an Angel. It was something it took me maybe two or three weeks, and then it was time to get ready for spring training and get my work done and come down here and get prepared for the season."

One player the Angels aren't counting on is 20-year-old outfielder Mike Trout, whom Baseball America ranks as the best prospect in the minor leagues. He played 40 games in the big leagues last year but will almost certainly go to Triple A, as the outfield-designated hitter picture is so crowded that Bobby Abreu (career on-base percentage of .397) has asked to be traded.

That may show a lack of vision. The Angels are headed toward a season that will be worth experiencing, with twists and turns ahead like the ones in St. Louis last season.

"Everybody's hungry, including myself, and I won a World Series last year," Pujols said. "That was last year. This year is a new year, and your mission, your goal is to try and be in the postseason. … They can never erase that championship trophy knowing you were the champion. It's a great feeling. Hopefully, we can repeat that."

progers @tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers
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