The Angels have an Albert Pujols problem heading into the 2018 season
The veteran slugger may affect their ability to contend next season
The thing with the Angels is that, because of unwise use of payroll and an inconsistent draft-and-development pipeline, they haven't really surrounded the best player in baseball -- Mike Trout -- with adequate supporting talent. GM Billy Eppler did a nice job rounding out the 2017 roster despite a lot of inherited limitations, but there was only so much he could do with little room in the budget and not much in the way of tradable long-term assets. In the end the Angels failed to make the postseason for a third straight year. Trout's wrapping up the sixth year of what's been one of the best peaks in baseball history, and his team hasn't won a postseason game during that span.
That brings us to 2018. Trout returns, of course, and the rotation could be improved by a full season from Garrett Richards. Whether Justin Upton decides to opt-out of his contract will be key, and the infield is poised to take some hits via free agency (although not Andrelton Simmons, thankfully). Then there's the matter of Albert Pujols.
Pujols is one of the greatest hitters in baseball history and a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. He's also a big reason why the Angels may not contend next season. That's the case for a couple of reasons ...
1. Pujols is not a good hitter right now, and he's likely to get worse.
As the Angels' season draws to a close, Pujols is batting .242/.288/.388 (82 OPS+), and his strikeouts as a percentage of plate appearances are at an all-time time. He has almost as many GIDPs (26) as unintentional walks (32). Yes, he's got 23 homers, but you better hit a lot more than that if you're a DH with a sub-.300 OBP and a knack for creating two outs with one swing. Elsewhere, Pujols is chasing pitches out of the zone more often than ever, and his 2017 contact rate is the worst of his career.
He's also now one of the worst baserunners in the game. His majors-leading GIDP total is noted above, and he's also managed to hit just 16 doubles (and no triples). he's taken the extra base just 24 percent of the time versus a league-average mark of 40 percent. If you take away the times he's plated himself with a home run, he's scored just 29 runs in 146 games. That's some serious base-clogging right there.
Yes, Pujols has gotten to 100 RBI, and some people will marshal that as evidence in his favor. That's mostly a function of the fact that he's had 440 runners on base when he's batted this season. The average MLB hitter over the same span if plate appearances has batted with 373 runners on.
The larger issue is that Pujols has pretty much been in steady decline since his final season in St. Louis. He'll turn 38 in January. The 2017 season has been an ugly one for him, and 2018 may see a further hastening of an already hasty decline. By any other standard, Pujols may be unplayable next season. You simply can't abide basement-level production at the plate from a player who can't play the field. Related: He's presently clocking in with a 2017 WAR of -1.7. You don't have to believe in the precision of WAR to realize that Pujols is hurting his team. As great as Pujols has been and as noble of a competitor as he remains, that's his future -- hurting his team.
2. Pujols' contract hamstrings the budget and makes it less likely he'll see his playing time reduced.
Most observers knew it was a bad idea when the Angels inked Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million contract prior to the 2012 season. You make those kinds of deals knowing you'll take a hit on the back end. The idea is to reap excess value in the early years of the contract. Pujols, though, produced just 14.7 WAR through the first half of this deal. That can happen when you pay big money to a bat-first player who, as noted, was showing signs of skills loss even before he put ink to paper in Anaheim. Now the bill really comes due.
Pujols' backloaded contract calls for him to be paid $27 million in 2018 (and $28 million in 2019, $29 million in 2020, and $30 million in 2021). It's always difficult for teams to treat big-money players as sunk costs once they no longer produce, and that's especially the case with Pujols, who's got a shot at 700 home runs before he's done. The point, though, is to win. Trout's so good, such a needle-mover all by himself that he gives you a tremendous head start at building a championship roster. Surround him with merely average talents and you can win. Have too many sinkholes, though, and not even Trout can lift the team. This isn't the NBA, and one player can do only so much in a sport like baseball. You have to avoid roster black holes if you're going to be so reliant on one player (plus some Andrelton Simmons, of course). Pujols stands in the way of that at his current skill level. Really, he needs to be the weak half of a DH platoon and a pinch-hitter in those occasions when you need someone to run into a misplaced fastball. That's his reality right now even if he's not paid like it. He's certainly not the Angels' only problem, but he's probably their biggest problem.
None of this is to pretend it's easy to tell a player like Pujols -- so great for so long and such an incredible bargain under his first big contract -- that he's no longer an every-day guy. That, though, is what the Angels need to do if they want to get Trout and company back to the postseason.
Trout's not going to be this good forever, and one day his peak will be behind him. At this rate, we'll be asking how the Angels managed to waste it.
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