As Albert Pujols has struggled through the final seasons of his contract with the Angels, the team has struggled to find someone better to replace him. The Angels believe they have developed a suitable first baseman in Jared Walsh.
For every manager, the daily question is this: What lineup gives the team its best chance to win? In 2021, for Joe Maddon, that lineup often might not include a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
“Even last year, Albert knew that,” Maddon said Sunday.
Indeed, in the final month of Maddon’s first season as Angels manager, Pujols did not start 10 of the team’s 24 games. The left-handed Walsh staked his claim to first base in September, batting .337 with nine home runs, and the Angels plan to stick with him.
“He’s going to get a ton of opportunity to play first base,” Maddon said. “I think you’re going to see it carry over from what you saw last year.”
Fangraphs projects Pujols to get 364 plate appearances this season. His career low in a non-pandemic season is 443, and in that season he was limited to 99 games because of injury.
Pujols can serve as the designated hitter, but so can Shohei Ohtani.
“Ohtani will do some of that, maybe a lot of that,” Maddon said. “We’ll see how that all plays out. There’s different ways to get Albert on the field, and I really have a lot of faith in his work ethic. Let’s just be patient and see what it looks like.”
Walsh, 27, was a revelation in September, a throwback to when teams called up prospects and played them in September to prepare them for the following season, rather than manipulating their service time and keeping them in the minor leagues until weeks into the following season.
In July and August, Walsh went hitless in 13 at-bats in two stints in the majors, with a detour to the Angels’ alternate training site in Long Beach. In September, he started 19 of the final 23 games at first base.
His OPS for the season was .971, ranking seventh among American League players with at least 100 plate appearances. Mike Trout ranked third; Anthony Rendon ranked 13th.
“It’s hard to just put stock in one month,” Maddon said, “but I also believe if he had three or four more months, he really would have made some noise.”
Walsh nonetheless finished seventh in American League rookie of the year balloting. Maddon cited his strong minor league statistics and said that, as a 39th-round draft pick, Walsh had to hit well for a long time just to earn the opportunity to be noticed. The Angels also tried Walsh as a two-way player, but this year asked him to stop pitching.
Pujols, 41, made a Hall of Fame name for himself in St. Louis. In 11 seasons with the Cardinals, he won the National League most valuable player award three times, finished second four times, and finished in the top 10 in the other four seasons.
With the Angels, he collected his 3,000th hit. Pujols last year passed Willie Mays and moved into fifth place on the all-time home run list. His 662 home runs trail Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714) and Alex Rodriguez (696).
However, after batting .328 with a 1.037 OPS with the Cardinals, Pujols has batted .257 with a .761 OPS in nine seasons for the Angels. He batted .224 with a .665 OPS last season. He has not been even a league-average hitter since 2016, according to the OPS+ statistic.
Maddon said Pujols was effective in streaks last year.
“It got to the point where he was swinging the bat really well, and he actually gave us the best chance to win on many occasions,” Maddon said. “So we’ll see how it plays out this year.”
Pujols told ESPN last week that he has not decided whether to try to play beyond this season. His 10-year, $240-million contract with the Angels expires this fall.
If he retires after the season, he still will be paid by both the Cardinals and Angels. The Cardinals owe him $1.2 million per year in deferred salary from 2020-29; the Angels owe him $1 million per year on a 10-year personal services contract that starts when his playing career ends.
Mental health check
Andrelton Simmons, the Angels’ shortstop last season, told the Orange County Register this month that he had opted out of the final week of the season after experiencing depression and thoughts of suicide.
On Sunday, Maddon said he had no idea.
“I never recognized that,” Maddon said. “He and I would talk often, and he was always upbeat. He was extremely bright and engaging in our conversations. I would have never guessed, just based on my interactions with him. That’s why it’s important to have another layer of coaching.”
Maddon has been an advocate of mental health and skills coaching for decades. He worked closely with the late Ken Ravizza, a Cal State Fullerton professor who was one of the first to bringing mental coaching into the sports world.
Maddon said that Simmons might not have felt comfortable opening up to his manager. That makes it imperative, Maddon said, that he emphasizes to his players that the team has mental health resources available to them and that there is no stigma in using them.
“When it comes to mental skills, I’ve tried to sell it to my players that this particular person on our staff is no different than your hitting coach,” Maddon said. “He’s no different than your pitching coach. He’s no different than your infield coach.
“He’s there to provide information, and a great ear, and somebody to run thoughts and ideas off of. You’ll get back a really educated response, something that has been learned, and hopefully with a good bedside feel that I also think is really important.”
Simmons, 31, signed a one-year, $10.5-million deal with the Minnesota Twins this offseason.
Best shape of his life
Maddon said pitcher Felix Pena lost 15 to 20 pounds over the winter. The adjective Maddon chose to describe Pena: “unidentifiable.”
The Angels' public relations staff then forwarded this note: Catcher Juan Graterol lost 60 pounds over the winter.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.