Monday, December 12, 2011

Pujols Is Pujols, But Morales is Key

        By Ross Newhan

        Only a manager with a roster including Albert Pujols wouldn't mind holding a cell phone to his ear as he took his daily walk amid a Westlake rainstorm Monday.

        Now that Angel owner Arte Moreno, blessed with the financial foundation of a $3 billion television contract with Fox Sports, has guaranteed $254 million to baseball's greatest hitter of the last 11 years, it is up to Mike Scioscia to contemplate a lineup in which the key is a player who hasn't been in a game since early 2010 and may not be ready for 2012.

       "If it just came down to Albert, the Cardinals would have won every year he was (in St. Louis)," Scioscia said of the task of building a lineup that offers protection behind him and table setters in front of him.

      A dilemma?

     "That's not what I would call it," Scioscia said. "A dilemma is what we went through the last two years when we had to fill nine spots and had three or four guys who weren't swinging well on a daily  basis. When you have Albert Pujols in the middle of the lineup....well, you can choose the words to describe it."

     It may not be until late in spring training before anyone knows how best to describe it and how the pieces fit together.

    The "key piece of the puzzle," said Scioscia, is Kendrys Morales, the switch hitting first baseman who hasn't played since breaking his lower left leg in 2010. Morales is currently hitting off a tee in Arizona and running on a treadmill, but he has still not put full weight on the leg.

   A physically fit  Morales, who hit 34 homers and drove in 108 runs in 2009, would provide left handed protection behind Pujols as the designated hitter in a lineup that otherwise could be all right handed with no certainty behind Pujols.

   "There's two ways to protect a hitter of Albert's stature," Scioscia said, getting wetter every second. "You have enough of a threat behind him that he isn't consistently pitched around or you create a situation that makes it difficult to pitch around him by putting the right two or three players in front of him so that he has a chance to drive them in.

   "In our situation, Kendrys is extremely important and probably the most important thing we'll look at in spring training. If he's healthy, it makes it much easier for us as far as creating a lineup."

   Given Morales' physical uncertainty, many teams might not have tendered him a contract before Monday's deadline. The Angels, however, tendered a contract, maintaining control and illustrating his importance.

   If he is not ready when the Angels open the season, the lineup is a mystery.

   Assuming Pujols hits third (he batted third in 1,383 games with St. Louis compared to 242 batting fourth, according to the Elias Sports Bureau), either Mark Trumbo or Vernon Wells would probably hit behind him. Trumbo hit 29 homers as a rookie and will be moving to third base ("he showed his athleticism in moving to first base and he has a strong enough arm to play third," Scioscia said) while the Angels simply believe Wells, with a proven record, should bounce back from his shockingly disappointing debut with the club last year..

   That leaves Torri Hunter, Chris Ianetta and Peter Bourgeos behind them and Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick possibly at the top of the lineup again despite very poor on-base percentages, a critical stat to the computer gurus in general manager Jerry DiPoto's new front office.

  Aybar has a .319 career on-base percentage while Kendrick is .329.

  All of this will take on a different complexion if Morales can fill the DH role behind Pujols. In the meantime, on a wet Monday, Scioscia was still soaking up the positive vibes created by the acquistion of a three time MVP.              

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