I mean it. They don’t. They didn’t need him in December, either, when Arte Moreno handed him a $240 million contract.
Pujols went 0-for-3 in his first game without the famous redbirds on his jersey. In his first plate appearance, he lined into an inning-ending double play. In his second, he popped out to third. In his third, Aaron Crow overwhelmed him in a three-pitch strikeout. In his fourth, he was walked intentionally.
Yet the Angels still beat the Royals 5-0 on a hotly anticipated Friday night at Angel Stadium. They staged a five-run eighth-inning rally in which Pujols was little more than a supporting actor. And that’s the point: Pujols plays for a team that could make the playoffs without him.
Yes, the Angels ranked in the bottom half of the American League with 667 runs scored last year. But that was a fluke, considering the personnel they had then — and now. As they showed Friday, the Angels remain capable of the tidal-wave innings that require only a few swings to burst open tight games.
In many ways, Game 1 belonged to Kendrys Morales — the guy who used to play first base for the Angels. Morales hadn’t appeared in the big leagues since May 29, 2010, the day he broke his leg while celebrating a walk-off grand slam. Nearly two years later, he received a standing ovation — to rival Pujols’ — when he stepped up to the same home plate.
Morales runs with a wobble, but the power hasn’t left his bat. He made hard contact in each of his three plate appearances, including a loud fly to right-center that would have left most ballparks. He started the decisive rally with a sharp single to right off Crow, who observed later, "He’s one of the best hitters in the game. He’s a great talent. He looked like he hasn’t missed a beat.”
Think about that for a moment: Morales was on his way to a 30-homer, 100-RBI season at the time of his injury. Had he remained healthy and productive, it’s likely the Angels would have signed him to a long-term contract by now — thus removing them from the Pujols sweepstakes altogether. Instead, they have Morales and Pujols.
It’s far too early to declare that Morales is back to what he was in 2009 and the first two months of 2010. But even if he’s 85 or 90 percent of that, the Angels’ old first baseman and the Angels’ new first baseman will constitute the biggest offensive upgrade for any team in the majors.
Pujols, by the way, is going to be just fine. As he reminded reporters after the game, this won’t be the last time he goes 0-for-3. He admitted to feeling nervous, but said it was no different than what he’d experienced “for the last 11 years” with the Cardinals.
“My father told me, ‘If you don’t go through that, you aren’t ready,’ Pujols said. “I knew I was ready, because I went through that.”
It may take time for Pujols to get comfortable in a new city, new league and new style of play. (He mentioned that he’s yet to buy a home in Southern California.) May has been his least productive month, so he may approach the All-Star break with un-Pujols-like numbers. But the Angels have enough talent that even a slow start by their superstar won’t doom them.
Torii Hunter, who has dubbed his new teammate Pooh-Pooh, is going to be better than he was in 2011. Vernon Wells will, too, following his dreadful Angels debut. Peter Bourjos had two hits Friday and is beginning to reveal his potential as a dynamic offensive player
Moreover, the jolt of positivity that arrived with Pujols is a very real phenomenon — even if there were a few dozen empty seats among the announced sellout of 44,106. Angels ace Jered Weaver acknowledged that the ballpark felt “a little more electric” than in past openers, thanks to the presence of No. 5.
That’s not to say the Angels are free from worry. Mark Trumbo committed two errors at third base in the opener. To say he looked tentative would be a grand understatement. If Trumbo doesn’t improve in the next month, an internal (Alberto Callaspo?) or external (David Wright?) move will become necessary.
Then there’s the saga of Bobby Abreu, the $9 million bench player whom the Angels would love to trade but can’t. Asked Friday what his role will be, Abreu said, “Same thing you’ve been hearing all spring training.”
Is it still possible he’ll be traded?
“I don’t know, really.” Stay tuned.
Yet, the uncertainty surrounding Abreu is more of a nuisance than an impediment to winning. The Angels are going to pitch well enough to mitigate most problems they face this year. As if to underscore that point, Weaver became the first Angels starter to record 10 strikeouts on Opening Day since Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan in 1975.
Ryan is now CEO and president of the Texas Rangers, two-time defending AL champions and the Angels’ chief division rival. The last time we watched Pujols in a game that counted, he celebrated with his St. Louis teammates after they devastated Ryan’s Rangers in Game 7 of the World Series.
Pujols’ team can beat Texas this year, too. With or without him.