Reporting from Tempe, Ariz. — Most eyes will be on slugger Albert Pujols as the Angels open exhibition play against the Oakland Athletics on Monday. How the $240-million man performs in his early days with a new club will be the focus of many following the team.
Not so for the Angels coaching staff. Pujols, who had a very structured and detailed spring regimen in 11 years with the St. Louis Cardinals, is probably the least of Manager Mike Scioscia’s Cactus League concerns.
The first baseman knows just how many game at-bats, innings in the field and swings in the cage he needs to get before the season, and Scioscia is not about to mess with a program that obviously works.
That will free up the manager and coaches to focus on other pressing spring issues, such as the development of closer Jordan Walden’s changeup, catcher Chris Iannetta’s handling of a new pitching staff, Mark Trumbo’s transition to third base and Kendrys Morales’ potential return from a broken left ankle.
“It’s a beginning,” Scioscia said. “It’s always great to get into that game environment, but we’re not the finished product as a team. There’s a lot of work ahead of us.”
For Walden, that means test-driving his off-speed pitches in games. The right-hander was 5-5 with a 2.98 earned-run average and 32 saves as a rookie in 2011, but he also led the league with 10 blown saves, his inability to throw his slider and changeup effectively contributing to his struggles.
Walden came to camp determined to improve his changeup. He likes the way it feels in throwing sessions but won’t know how good it is until he sees how hitters react to it in games.
“I’ve got to gain confidence in the pitch,” he said. “If you don’t have confidence in it, you’re not going to throw it right, or it’s probably going to end up in the dirt.”
Walden had an average fastball velocity of 97.5 mph last season, but he leaned too heavily on it. Of the 1,089 pitches he threw, 885 (81.3%) were fastballs. He threw 172 sliders (15.8%) and only 32 changeups (2.9%).
“As he gets that secondary pitch working, that 98-mph fastball plays a lot bigger,” Scioscia said. “If you don’t have secondary pitches, you can throw a 108-mph fastball, and it’s not going to play.”
It’s also an important spring for Iannetta. Acquired from Colorado to be the team’s primary catcher, Iannetta has resembled a reporter in the clubhouse, jotting down notes as he speaks to pitchers about what they like to throw in certain situations.
“There might be things I forget, so I can take [the notebook] back with me, review it and commit it to memory,” said Iannetta, a math major at North Carolina. “I’ve always been a student, trying to learn as much as I can.”
The last two weeks have been a crash course, Iannetta getting a feel for pitchers in bullpen and batting-practice sessions. Now, he’ll settle in for the exam, using games to build relationships with and the trust of pitchers.
“I’ve had conversations, taken notes, gotten visuals in the bullpen — but that gets ramped up now,” Iannetta said. “With games starting, I’ll get more information from what I see on the mound. There will be more game interactions and follow-up questions the next day.”
Games will be the true test for Trumbo, who has been taking grounders at third for weeks but was medically cleared for full activities only Wednesday, when tests showed the stress fracture in his right foot had healed.
If Trumbo, who was pushed off first base by Pujols, can play third, the Angels could get his powerful bat, with those of Pujols and Morales, in the same lineup.
But he’s just beginning to increase the intensity of his workouts at third and won’t play there in games for at least a week.
“He looks fine in some of the baby steps, but his hurdle will come when the game goes to full speed,” Scioscia said. “We haven’t been able to get close to that yet, so it’s tough to assess right now.”
Morales, out for a year and a half, is in a holding pattern, too. The slugger has graduated from straight-line sprints to cuts in the outfield, and he said he’ll begin running the bases — without touching the bags — Monday.
The Angels are getting excited about the switch-hitter because, unlike last spring, he is not experiencing pain and inflammation in the ankle.
If he regains his 2009 stroke, when he hit .306 with 34 homers and 108 runs batted in, Morales would team with Pujols in a lethal middle-of-the-order duo.
“He’s missed significant time, but it’s not like he sat out three years,” Scioscia said. “He’s young, strong and in good shape. His swing looks great. He just has to see some live pitching and get his timing.”