Wobbly wheels a concern for Pujols, Angels

PEORIA, Ariz. — Albert Pujols wobbled as he ran Wednesday. It was seen as a sign of progress. Such is life in the Angels’ unstable universe.

Pujols, 33, underwent right knee surgery during the offseason. He wasn’t cleared to run the bases in a competitive setting until this, the Angels’ 17th game of the Cactus League season. And when he reached base — twice, on a fielder’s choice and double — he moved slowly. Very slowly.

This was Pujols’ fourth game overall but his first without the benefit of a courtesy runner — a concept I hadn’t witnessed in a major league setting since John Goodman’s portrayal of “The Babe.”

“I’m fine, doing good, progressing, sticking with the game plan,” Pujols said after going 1-for-3 in the Angels’ 8-6 loss to the Padres.

And here is where the worry begins: Is this spring an anomaly, the outlier in a generally healthy career, a one-time hardship related to the knee surgery? Or is this a harbinger of compromised seasons to come, an indication that the St. Louis Cardinals were right to project that Pujols’ best years are behind him?

No one — not me, not you, not Pujols, not manager Mike Scioscia — can answer those questions with certainty. We need to watch. And right now, what we see is the greatest hitter of his generation trying like hell to reach second on a certain double, admirably doing what he can to get ready for April 1.

“That’s our target — Opening Day,” Pujols said. “That’s why we keep going every day, to get myself ready, get my at-bats, do whatever I have to do to get ready for the season.”

And, to a certain extent, the 2014 season … and 2015 season … and 2016 season … and 2017 season …

Lest we forget, Pujols, as of this moment, has nine years and $228 million left on his contract.

“You can’t ever predict contracts that long, especially as you get older,” said new teammate Josh Hamilton, who’s beginning his five-year, $125 million deal. “No matter if you’re old or not, really. Baseball is so finicky. On any play, something can happen.

“From watching him for the first time in person, seeing what kind of preparation he does, how he works out, how he goes about his stretching, how he goes about his rehab, all the things he’s doing — they’re very professional. I wouldn’t expect anything less from him.”

Add Hamilton’s voice to the legions in St. Louis and Anaheim who have testified to Pujols’ legendary work ethic. At some point, though, the same effort will yield diminished results. That is the scourge of getting older, especially amid lofty expectations. And in that respect, Pujols is unfortunate to have posted one of the best 11-year runs in baseball history.

Even after a woeful April, Pujols finished last season with 30 home runs, 105 RBIs and an .859 OPS — a career year for others, a career worst year for him.

The irony in Pujols’ current condition is that he’s been known as a superb base runner throughout his career. His awareness on the bases, even without blazing speed, has been held up as evidence of his overall greatness. But what if he can’t move as he once did — around the bases or on defense? Can he remain the all-around baseball archetype the Angels thought they were signing?

Pujols declined to put a percentage on his current speed, but said he’s “pretty sure” he will be able to run the bases as he always has.

“I can’t read the future now,” he said. “I’m going on how I feel every day. I’m trying to progress every day. That’s all I can do right now. I can’t tell you where I’m going to be three weeks from now. My main goal is to be ready for Opening Day. That’s what I’m trying to do right now.”

When Pujols joined the Angels, many observers said that the 10-year contract was destined to become an overpayment by the end; could Pujols really be worth a $30 million salary when he’s 41 years old? The Angels surely knew that, accepting such massive risk on the back end as long as Pujols led them to a World Series championship with an MVP-caliber performance early in the deal.

But he’s 0-for-1 so far, and the Angels must hope the balky knee doesn’t hasten the handoff from good years” to bad years.

Angels fans may want to shield their eyes from this, but Pujols’ age 32 season was more than 100 OPS points below Alex Rodriguez’s performance at the same stage in his career. And A-Rod’s performance has declined annually since, bottoming out at .783 last year.

For now, Pujols isn’t thinking about 2019, 2020 and 2021. He keeps an even tighter focus than most baseball players, who are wired for tunnel vision by the game’s daily rituals. When I asked about those last years of his contract, Pujols answered by talking about how he’s been able to stay healthy throughout his career. And he deserves immense credit for that, grinding through 154 games last year despite looming offseason surgery.

Yet Pujols’ past durability hardly guarantees he will be on the field at a similar rate in 2013. Scioscia could be forced to use him at designated hitter more often, playing Mark Trumbo at first base instead. Pujols has yet to play first base in a Cactus League game. I asked when that will happen and he didn’t answer directly.

“By Opening Day,” he said, “you’re going to see me.”

I’ll take Pujols at his word. But I wouldn’t want to wager $228 million on it.