Imagine Stan Musial or Mickey Mantle changing teams at the height of their careers.
Well, Albert Pujols went and did it. And when the St. Louis superstar, the best player of his or any generation, rocked the baseball world in January by signing a 10-year, $254 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels, not only did it make the Angels an instant contender, it also changed the dynamic of an entire division — maybe two, if you include the NL Central.
How big a draw was Pujols’ signing? More than 4,000 fans attended the news conference outside Angels Stadium.
The only comparable moment in recent history has to be Ken Griffey Jr. leaving Seattle for Cincinnati. Both players were two years removed from an MVP season and at the height of their powers. Griffey, 30 at the time, was two years younger than the right-handed first baseman who left St. Louis after 11 seasons.
Los Angeles can only hope that Pujols doesn’t follow Griffey’s eventual spiral through injury and disappointment.
The impact on Pujols’ teammates, however, was immediate.
“This is an organization changer,” Angels outfielder Torii Hunter told ESPN. “If you think about it, there’s never really been an Albert Pujols on the market. If you’re going to spend the money, spend it on this guy.”
The Angels struggled to score runs in 2011 and finished far behind the American League champion Texas Rangers. Now, with Pujols, a healthy Kendrys Morales and an improved Mark Trumbo, Los Angeles’ lineup is indeed fearsome.
“There’s a handful of hitters who you’re going to be intimidated by when they come to the plate; you’re going to feel them,” Angels ace Jered Weaver told the Los Angeles Times. “And he’s definitely one of those guys.”
Combine that hitting with one of the best pitching staffs in baseball — Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and the newly acquired C.J. Wilson — and it might be enough for the Angels to overtake the Rangers.
Of course, Pujols wasn’t the only player to create a power vacuum in the NL Central.
On Jan. 26, the Detroit Tigers pulled off an almost equally shocking deal by signing former Milwaukee slugger Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract.
The impact wasn’t as immediate because the Tigers, reigning AL Central champions, were already the class of that division. The deal, however, not only gave Detroit dreams of a World Series title, but it also helped create a power struggle in the American League that includes at least six of the best teams in baseball, one of which will not make the playoffs, even with the added wild card.
A World Series team will come from either New York, Boston, Tampa Bay, Texas, Los Angeles or Detroit. It is arguably the strongest the American League has been in, say, ever.
Pujols helped make it so.
Extra wild card could shake things up
Had Major League Baseball’s new playoff format been in place, would St. Louis have won the 2011 World Series? Certainly, the extra game would have stretched the Cardinals’ pitching staff. Had St. Louis beaten Atlanta, maybe Chris Carpenter pitches once against Philadelphia and would not have been available to throw a 1-0 division series-clinching shutout against the Phillies. The added playoff game pits two wild cards in each league against each other in a one-game playoff for the right to meet a division winner. It is, in essence, a 163rd game, a play-in game that has already happened a couple times this decade between Detroit and Minnesota and Chicago and Minnesota. The new format not only places added weight to winning the division, but it will hopefully re-create the excitement of last season’s final dramatic day when Boston, Tampa Bay, St. Louis and Atlanta battled for a final playoff spot.
New York – Cano, Granderson, Teixeira, Jeter, Rodriguez. Oh yeah, Sabathia and Rivera.
Tampa Bay – David Price and Evan Longoria are legit Cy Young and MVP candidates.
Boston – Loads of talent. There are questions, too, especially in the manager’s office.
Toronto – The Jays pitching is not on same level as its thunderous lineup.
Baltimore – Getting better, but in the wrong division.
Detroit – Even before Prince arrived, the Tigers were clearly the best of a mediocre division.
Cleveland – Carlos Santana and Justin Masterson give the Indians wild card dreams.
Kansas City – This is a recording: Is this the year the prospects bloom?
Chicago – Paul Konerko should record a career-high in intentional walks.
Minnesota – Healthy M&M boys won’t overcome a lack of mound presence.
Texas – One of the best lineups in baseball. Import Yu Darvish will make an immediate impact.
Los Angeles – We know about King Albert. C.J. Wilson bolsters already strong pitching staff.
Seattle – Can Montero and Smoak improve 30th ranked offense?
Oakland – Looking to the future and a new ball park in San Jose.
Philadelphia – Pitching will carry aging lineup which may not have injured Howard or Utley.
Atlanta – Will the Braves have enough offense in Chipper’s final season?
Florida – Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez rebound, while Jose Reyes sparks lineup.
Washington – Intriguing team, but with too many holes to contend for now.
New York – David Wright’s best years are behind him, even with closer fences.
St. Louis – Even without Pujols, still the class of a weak division.
Cincinnati – Former MVP Joey Votto gives Reds a shot at playoffs.
Milwaukee – Brewers were 11th ranked MLB team in runs scored with Fielder.
Pittsburgh – The record streak without a winning season reaches 20.
Chicago – Another rebuilding project.
Houston – Management is starting over at ground zero. Final season in NL.
San Francisco – Posey returns to tepid lineup. Giants’ pitching is the difference.
Arizona – Ian Kennedy and MVP candidate Justin Upton will make division race close.
Los Angeles – Dodgers lack depth of Arizona’s offense and Giants’ pitching.
Colorado – That Methuselah is team’s No. 2 starter speaks volumes.
San Diego – Should be busy come the trading deadline.
A.L. – Miguel Cabrera, Detroit (Evan Longoria, TB.; Albert Pujols, LA)
N.L. – Justin Upton, Arizona (Troy Tulowitzski, Colo,; Joey Votto, Cinn.)
A.L. – Jered Weaver, Los Angeles (Justin Verlander, Det.; David Price, TB)
N.L. – Roy Halladay, Philadelphia. (Clayton Kershaw, LA; Matt Cain, SF)