Around the Horn: Corner infield
Familiar tandem of Pujols, Freese aims to build off last season for Angels
With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Tempe, Ariz., by Feb. 19, it's time to dissect the Angels' 2015 roster. This is the third of a six-part Around the Horn series taking a position-by-position look at projected starters and backup options heading into the season. Next up: Corner infield. (previously: middle infield, catcher)
ANAHEIM -- The Angels know Albert Pujols and David Freese will play the corners in 2015, marking the fourth time in the last six years they've shared the same infield (twice in St. Louis, twice in Anaheim).
What they'll get out of them is a far bigger mystery.
For Pujols, the Angels would be thrilled with a repeat of 2014, when he posted a .272/.324/.466 slash line, hit 28 homers, drove in 105 runs and played Gold Glove-caliber first base in his age-34 season.
For Freese, they're hoping he can take his last four months -- .281/.343/.425 in 99 games -- and stretch it out over a full season, providing some added punch to help make up for the loss of Howie Kendrick.
Freese will turn 32 on April 28 and will hit the free-agent market at season's end. His slash line has gone from .293/.372/.467 in a breakout 2012 season to .261/.330/.382 from 2013-14, but he nonetheless gave the Angels above-average production in adjusted OPS (103) and Ultimate Zone rating (0.6) last year.
Ideally the Angels would have a platoon partner for Freese, who hit just .243 against righties last year, but they don't even have a clear backup. Josh Rutledge, Johnny Giavotella and Taylor Featherston will be among those competing for the second base job in Spring Training but will also get work at third base to occasionally spell Freese, who probably will no longer be taken out late in games for defense.
C.J. Cron is an ideal backup at first base. And though his playing time took a major hit when Matt Joyce was brought in as the new designated hitter, the Angels have opted against trading the 25-year-old because at the very least, he's a safety net for Pujols.
Pujols is heading into the fourth season of a 10-year, $240 million contract and may bat cleanup for the first time in 13 years, with Mike Trout probably moving into the No. 3 spot in 2015.
Any expectation of Pujols suddenly returning to the slugger of his St. Louis days is foolhardy at this point. He turned 35 in January, and if you disregard a 2013 season in which he didn't play past July, you'll notice a gradual decline in OPS and walk rate each of the last five years. Those are merely the signs of an aging hitter -- still a productive, above-average hitter with value, but an aging hitter nonetheless.
Pujols, however, sees reason to believe he can be better in 2015. It revolves around his right knee, which underwent arthroscopic surgery in November 2012, bothered him while trying to compensate for plantar fasciitis on his left foot in '13 and wasn't as strong as it used to be in '14. This offseason was the first time in a couple of years that Pujols could push it with his right leg, and he vowed to get it stronger.
The nine-time All-Star believes it'll allow him to get back to driving the ball to the opposite field and thinks it can lead to better numbers.
"I'm going to be able to cover the plate a little bit more," Pujols said in early November. "You're not going to see me [strike out] as much as I did the first couple of years here, and hopefully driving the ball a little better."
Beyond the active roster: The Angels acquired third-base prospect Kyle Kubitza from the Braves for 17-year-old starter Ricardo Sanchez on Jan. 8 (Minor League reliever Nate Hyatt also went to the Angels). Kubitza will start in Triple-A, could help in the Majors around midseason and is expected to take over at the hot corner in 2016. ... The Kubitza acquisition means the Angels are no longer counting on Kaleb Cowart, the former top prospect who has seen his stock plummet with back-to-back rough seasons in Double-A. He'll repeat Double-A in 2015 with the hopes of getting his career back on track. ... Marc Krauss, selected off waivers in December, and Efren Navarro, who played in 64 games last year, are among the first base options at Triple-A, though both can also play the outfield. ... Corner infielder Ryan Wheeler, who has appeared in 109 games with the Rockies the last three years, will join Spring Training as a non-roster invitee.