Pujols might open 2016 on DL or as DH

Angels slugger swinging a bat, but he's not ready to participate in defensive drills

February 18th, 2016

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Albert Pujols has been swinging the bat, but he will not be allowed to take part in aggressive defensive work by the time he reports to Angels camp next week. Pujols is basically 3 1/2 months into his recovery from early November surgery on his right foot, a procedure that was expected to keep him out of full baseball activities until early to mid-March.

It's a timeline that suggests Pujols will start the season on the disabled list.

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"But if you know Albert, you know that he's always come back quicker than any timeline he's ever been given," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said Thursday, the day pitchers and catchers reported for their physicals. "But we're definitely not going to try to sacrifice the lion's share of the season to get him back maybe two weeks before he should. When he's ready, he's ready."

Pujols is expected to report to Angels camp by Monday, a couple of days before the team engages in its first full workout. How soon Pujols gets into baseball activities will determine whether or not the Angels have to begin the season without him, though the 36-year-old first baseman could simply start off as a designated hitter.

Regardless of how it plays out, the Angels figure to have someone other than Pujols -- a two-time Gold Glove Award winner -- playing first base for a bulk of the season's first month, if not more.

The logical fill-in is C.J. Cron, who has his limitations defensively but showed some improvement while playing the position every day last September. Daniel Nava, who's expected to see the most time in left field, has spent the past couple weeks working out at first base on the backfields of the Angels' complex in hopes of becoming an alternative option. Then there's Rule 5 Draft pick Ji-Man Choi, whom Scioscia believes is "very athletic" with "good hands."

Pujols has been taking batting practice for a couple of weeks and was previously cleared for agility drills.

"The biggest thing we need from Albert is to hit in the middle of our lineup and get some at-bats," Scioscia said. "We're a better team with him playing first base, but I'd rather sacrifice that defensive component he brings than to put the offensive component at risk."

Out in left field: The Angels got only a .592 OPS from their left fielders last year, tied for the fourth-lowest mark in the position's history, and hardly addressed the situation during the ensuing offseason. But Scioscia believes "there's a way to piecemeal that particular position that's going to be productive."

Nava projects to get most of the playing time in left field, particularly against right-handed starters, but right-handed-hitter Craig Gentry, left-handed-hitter Rafael Ortega and switch-hitter Todd Cunningham will also compete for playing time. Choi, a natural left-handed-hitting first baseman who recently learned to switch-hit, will also see some time there this spring.

How they line up: Scioscia didn't want to specify how he'll construct his lineup, but he did provide one certainty: Mike Trout will remain his No. 3 hitter. And the most important thing for the Angels will be to feed him with more opportunities to drive in runs.

Last year, Trout was baseball's most productive hitter with runners in scoring position, sporting an otherworldly 1.201 OPS. But he got only 126 plate appearances in that situation, fewer than 129 other players.

"I don't even know how he got to 90 RBIs," Scioscia said. "… Our first priority is to set the table for Mike."

Second base, catcher up for grabs: Scioscia said there's "definitely competition" at second base, even though Johnny Giavotella is coming off an entire season as the starter.

Rey Navarro, claimed off waivers from the Orioles, and Gregorio Petit, signed to a Minor League contract, will compete with Giavotella, who is out of options and still figures to be the favorite. Utility infielder Cliff Pennington could also see time there, Scioscia said.

Behind the plate, Carlos Perez and Geovany Soto both enter camp on equal footing for playing time. Scioscia said, "We're going to need them both. Where they fold in, we'll wait and see."

Rotation, rotation: Scioscia could see a scenario where one or two of his eight starting pitchers begin the season in the bullpen. The manager wouldn't name them specifically, but it's easy to point to Matt Shoemaker and Hector Santiago as potential bullpen candidates if they don't crack the five-man staff.

The only guarantees for the rotation are seemingly Garrett Richards, Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. Scioscia has seen some of Weaver's bullpen sessions and said he looks "really good," though admitted it's hard to tell if he's added some velocity so early in the spring. Wilson, who underwent his fourth elbow procedure last August, has been on a normal throwing program but will be monitored closely.

"He will definitely be nurtured at the pace that he can take," Scioscia said. "… He should be full-go to throw off a mound, but how does he recover? Is he going to have an extra day somewhere? Probably. Where does he rank now? He throws [off the mound] tomorrow. We'll see where he is."

Prospect moves: Third-base prospects Kyle Kubitza and Kaleb Cowart have been working out at second base and left field, though they aren't necessarily competing for everyday playing time. Roberto Baldoquin, the Cuban shortstop who was given an $8 million signing bonus last offseason, was added to the Spring Training roster on Thursday, bringing the list to 62 players.