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Around the Horn: Corner infielders

Angels need bounce-back seasons from Pujols, new 3B Freese

Around the Horn: Corner infielders

With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Tempe, Ariz., by Feb. 13, it's time to dissect the Angels' 2014 roster. This is the second 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 infielders.

ANAHEIM -- The last time Albert Pujols and David Freese shared the same infield, the Cardinals won it all, riding Freese's hot bat and Pujols' steadiness to beat the Rangers -- of Josh Hamilton and C.J. Wilson -- despite being down to their last strike twice in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series.

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Now on the Angels three years later, they seek individual resurgences.

Freese, a third baseman acquired in the deal that sent center fielder Peter Bourjos to St. Louis in November, is two years away from free agency and coming off a down season that saw him struggle mightily on both sides of the field. Pujols, with eight years and $212 million remaining on his contract, is motivated to re-establish himself as one of the game's best hitters after a season hindered by a heel ailment, plantar fasciitis.

Pujols spent 65 of his 99 games at designated hitter last year, as a daily onslaught of pain kept him away from regular first-base duties. He also sported an uncharacteristically low .258/.330/.437 slash line before a partial tear of his left plantar fascia ended his season on July 26.

But missing the last two months of the regular season granted Pujols a perfectly normal offseason, free of any rehab or surgical procedures -- and that's no small thing. Last year, he entered camp recovering from offseason knee surgery. The year before that, he shouldered the pressure of a massive contract with a new team.

This year, he'll be pain and distraction free -- and motivated to prove the skeptics wrong.

"I really feel that he's going to be the healthiest he's been, certainly from what he's been out here with us and probably a couple of years before that in St. Louis where he was banged up," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said of Pujols at the Winter Meetings in December. "I think the foot will be a non-issue. And I think that he'll take a lot of pressure off of his knee that kind of went hand-in-hand with having his foot issue. I'm going to be really surprised if he's not the healthiest he's been in a number of years. And that obviously is an important piece of what we need."

Pujols' last MVP-caliber season coincided with Freese's ascension to the big stage, when he was named MVP of the 2011 National League Championship Series and Fall Classic, then followed it up by batting .293/.372/.467 with 20 homers and 79 RBIs in his first full season.

This past year, though, Freese's numbers dropped to .262/.340/.381 with nine homers and 60 RBIs. He battled a lower back strain in Spring Training, finished April batting .163, posted only a .526 OPS in the Cardinals' return to the World Series, and defensively he saw his Ultimate Zone Rating drop considerably, from 2.1 in 2012 to minus-16.5 in 2013.

Unhappy with the options available to them in free agency, the Angels plucked from an area of depth to fill an area of need, dealing Bourjos and outfield prospect Randal Grichuk to the Cardinals for Freese and reliever Fernando Salas on Nov. 22.

"It was kind of a frustrating year, but I learned a lot and, to be honest, I have a huge chip on my shoulder," Freese said upon being acquired. "If I was a Cardinal or an Angel, it didn't matter. This whole winter, I'm just extremely focused and ready to get going when the time's right."

The Angels have shored up their depth at both corners recently, signing first baseman Carlos Pena, third baseman Ian Stewart and corner infielder Chad Tracy -- all left-handed hitters -- to Minor League deals to compete for spots off the bench this spring.

But it's all about Pujols and Freese. For the Angels to replace the production of departed slugger Mark Trumbo and once again rank among the top five in the Majors in OPS, a turnaround from their starting corner infielders will be critical.

Beyond the active roster: Kaleb Cowart is still the top prospect in the Angels' system, per MLB.com's rankings, but is coming off a rough first stint of Double-A and will return there in 2014. To aid a bounce-back year, he's added 15 pounds of muscle this winter. ... Luis Jimenez, slated to start at Triple-A unless neither Tracy or Stewart wins a job out of Spring Training, is coming off a season hindered by right shoulder issues and is currently ranked ninth in the Angels' system.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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