Pujols returns to camp feeling like new man

Pujols returns to camp feeling like new man

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Albert Pujols got to Spring Training early, as usual. He arrived looking trim, as usual.

And Pujols is feeling a lot healthier than usual.

"You're going to see it when I run around and move around," the Angels' first baseman said with a big grin on Thursday morning. "I'll let your eyes judge. … I might sneak five or six [stolen bases] this year."

Pujols is ready to go after a season that was cut to 99 games because of a left foot that was hindered by plantar fasciitis and a right knee that was still recovering from offseason surgery. When he arrived to the Angels' Spring Training facility on Wednesday -- the day before pitchers and catchers reported for their physicals -- he was seven pounds lighter, which is what he typically sheds in the winter months.

And when full workouts begin late next week, Pujols doesn't expect to have any restrictions running or playing first base.

"It was a great offseason," Pujols said from the Tempe Diablo Stadium clubhouse. "Like I told you guys at the end of the season last year, everything happens for a reason. It [stunk] sitting on the bench for almost 2 1/2 months last year, as competitive an athlete as I am. But at the same time, it happened for the best, because I was able to not have the surgery on my heel and miss maybe some of my offseason training."

Pujols had an unprecedented 11-year run to start his career, batting .328/.420/.617 with 445 homers for the Cardinals. In his first season with the Halos in 2012 -- the first of a 10-year, $240 million contract -- the 34-year-old recovered from a rough start to bat .285/.343/.516. Last year, his numbers dipped to .258/.330/.437, with most of his games coming as a designated hitter, and his season ended on July 26 with a partial tear of his left plantar fascia.

"It was like playing with a flat tire and a broken rim," is how Pujols described last season, referencing his left foot and right knee.

But getting shut down early allowed Pujols to rehab for the final two months of the regular season, then go into a normal offseason -- though he hit earlier than usual to make up for the lost time.

"I can't recall a moment in the offseason where I thought, 'Oh, that didn't feel good,'" Pujols said. "Everything has felt great -- hitting, running the treadmill, doing agility, side to side, jump rope."

How much of a difference will that have on his numbers?

"You can't read the future and put pressure on yourself and say, 'I need to do this,'" Pujols said. "I didn't change my program. I did the things that I've always done in the offseason to prepare myself to come to Spring Training. Obviously this year was a little bit better, because I didn't have to worry about the injuries, like I did in the offseason of 2012 after my knee surgery.

"But as long as I stay healthy, I know I'm going to hit and I'm going to play this game as hard as I can and try to have a big smile and try to help this organization win a championship. This is not about Albert Pujols."

Oh, but it very much is.

Mark Trumbo is no longer here, and it'll be up to Pujols -- as well as Josh Hamilton -- to make up for the loss in production and make sure Mike Trout gets some pitches to hit. Yes, this Angels season will very much hinge on starting pitching. But Pujols is the highest-paid player, the iconic superstar signed to a big contract, and 2014 is the Halos' best chance to finally get the elite Pujols they haven't seen much of.

"I think he feels good because he's healthy," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "A player that has done as much as Albert has and has been around as much as Albert has certainly has a feel for when they feel their body can do some of the things that they're used to doing. I think he's there."

For the next four days, until position players undergo their physicals on Tuesday, Pujols will be away from the team, staying within his own program on the back fields as pitchers and catchers take part in organized practices. At the moment, Pujols said, he's working on "putting my hands where they belong" in his stance, where they were before he got to Anaheim in 2011.

Somewhere along the way, maybe he'll also revert back to that player.

"I'm going to go out and just play," Pujols said, "and at the end of the season, we'll see where we're at."

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.