Possible season-ending injury for Albert Pujols points to a fresh start for 2014
Albert Pujols had been a shell of his former self on the field this season, battling soreness in his surgically repaired right knee and plantar fasciitis in his left foot and hitting a mere .258/.330/.437, all career lows, largely as a result. Friday night, his plantar fascia, which has been nagging him since 2004 but had been especially painful this season, finally tore. Pujols is seeing a specialist on Monday to determine if he will need surgery on his foot, but with a minimum six-week recovery time, chances are he’s done for the season. If so, it could be a blessing in disguise for the Angels.
With three days left before Wednesday’s non-waiver trading deadline, the Angels enter Monday’s action seven games below .500, 13 games out in the American League West and 8 1/2 games out of the second wild card spot. If they had any remaining hope of contending this season, the Pujols injury likely crushed it, and may have prevented the team from making an inadvisable trade as a result.
Last year, when the Angels traded a package headed by shortstop Jean Segura for Zack Greinke on July 27, the Angels were ten games over .500, four games out of first place in the West and leading the AL wild-card race. They still failed to make the playoffs, slipping behind the surging A’s and Orioles in the wild card race. This year, Segura has emerged as a star in Milwaukee while the Angels’ largely barren farm system was ranked dead last among the 30 teams by Baseball Prospectus entering the year. Any further deal to trade young talent for a long-shot at contention this season would have done more harm than good.
Meanwhile, the Angels owe Pujols $212 million over the next eight years. Given the steady decline in his production and health over the last few seasons, their best hope of getting a solid return on that investment was to get Pujols healthy, and given his determination to play through his injuries, his being forced to the disabled list at just the right moment for that DL stay to bleed into the offseason may have been exactly what the doctor ordered.
Prior to his current stay, Pujols had hit the disabled list just three times in his career and never remained there for more than 18 days. When he broke his wrist in 2011, he missed just 14 games. He has been playing through plantar fascia pain in his left foot since 2004, but he had never so much as missed a game as a result of it according to Baseball Prospectus’s injury data. This season, despite the nagging injuries in his knee and foot, Pujols had missed just two games three weeks apart and started every one of the Angels’ other 99 games before suffering his potential season-ending injury on Friday night.
This gets to a personal pet peeve of mine. Sports culture in general lauds players who play through injuries, but for every Kerri Strug, who executed a gold-medal-winning vault on a sprained ankle in the 1996 Olympics, there’s an Eric Gagné, whose attempt to pitch through a knee injury in spring training 2005 resulted in altered mechanics which triggered a series of arm injuries that ultimately ended his career just three years later. Pujols in his prime could play through the pain in his foot and elsewhere, but as his performance on the field over the past several seasons has shown, doing so results in diminishing returns.
I don’t doubt that favoring his left foot for eight seasons put enough additional strain on his right knee to prompt last October’s surgery on that joint, or that, for the same reason, the increased pain in his left foot this season made it all the more difficult for that right knee to return to full health.
Hopefully with this latest injury, Pujols will be forced to allow his body to heal as fully as it can heading into his age-34 season. The result may not look anything like that eye-popping 2009 season above, but if he can turn the clock back even just to 2011 he’d earn his keep in Anaheim and give the Angels a far better chance of returning to contention next year than they would have had with a hobbled Pujols in the lineup for the remainder of this season and possibly the remainder of his contract.