Trout's exuberance, Pujols' wisdom are complementary
Young Angels superstar, veteran inspired by each other's approach to the game
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Albert Pujols makes this great face when he doesn't like a question or, simply, when he's skeptical of an approaching reporter. His eyebrow arches, the side of his lip smears across the side of his face and his quizzical countenance conveys an "Are you kidding me?" better than words ever could.
I wasn't there the other day when a reporter asked if Pujols felt "motivated" to match Mike Trout's numbers, but I've seen the Puzzled Pujols Face enough to take a good guess that it made an appearance.
And deservedly so, for the record.
Pujols, even in his prime, was and is a fundamentally different player than Trout. To expect a 34-year-old slugger to match the impact on both sides of the ball that a 22-year-old speedster provides is simply unrealistic.
Inherent in the question, though, was an assumption that the Angels are Trout's team now, not Pujols'. That's an assumption that would have seemed stunning just two years ago, when Pujols was in the nascent days of his $240 million contract with the Halos and Trout had not yet taken the league by storm.
But yes, at this point, it's actually an accurate assumption, given all that transpired in 2012 and '13. To the extent that such a thing even matters to the bottom line, Trout is the first name most of us associate with the Angels these days.
Yet what's tantalizing about this Angels lineup, now that Pujols finally has his legs under him and Trout has proven his rookie year to be far from a fluke, is what can happen when these two uniquely talented players work together, feed off and even learn from each other.
Pujols might have passed the Best Player in Baseball baton to the kid from Millville, N.J., but that doesn't mean his work here is done. His job is to ensure Trout remains humble even in the face of essentially unmatched youthful greatness.
"If I see him changing," said Pujols, "I'll be the one pulling at his ear. He's been blessed with some special skills. You don't see a Mike Trout walk into the league every year. Maybe once every 10 or every 15 years do you see a kid with Mike Trout's talent. But he's worked his tail off to try to be consistent and be the best he can be. That's what I admire the most."
Sound familiar? Sure it does. Pujols has long been dutiful in his pursuit of greatness.
"He's a serious guy," newly reunited teammate David Freese said of Pujols. "When he comes to the clubhouse, he's all about baseball. I think he understands what it means to have his name in the lineup. He takes it seriously… I know he has God-given ability. But there's more to it. To be successful in this game, you have to have a desire to go with the talent."
The physical issues Pujols has endured the last two years -- the knee injury that led to surgical intervention after '12 and the plantar fasciitis that limited and put a premature end to his '13 -- seem to have given Pujols new perspective on matters. Short samples and all that, but he's actually been pretty playful in his dealings with some reporters this spring, and the smiles and jokes he shared with teammates during a morning stretch here Friday were a little window into his newfound contentment with the current condition of his body.
Maybe he won't put up a Trout-like WAR or a vintage, Pujolsian season. But physically and mentally, he seems to be approaching this season with a level of liveliness that resembles that of, well, a certain 22-year-old, potential MVP.
"I think it works both ways," manager Mike Scioscia said. "Albert's had a great effect on the young guys, especially Mike. But I think Mike Trout's energy and the way he plays has an effect on Albert also."
Trout is a marvel not just for his output, but for the reminders he provides of just how fun baseball is supposed to be.
"I understand he plays well, which might make it easier," Freese said, "but this guy just has a blast out there. He's just a baseball player, and he loves every second of it."
So much of the Angels' success this season will come down to the successful integration of young arms into the rotation, the effectiveness of a rebuilt bullpen and how all the pieces combine and coalesce early, given the demands of an unforgiving AL West. Their fate rests in matters well beyond Trout and Pujols, captivating though they may be.
"It takes 25 guys, plus the coaching staff and front office," said Pujols, "to win a championship."
That said, it's difficult for those of us on the outside to not get swept up in the thought of what this Angels lineup is capable of if Trout continues his assault on the baseball world and Pujols can squeeze at least one season of post-prime brilliance out of his bat (not to mention what it would mean for Josh Hamilton to recover from a fitful, frustrating 2013 effort in Anaheim).
For his part, Trout shakes his head at the thought of Pujols getting asked about matching his numbers. If anything, Pujols is the one guiding him, the one getting in his ear about staying up the middle when he gets too pull-happy or promoting patience when Trout goes through long stretches without pitches to hit.
"When he's fully healthy, he's got the numbers, day in and day out," Trout said. "His first couple years were unbelievable, too. If he's healthy this year, you're going to see the real Albert."
Pujols has already promised big things from his bat this year. He freely admits the prerequisites have piled up for him at his advanced age and with this recent injury history. That regimented work ethic is more important than ever, because there are daily maintenance checkpoints that must be met if he's going to have any shot of staying on the field and producing at a level he's accustomed to.
"You don't forget what got you here," Pujols said. "What got me here was my therapy and my exercise to get myself healthy for the season. That's something I'm going to have to continue to do for the rest of my career."
How Pujols' career progresses from this point, with so many years and dollars still remaining on his deal, is a major subplot to the upcoming season. And it's only natural to juxtapose the fate of the former Best Player in Baseball against that of the current Best Player in Baseball.
That's why that controversial question was posed in the first place.
"I don't need to prove anything to anybody," Pujols said. "I'm going to go out there and just try to have as good of a season to help this organization. You guys have it wrong. This isn't about me. This is about our ballclub."
On this ballclub, the two work in tandem. Pujols is a daily, present reminder to Trout of the commitment level it takes to maintain annual MVP-type production, and Trout serves as a daily, present reminder of the value of youthful exuberance. Anybody who doesn't think that can be a special thing should be subjected to the Pujols Face.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.