You might have heard that Albert Pujols didn't hit very much at the start of his Angels career. Unless you missed the entire first month of the season, you likely noticed he hit just .217/.265/.304 without a homer in his first 23 games and 98 plate appearances. He was better, but not quite right, in May, kind of like the Angels. Halfway through June, though, things are starting to come around for both Pujols and his new club.
The Cardinals let Pujols walk, and to replace his bat in the lineup -- as much as you can compensate for Pujols with any one player, anyway -- the Cards signed Carlos Beltran to a two-year, $26 million contract. While various injuries and poor luck has kept the Cardinals far from the record their +53 run differential suggests they should have, none of this is Beltran's doing: The outfielder has hit .298/.382/.605 in 246 plate appearances and 61 games.
He's outpaced Pujols and his .264/.319/.440 line, and he's ahead of the 2011 version of Pujols (.299/.366/.541, 148 OPS+) as well. Beltran is also well ahead of his own recent work: while he's been no slouch while on the field after turning 30, his 165 OPS+ would be the highest of his 15-year career.
Beltran represents the Cardinals' future, even though he's only signed up for two seasons. That's because by not signing Pujols, St. Louis left themselves open to financial flexibility down the road, keeping their options open, and avoided being tied down by a massive contract in a relatively small market. Beltran isn't Pujols, but in the time he'll spend with St. Louis, and for the meager cost, he's more than worth the risk in order to retain that future freedom.
It helps that he's been crushing the ball, too, continuing his run of being highly productive despite being on the wrong side of 30. From age 30 through 35, Beltran owns a 137 OPS+, 30th-best of the DH era with at least as many plate appearances as he's had (2,798). Consider that only 232 players have even amassed that much playing time from age-30 through 35 in the last 30 years, and it's more impressive than it initially sounds.
As some icing on the proverbial cake, Beltran's 2012 OPS+ currently sits third since 1973 among 35-year-olds, and #11 since 1901:
When you're within striking distance of matching value with a 65-homer Mark McGwire season, things are going right.
The Cardinals weren't confident enough -- or knew they didn't know enough -- to guess what Pujols would be doing when he's 35. Or when he's 40, for that matter, as his 10-year deal takes him past the big 4-0. The Angels, who have a core that can carry them through the next few seasons, absorbed that risk.
While it's easy to jump all over a contract like that when it doesn't work out immediately, Pujols has begun to regain some of his Pujolsian nature. He didn't hit his first home run since May 6, but is at .317/.377/.570 since then. The walks are coming just 10 percent of the time in that stretch, but so are the strikeouts, and the years have taught us that very good things happen when Albert Pujols makes contact. Hence the .317 average and the nine long balls in 36 games, a 41-homer pace over a full 162.
Pujols will likely work out for the Angels in the long run (and in 2012 -- there's a lot of season left), and during the years where they need it to: While the core of their pitching staff is intact and the current aging players in the lineup are still around to contribute. He might not be as key of a figure during Mike Trout's prime seasons, but that's to be expected.
Then again, like the Cardinals have learned their lesson -- that there's life after Pujols -- maybe we should remember that highly talented players don't always just fall off once they cross the 30-year mark. Sometimes, like with Beltran, you see some of their best work then. Look at the names in the table above; see anyone Pujols has been compared to in the past? The Angels have bet that those comparisons will live on through the second half of his career, because their situation allows them to. The Cardinals, to their credit, found a strategy that befits their own scenario. There's more than one right way to build a baseball team.