Return of a legend
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Psst. Pass the word, slugger Albert Pujols is back.

Pujols hit his fifth homer of the season (No. 497 of his career) against Detroit on Friday night. His OPS is at .920, a level we haven't seen since 2011.

It's not a coincidence that 2011 was the last time he was completely healthy.

The Angels first baseman has played through pain during his first two seasons in California, in particular a partial tear of the plantar fascia in his left foot which limited him to 99 agonizing games last season.

Painful for him and a disaster for fantasy owners who saw him post career low statistics in 2013 - .258 BA, 17 HR, 64 RBI, 49 runs, .767 OPS. Those were the numbers of a mediocre second baseman, not a future Hall of Fame member.

From his first season in 2001 until 2011 (all with the St. Louis Cardinals), Pujols was the most consistent hitter in baseball. He averaged .328 with 40 HR, 121 RBI, 117 runs and a 1.037 OPS.

But the fun part of having Pujols in your fantasy lineup was even his "bad" seasons were better than almost everyone else in baseball. During his first 11 seasons he never hit less than .312, fewer than 32 homers, fewer than 99 RBI or 99 runs. Those are superstar numbers and those were the least that fantasy owners could expect.

Which is why he was always a top-three selection on Draft Day.

The Angels haven't seen that guy ... yet. Even though he blasted 30 homers and knocked in 105 in his first season in Anaheim, he wasn't the hitter we knew in St. Louis.

He batted just .217 that first April and he didn't even hit his first home run until May 6. This from a guy who has a career April batting average of .304 with a .988 OPS, so those 2012 April numbers were unheard of.

The slow start was so bad that fantasy owners talked about trading him. Some actually did as after Pujols' 35 games he was still batting .197 with just the one home run and 12 RBIs.

Those who stuck with Pujols through his early struggles were rewarded, however, as he batted .326 in June, .330 in July and .312 in August with a total of 21 homers over the three-month span.

Pujols finished the 2012 season with a .285 batting average, 85 runs, 30 homers, 105 RBI and an .859 OPS. Pretty good statistics for most players, but well below average for "The Machine."

His 2013 start was similar to 2012 as Pujols hit just .252 with a .762 OPS. Worse than that, he could only limp around the bases instead of running. Eventually he couldn't continue and he was shut down in late July.

By December his doctors said his foot was 100 percent. He came into spring training this year lighter and healthier than the past few seasons. His constantly sore right knee has not been giving him problems either. With a solid base to swing from once again, he batted .321 in Cactus League play this spring.

The healthy, happy first baseman is rewarding fantasy owners who paid attention to the offseason events. This past week he's batted .364 with three homers and seven RBI. Vintage Pujols.

Sometime before the end of the month, the Angels' slugger should hit his 500th home run putting him in some exclusive company. He'll be just the 26th member of the club.

"He's the best hitter I've ever seen, live and competed against," said 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto to Alden Gonzalez of mlb.com

After the frustration of 2013, fantasy owners who "stole" Pujols in the third- or fourth-round (Yahoo ADP 42) should be smiling. "The Machine" is back.




Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Steve Schwarz at sschwarz@sportsnetwork.com.

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