Pujols is out again with back pain (see Matthew Leach’s report HERE.)
I’m getting concerned. Yeah, back injuries are typically not THAT big an issue – especially for guys like Pujols who would disguise himself as Joe Thurston if it made Tony put him in the lineup – but they can be so nagging that they have me a bit worried.
We already know Pujols tweaked his offseason workout program to accommodate an aging body. Could his body simply be adjusting? We also know his chronic elbow pain is much reduced as a result of his offseason surgery. Could the slugger be swinging more aggressively/differently with no need to compensate for a bad wing?
Could it be both?
Of course, we’ll never truly know why, but one thing we do know from experience with other players is how long – back injuries rarely go away during a season. They tend to be nagging, annoying little aches and pains that require close watch to avoid serious injury. A couple days rest – or visits to a chiropractor – rarely solve the issue once and for all. More often, the season looks like this: Play a few days, out with back pain…play a few days, out with back pain…DL for a couple weeks to rest back…repeat (but with greater optimism).
And the even bigger issue? Performance. We know Albert has been playing hurt with the elbow thing for quite a while, but a back issue is different. Any swing can be the one that pulls/strains something and sidelines a player for significant time. Players know that – they can feel it – and automatically compensate for it. They swing easier, slower, and with less follow-through. In the worst cases, they actually change their approach at the plate and try to lay off pitches they would normally swing at to avoid swinging off-balance.
Yeah, I know…we’re all thinking, “Pujols won’t do that! He played courageously through his elbow pain and never ONCE let up!” I know, I know…and you’re right. But back issues aren’t like that. His elbow issue is a slot machine. At any given time, all the little pictures could line up (can you tell I don’t play the slots?). You have no control over it and can only guess at how to better your odds (play a machine that hasn’t “paid out” in a long time, etc.).
But a back issue is not like that. It’s tender and tight all at the same time. A player can feel the muscles as they flex on the brink of strain. Swing too hard and it’s a long trip to the DL. Swing too soft and watch your performance tumble. It’s a precarious edge the player attempts to walk throughout the season. And it’s one often littered with multiple and consistent stints resting on the bench.
Pujols may be fine. He may rest, recuperate, and come back sluggin’. But experience has taught us otherwise. Experience says he will deal with this back issue throughout the season.
Honestly, my best case scenario looks like this: Play carefully until July, hope the Cards have a big enough lead in the NL Central to rest him the week before the All-Star break, and then let Albert sit out the All-Star Game to rest. Then, hopefully we can pad the lead enough to let him rest quite a bit in September (reinforcing the roster with call-ups) to prepare for the playoffs.
(Afterthought: Will Holliday’s presence in the lineup for a full season convince Pujols to take more days off to rest than in previous seasons? hmmmm…)