PHOENIX -- Spend enough time around Albert Pujols and you'll probably hear the name Jose Oquendo a lot. Oquendo is a former Major League middle infielder who has spent the past 16 years as the Cardinals' third-base coach. More to the point, he is the man who taught Pujols to value defense. To work on it, to take pride in it, to separate it from bad at-bats and to use it as a means to impact games, his first-base mitt every bit as valuable as his maple bat.
Now -- at 36, with $165 million remaining on his contract and only 4 1/2 months separating another surgical procedure to his lower body -- Pujols has come to embrace the idea of life as a designated hitter, a role he has long resisted and abhorred.
"I think people have me wrong, thinking that I hate DH," Pujols said. "It's not that I hate it, because I'm still in the lineup and I still contribute well when I do it. It's just I know that I can play defense, too, and sometimes I want to be out there doing my thing. And that's what it is. It's hard. But I'll be all right."
Pujols will try to play first base in Tuesday's afternoon game against the A's, if his lower body feels up for it in the morning. It would mark his first time playing the field all spring, after starting his first 11 Cactus League contests at DH.
There is still plenty of time for Pujols to prep himself for first base by Opening Day, because he's been taking part in defensive drills since the start of camp, and that's all he really cares about -- but that isn't the point.
It's that there have been, and will be, a lot of days when it won't make sense for Pujols to play the field, even if he still plays defense at a Gold Glove level, because it takes too much out of him and because keeping his bat in the lineup, behind Mike Trout, is far more important. It's why this DH thing doesn't sound so bad anymore.
"I think I'm more comfortable with it, let's say that," Pujols said. "It's fair to say I'm more comfortable, and I'm willing to take that role, if that's going to be the case."
Pujols' DH starts since joining the Angels have gone from 34 to 65 to 43 to 62, that second number a product of the plantar fasciitis that knocked him out for the final two months of the 2013 season.
It's certainly possible that Pujols could start about 100 games at DH this coming season, even if he stays healthy, but he has no specific target in mind. The month of April will provide a better gauge.
"I can't put a number on it," Pujols said, "because I don't want to be ahead of my schedule. If I'm healthy, I play. If I'm not, I DH."
Pujols developed that mentality down the stretch last season, when constant, excruciating pain in his right foot prompted him to start the last 28 games at DH. He batted .224 in that stretch and finished the season with a career-low .244 batting average and .307 on-base percentage. Then, in early November, he underwent surgery.
"I wanted to be out there, and I was playing through a lot of pain," Pujols said. "It was painful, man. Sometimes people don't understand that. They just look at your numbers, your batting average, your 0-for-4, and they don't understand that you're sacrificing to please the fans because you're trying to help your ballclub win.
"You take that hit, and sometimes you actually say, 'Is it worth it playing hurt?' Because people are not going to appreciate it. Sometimes I think that way. But [Angels owner] Arte [Moreno] brought me here to win. I'm going to give everything that I have. If it's 50 percent, I think my 50 percent can still do a lot of damage."
Pujols will tell you he's far better than 50 percent now. He's still searching for some timing at the plate, but he said he feels "awesome." The initial timeline would've had Pujols beginning baseball activities right about now, so he's well ahead of schedule, even if his offseason involved a lot less conditioning and heavy weights.
When Pujols does play first base, it's usually well off the bag and low into his stance.
That will not change.
What will change is the amount of times he plays the position, and yes, it's hard to come to grips with that.
"You see me," Pujols said. "I'm a Gold Glove first baseman, and I take a lot of pride in that. I work my butt off. As much time as I put in the cage, I put more time on defense."
Pujols, a Gold Glove Award winner in 2006 and 2010, was asked if he was ready to call himself "a DH." He dropped his head and laughed.