TEMPE, Ariz. – Albert Pujols knows more about the numbers on the back of his baseball card than he lets on.
Though he usually deflects talk of personal achievements, stressing team goals over the accumulation of individual statistics, the Los Angeles Angels slugger is keenly aware of his accomplishments in the game and how they measure up to others.
But Pujols, the former Fort Osage High School star who turned 37 in January, seemed genuinely surprised when told that Hank Aaron, who ranks second on baseball's all-time list with 755 home runs, had only one more homer (592) entering his age-37 season than Pujols (591) has entering his.
"Really?" Pujols said, his eyes widening as he sat at his Tempe Diablo Stadium locker over the weekend. "And Hank never hit 50 homers in a season, either. Any time you put yourself in that conversation with Hank, it's pretty special. His name just says it all."
The wear and tear of 16 big league seasons clearly shows on Pujols, a two-time Gold Glove Award winner whose thick legs and lower-body injuries limited him to 28 starts at first base last season and will relegate him to designated hitter for most of 2017.
Midway through the 10-year, $240 million contract he signed with the Angels before 2012, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Pujols is hardly "The Machine" he was in St. Louis, where he hit .328 with a 1.037 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and averaged 40 homers and 121 runs batted in for 11 seasons.
But the bat speed, hand-eye coordination, powerful forearms, wrists and trunk, and the vicious swing that made Pujols baseball's most feared right-handed hitter for a decade haven't disappeared.
With nine more homers, Pujols will become the ninth player in baseball history to hit 600 home runs, a list headed by Barry Bonds (762), Aaron and Babe Ruth (714).
Despite undergoing knee surgery after the 2012 season, foot surgeries after 2015 and 2016 and suffering a season-ending foot injury in late July 2013, Pujols has averaged 29 homers and 97 RBIs over the past five years and 33 homers and 108 RBIs in the past three.
Pujols is only three years removed from hitting his 500th home run, which came on April 22, 2014, against the Washington Nationals.
He would need to average 33 homers a year over the next five years to catch Aaron, which might be a stretch – Aaron had one of the best years of his career at age 37, hitting .327 with a 1.079 OPS, 48 homers and 118 RBIs in 1971.
But Pujols would need to average only 22 homers a year to become the fourth member of baseball's exclusive 700-homer club, which, considering Pujols' recent production in the face of his injuries, seems within reach.
"Numbers-wise, if I'm healthy, I mean, look what I did the last three years with one leg," Pujols said. "Let's see where we are at the end of my career. Hopefully it comes quick, like 600 did – it seemed like it was only yesterday that I hit 500.
"If I hit 40 homers this year, that would put me at 630. Then 40 more puts me at 670. So you never know. Maybe in three years, we'll be sitting here and talking about 700 home runs."
First things first. Pujols must reach 600 before he makes an assault on 700. Though he played in only his second spring game Sunday, hitting a double to left field, walking and grounding out, he is expected to be ready for the April 3 season opener. Barring injury, he should reach 600 homers in May.
"Five hundred is a big number; 600 is even bigger," Pujols said. "It's pretty exciting. You can't ignore it. I'm very close. Any time you put yourself up there with the best in the game, it's pretty amazing."
If his pursuit of 500 homers is any indication, the closer Pujols gets to 600, the less he will want to talk about it.
"It's something that, when I think about it ... you can't chase it," Pujols said. "You just have to let these things happen. The reality is, if you start looking past things in this game and focus on individual goals you want to reach, you start putting pressure on yourself."
Pujols has a tireless work ethic and has always taken as much pride in his defense as his offense, but the older he gets, the more accepting he is of his limitations. Sure, he would love to play first base, but he knows the DH spot will preserve his body and keep his bat in the lineup.
"I'm not a selfish player," Pujols said, "so I accept my role and go with it."
And as much as he'd love to produce a few more Cardinal-like seasons, Pujols knows that's not realistic. He hit .268 with a .780 OPS, 31 homers, 119 RBIs, 75 strikeouts and 49 walks last season. Pujols – and the Angels – would gladly take a few more seasons like that.
"My first 11 years, I set the bar real high, I separated myself from everyone else, and they expect you to do that every year," Pujols said. "Then, when you hit .280 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs, it's a bad year. It is what it is, but I don't focus on that. It's on what I can do to help the club and win a championship."