There aren’t many instances where an 0-for-3 batting performance—even in spring training—creates a positive outlook, but Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols’ preseason debut may be the outlier.

The 33-year-old slugger, who had offseason knee surgery in October, made his semi-triumphant return to the lineup versus the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday. He went 0-for-3 and left a runner on base before being replaced by Kole Calhoun. It would be a wholly unspectacular happenstance of an always over-analyzed spring session—if only Pujols weren’t returning from that knee surgery before expected.

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman was the first to report Pujols’ return to the lineup, indicating he was “well ahead of schedule” in his recovery.

Now, granted, there is still a ton of work to do. Pujols’ return got him some action against live pitching, but he’s still yet to be running the bases in a full capacity. And, of course, there’s the fact that he went 0-for-3 and looked like a player who was just hoping to scrape even the tiniest sliver of rust off of his game.

However, any strain of positivity is a good sign—especially for a man who may be under the most pressure in baseball this season.

As most know, Pujols’ first season in the Greater Los Angeles Area was disappointing at best. He finished with a slash line of .285/.343/.516, all of which set career lows for the nine-time All-Star. Pujols also set career lows in home runs (30), isolated power (.231) and walk rate (7.8 percent), per Fan Graphs. All of that wouldn’t have been so bad in an isolated sense, except that Pujols was in just the first season of a 10-year, $240 million contract.

Optimists are quick to point out that Pujols returned mostly to form after a nightmarish April. In 2012’s first month, Pujols failed to hit a home run, drove in just four runs and had a slash line of .217/.265/.304. He wound up recovering to put up those aforementioned season-long numbers, which subsided many of the worries about Pujols’ contract and made many think he is a guaranteed bounce-back candidate for 2013.

There just remains a couple cracks in that theory. First, Pujols’ April stats still count. April games are just as meaningful as ones in September in the standings. And speaking of September, for all of the talk of Pujols’ remarkable comeback down the stretch, he hit just one home run in the season’s final full month.

Everything counts. You can’t just cut out two entire months of the season and say those are who a particular player is. Statistics have proven over time that there is no correlation between a big second half and a stellar next season, so we can rule that out as well.

Coming into 2013, knee injury or not, Pujols has the responsibility of living up to his contract—and that has to come with severe pressure, even for a player of his caliber.

In the life of a major league slugger, the difference between franchise-altering centerpiece and walking price tag is minimal—just ask Alex Rodriguez. The New York Yankees would probably give up their proverbial second child to get out of Rodriguez’s contract, which pays him no less than $114 million over the next five seasons. His contract and regression in play has made him something of a pariah in his home stadium—something Pujols can likely relate to after being booed in Los Angeles last season.

You find out the hard way that loyalty doesn’t carry over from city to city in this business.

Obviously, that’s not to falsely use sweeping generalizations to say Rodriguez’s decline and Pujols’ possible decline are the same. Much of the scorn Rodriguez receives in New York and around the country is based on actions of his own doing. Whether fair or not, when you have celebrity girlfriends on par with Madonna and get embroiled in steroid scandals, the media will react like a great white shark surrounded by a sea of chum. That’s just the way things work.

Pujols, like all players in today’s era, has seen his name come up in wild speculation about performance-enhancing drug use, but has never been linked to banned substances nor failed a drug test. And his off-field life is more notable for humanitarian work than dating middle-aged celebrities.

The two are, however, comparable from a pure baseball perspective. Like Rodriguez, Pujols was considered the greatest singular talent in the sport when signing his contract. And like the Yankees, the Angels expect to see some records broken over the life of that contract.

Based on his performance last season, all eyes in the Angels organization will be laser-focused on Pujols. 

Pujols’ 2013 season isn’t about whether he’s overpaid. It’s highly likely that, much like many other 30-plus-year-old players, his skills will erode enough to make him wildly overpaid toward the end of his deal. The Angels knew that when they signed the first baseman on the precipice of turning 32 to a 10-year contract last winter. If the Angels—or anyone for that matter—think for a second the team will get $29 million worth of value from Pujols in 2020, then Merriam-Webster needs to invent a word that goes beyond the scope of what “gullible” currently allows.

Pujols earns the back-end of that contract by being an ascendant talent now. He earns it by producing a WAR far superior to the 3.9 he put up last season. He earns it by being an every-year MVP candidate for the next half-decade and not putting up stats equivalent to Billy Butler’s.  

Returning from injury early is the first step in earning that process. It’s an admittedly minuscule one—one that could go the way of the dodo if Pujols re-injures himself by returning to game action before he was 100 percent.

But for now, it’s a good sign. No matter how small, each triumph can pile up, just as each failure did a year ago. Pujols’ relationship with the Angels fans and franchise started in just about the worst way possible.

Returning to the lineup on Tuesday was a solid sign that there may be light emanating out of this $240 million tunnel.  

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