When the Phillies signed Jose Pujols as an international free agent in 2012, they knew there was a lot of work to do to bring out the baseball player that was inside. Even with all the work that was needed, Pujols was ranked as the 20th best international prospect in 2012, based primarily on the fact that he showed raw power and bat speed that some believed was simply incredible, and many remarked that was among the best they'd seen in a long time.
The downside was that he wasn't the player in games that everybody saw in workouts and batting practices. Away from game action, he looked unstoppable at the plate, but in games, he struggled to show consistent contact. Part of that came from a swing that featured a big upper-cut and the lack of any real approach at the plate. The need to put some muscle on a big frame was something that figured to simply happen, but some had concerns that he wouldn't grow into his frame. He's definitely put on some muscle, but there's room for more.
Last season, was really the first time that the true Jose Pujols showed himself in games. Things finally started to click and the power that he showed in BP became a reality in the lineup for the Lakewood BlueClaws and he wound up leading the South Atlantic League in home runs, with 24. His upper-cut swing is now more of a line drive buggy whip with his tremendous bat speed. Few hitters have the power potential to hit the ball out to any field, but Pujols has that ability and lots of it, thanks to a fluid swing that combines with his bat speed to take advantage of his raw power, as evidenced by his 2016 spray chart.
Unfortunately, Pujols still struggles to make consistent contact and to go along with leading the league in home runs, he led the league in striking out, as well. A lot of the problem in his high strikeout rate - he struck out in 33% of his at-bats last season - comes from pitch recognition, which is concerning. As he moves up in levels, he'll be facing pitchers with more pitches and the ability to disguise them better. Through 42 at-bats in the Florida State League this season, he's struck out a whopping 47% of the time, and has yet to catch up to a pitch and take it out of the park.
Another part of the problem is that Pujols likes to think that he can somehow transform into Vladimir Guerrero and hit pitches no matter where they're thrown. Guerrero had a rare skill to hit a bad pitch hard, and Pujols simply doesn't have that ability and needs to let bad pitches go by without trying to take a swipe at them.
A couple of telling signs about Pujols are that against pitchers ranked among the Top 20 prospects, Pujols is a career .222 hitter in just over 200 plate appearances. Also, his BABIP last season was an impressive .320, which was actually the lowest it's been since his first year as a pro in 2013 when he hit just .188 with the GCL Phillies. In 2015 at Williamsport, Pujols hit .329 when he put the ball in play, and the early returns from this season are showing much of the same, with his .364 BABIP with Clearwater.
Pujols needed work defensively as well, both in learning how to not take scenic routes to the ball, and developing mechanics that would take advantage of his strong arm. He's improved in both areas, especially where his arm is concerned. He's gained a reputation as a guy that even the best of runners have to be aware of in right field. His routes still get a little erratic at times, but he's honed his ability to get to balls that he has to travel for and is an overall above-average outfielder, with room to get better.
When you talk about Pujols, you're talking about a 21-year old kid who has shown a lot of development, but still has more work to accomplish. He can improve in every facet of his game, especially offensively. If he can cut down on his strikeouts, Pujols has the potential to be downright scary at the plate.
The bottom line is that 2017 is going to be a telling season for Pujols. He's opened the year with Clearwater, where he'll be seeing better pitching than he did last season when he ruled the South Atlantic League. The early returns aren't great, but they are very early, and you had to figure that Pujols was going to have an adjustment period, as a lot of players do when they move up a level. The easy part is over for Pujols, who now is going to have to grow up fast to catch up to being the type of player that so many scouts figured him to be.