It is hard to overstate how lucky the St. Louis Cardinals were to draft Albert Pujols.
Famously, Albert Pujols was not a coveted amateur prospect, and in 1999, the Cardinals drafted the pudgy amateur third baseman out of Kansas City’s Maple Woods Community College with the 402nd overall pick. Every team in baseball passed on Pujols repeatedly, and while it is possible that the Cardinals were the least wrong among them when it came to evaluating the Dominican-American hitter who was said to lack a defensive position, it cannot be stressed enough that the Cardinals drafted fifteen players in 1999 before they drafted Albert Pujols. Only five of those players made the Majors. Only two of those players had what could even conservatively be considered sustained MLB careers, with the better of the two, Coco Crisp, achieving his big league promise elsewhere.
If the Cardinals knew what Albert Pujols would become, even if they thought they could probably wait, it is unfathomable they would have risked it so that they could draft the likes of Josh Teekel, Damon Thames, or Brent Spooner. At least the 2009 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have some level of plausible deniability that they were right about Mike Trout–yes, they drafted Randal Grichuk one spot before him, but they didn’t make any picks which then exposed Trout to another team (though in Keith Law’s excellent story about the 2009 draft, even Angels personnel admit they had Trout second behind Stephen Strasburg on their boards). The Cardinals stumbled into Albert Pujols by accident.
Their luck that a 13th round pick turned out to be a generational superstar was immense, but it’s fairly normal. Talent goes underevaluated all the time–maybe not to this extent, but similar things happen frequently. In a more absurd twist of good fortune, the Cardinals uncovered a generational superstar who fit St. Louis like a glove. Some players belong in a big city–a player like Mickey Mantle belonged in New York, and a player like David Ortiz belonged in Boston. And while there is something endearing about those personalities, this wasn’t Albert Pujols. Albert Pujols was a quiet, reserved, and mild-mannered man from the minute he broke into the big leagues, dedicated to a life of humility and generosity. Not unlike Stan Musial two to three generations before, Pujols was a homebody who preferred to live a private life a mid-sized city. It’s not like Pujols couldn’t have survived in New York, but St. Louis was exactly the kind of city that would inspire Pujols to sign a team-friendly extension before the 2004 season. He was happy to be in St. Louis. And St. Louis was happy to have him.
Albert Pujols was arguably underrated in the first four seasons of his career, and there were two simple words to describe why: Barry Bonds. Bonds, already an all-time great, began the greatest four-year stretch since prime Babe Ruth in Pujols’s rookie season, and while Pujols rattled off four consecutive top-four finishes in NL MVP voting, Bonds was deservedly the biggest individual story in baseball. But locally, Pujols was already emerging as a legend. While the early stages of Pujols’s career pre-date Wins Above Replacement, and thus his stature as the 17th greatest position player in franchise history through age 24 wasn’t articulated in quite this way, his excellence was obvious. He averaged 40 home runs per season, he walked more than he struck out, and while his fielding and base running were always going to be secondary to his hitting, Pujols was a versatile defender and an efficient runner in the early stages of his career.
There was a part of me that always worried that the other shoe was going to drop and that Albert Pujols would suddenly remember he was a 13th round pick. Now, by 2005, I fully accepted that Albert Pujols was better than a 13th round pick, but surely he was going to regress. Sure, he hadn’t quite reached what is generally accepted as a player’s “peak”, but how could what was to come compete with what St. Louis had already seen?
Albert Pujols was technically a worse player in 2005 than he was in either of the previous two seasons. All of his Triple Crown numbers declined and the formerly versatile fielder was now relegated to full-time duty at first base. But he remained an absolute giant of the game, while former NL standard-bearer Barry Bonds spent much of the season on the Disabled List. Pujols won his first MVP, while his “MV3” cohorts Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen had a good but nowhere near MVP-level season and battled injuries throughout, respectively. As recently as 2004, Pujols had been considered merely one of the best players on the Cardinals–hardly a slight, but not quite as majestic as he deserved. 2005 was when it became truly obvious that this was Albert’s team.
The next four seasons were arguably Peak Albert Pujols. From 2006 through 2009, Pujols had an MVP case every year. In 2006, he led the National League in Wins Above Replacement for a team which went on to win his first career World Series, but voters still worshipped at the altar of RBI and Pujols was edged in voting by Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard (who, unlike his near-win over Pujols in 2008, at least had a season which would not have been laughable by MVP standards). In 2007, the Cardinals took a massive step back as a team, but Pujols carried them to respectability–he and David Wright were neck-and-neck by modern WAR measures, and while his team’s lack of success hurt his case with voters, he somewhat easily outpaced the likes of Jimmy Rollins and Matt Holliday, who dominated balloting. And in 2009, Albert Pujols was the best player in the National League and he was recognized as such, winning NL MVP unanimously.
2010 Albert Pujols took a slight step back, though he still had a credible MVP case–had the Cardinals edged out the Cincinnati Reds for the NL Central crown, it is very possible that the nearly identical statistically Joey Votto finishes behind Pujols and not the other way around. 2011 Pujols was materially the worst season he had ever had, and even in that noticeably worse season, he still finished in 5th in NL MVP voting. Since 2011, there has only been one full individual Cardinals season in which a player posted a higher wRC+ than Albert’s 147 mark (Tommy Pham had a 148 in 2017). And, again, this was the bad version of St. Louis Albert Pujols.
Occasionally, a Cardinal will be compared to Albert Pujols, and it reads like satire. You would see Paul Goldschmidt compared to Albert Pujols and laugh, and Goldschmidt is probably no worse than the third-best first baseman this decade. There was no individual thing Albert Pujols did that you hadn’t seen before, but the consistency with which Albert Pujols performed was staggering. There was an eleven year stretch, as successful of an eleven year stretch as any Cardinals era has ever seen, in which Albert Pujols led the team in Baseball Reference WAR nine times. The other two times, he finished in second on the team and was a top-three MVP vote-getter.
Albert Pujols was never going to be as productive in his thirties as he was in his twenties. Four hitters–Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Willie Mays–were as valuable in their thirties as Pujols was in his twenties. And truthfully, the run Pujols has had since 2012, his first season after signing a ten-year contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, has not been nearly the disaster it is usually made out to be–he was an above-average hitter in each of his first five seasons with the Angels, and during four of those seasons, he was relatively healthy. But it would take whitewashing of the highest order to pretend that Albert Pujols has been in the same stratosphere in Southern California as he was in St. Louis.
I’ve seen some people argue that, despite his lack of production, they wish the Cardinals had managed to re-sign Albert Pujols following the 2011 season. Yes, he was worse, but it would mean seeing Pujols hitting his 500th and 600th home runs and his 3,000th hit in a Cardinals uniform. And while I understand the emotional attachment, I’ve been content to miss most of the decline. I don’t wish the decline on him, and even most people initially angry that Pujols left St. Louis over money (and, to be clear, this is absolutely what happened, and I am all for his right to do so) have made peace with it. I’m just glad I was able to largely ignore it.
Albert Pujols returns to Busch Stadium tonight after nearly a decade away. He never left St. Louis, mind you–the Pujols Family Foundation is still run through St. Louis. And for me, it will feel like catching up with an old friend. Maybe you’ve both changed over the years, and maybe the entire thing will be fueled by nostalgia, but there’s nothing wrong with that. For a weekend, nostalgia can be pretty great. And I can promise you that the first time he steps to the plate, I will be on my feet applauding the greatest St. Louis Cardinal of my lifetime.
It is hard to overstate how lucky we are that the St. Louis Cardinals drafted Albert Pujols.