Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. In case you missed it, here are the prior entries.
25. Todd Stottlemyre
24. David Freese
23. Andy Benes
22. Lance Lynn
21. Paul DeJong
20. Tommy Pham
19. Darryl Kile
18. Ryan Ludwick
17. Kolten Wong
16. Carlos Martínez
15. Woody Williams
14. J.D. Drew
13. Brian Jordan
12. Edgar Renteria
11. Ray Lankford
10. Matt Morris
7. Mark McGwire
5. Scott Rolen
3. Jim Edmonds
Rock music critic Chuck Klosterman has theorized that there may be a time in the future where The Beatles are more famous than rock music. At first, this seems impossible, but they wouldn’t be the first artist to exceed the fame of their chosen genre. Pablo Picasso is more famous than cubism. Frank Lloyd Wright is more famous than organic architecture. As Klosterman himself notes, in the realm of popular music, Bob Marley is probably already more famous than reggae. And in a century, the last twenty-five years of the St. Louis Cardinals will likely be known as the thing from which Albert Pujols emerged.
The first player anthologized in this series was Todd Stottlemyre. How will he be remembered in a century? The closest parallel to Stottlemyre for the Cardinals from the period from 1896 through 1920 was Ed Karger. He also spent two full and one partial season in St. Louis and was of nearly identical value to Stottlemyre, and unless you’re a Cardinals historian, you probably haven’t heard of him and almost certainly couldn’t provide any details about him. From the same period, Hall of Famer Elmer Flick had a slightly higher career FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement than Yadier Molina has. Have you ever heard of Elmer Flick? How certain are you that I am not making up Elmer Flick? You can go ahead and look him up, if that would make you feel better.
Albert Pujols, in his eleven years with the St. Louis Cardinals, was a superior player to the likes of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, “Wahoo” Sam Crawford, or Frank “Home Run” Baker. The handful of players from a century ago who were as or more productive than Cardinals-era Albert Pujols are still famous among baseball fans. Albert Pujols is not merely the greatest Cardinal of the last twenty-five years–he is one of the three or four greatest players in the history of the franchise. In his worst season as a Cardinal, he had a higher wRC+ than Alex Rodriguez did for his career. Players two through five on this list combined to lead the Cardinals in Wins Above Replacement five times, and that’s largely because Albert Pujols did it nine times by himself.
Drafted in the thirteen round of the 1999 MLB Draft by the Cardinals, Albert Pujols was not supposed to become what he became. As much as Cardinals amateur scouts years later like to reminisce about the process of scouting him, even if the team didn’t believe other organizations even knew who Pujols was, they surely wouldn’t have drafted fifteen players, most of whom never reached the Majors, ahead of him. This would be far too great of a risk. Credit to the Cardinals for missing less than the other twenty-nine teams in Major League Baseball, but they still missed. Despite his relatively meager draft position, the Maple Woods Community College shortstop spent the summer of 1999 dominating the Jayhawk Collegiate League, performing well enough to convince the Cardinals to increase their bonus offer from $10,000 to $60,000.
Pujols began his minor league career in A-ball as a twenty year-old third baseman in 2000, and he skyrocketed through the Cardinals’ minor leagues, reaching AAA Memphis by the end of the season. In total, Pujols accumulated 544 plate appearances and reached an OPS of .920. Despite his draft position and relatively little experience in professional baseball, that a 20 year-old could reach AAA could not be ignored. Entering 2001 Spring Training, to which he received an invitation, Albert Pujols was now a bona fide prospect–Baseball Prospectus ranked him 28th overall and second in the Cardinals organization (behind Bud Smith), for instance. But it was still considered a surprise when Pujols cracked the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster–it was popularly assumed at the time that Pujols only got the opportunity because of an injury to veteran Bobby Bonilla, but in the years since, manager Tony LaRussa has insisted that Pujols was always going to make the roster and that it was actually John Mabry who was spared from cuts when Bonilla went down with an injury.
More surprising, however, was what Pujols did with his opportunity. On a roster with Jim Edmonds and Mark McGwire, and with J.D. Drew having his best season as a Cardinal, Pujols was the team’s most valuable player. Playing in all but one game, Pujols hit 37 home runs on his way to a .403 on-base percentage and .610 slugging percentage. And he did all of this without a true position, starting 31 or more games each at four different positions. He was the National League’s unanimous Rookie of the Year, and yet he still felt a bit under the radar–his numbers were spectacular, though not as cartoonish of those that Barry Bonds was compiling with the San Francisco Giants, and unlike Seattle Mariners rookie Ichiro Suzuki, Pujols was never a serious contender for Most Valuable Player.
In 2002, Pujols had a committed position–left field, as his eventually-familiar position of first base was instead filled by free agent signing Tino Martinez. And while his numbers did decline a bit from 2001, he was still one of the most outstanding hitters in the game. Leading the Cardinals in all three Triple Crown categories, Pujols also walked more often than he struck out, a feat he would repeat for ten consecutive seasons in St. Louis. Coming of age as a player in an era where a slugger could be forgiven for strikeouts far more than in generations past as long as he hit for sufficient power when he did make contact, Pujols instead brought the best of both worlds. And in 2003, Pujols somehow went up another level, hitting 43 home runs and winning a National League batting title. Leading the NL in total bases, Pujols offered the most credible challenge during Barry Bonds’s 2001-2004 NL MVP stranglehold, siphoning three first-place votes away from the slugger.
2004 was the best season in the careers of both Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, so it can be easy to overlook just how dominant Pujols, at 24 already regarded as the best of the trio of players now affectionately labeled “the MV3”, was. Playing as a full-time first baseman following the exodus of Tino Martinez, Pujols once again led the National League in total bases, he hit 46 home runs, and he once again garnered an MVP vote. In the postseason, Pujols was even better, belting an emphatic three-run home run in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers to seal victory in both the game and the series before belting four home runs to the tune of a 1.563 OPS against the Houston Astros to run away with the NLCS MVP award. Even in the World Series, during which the offense was largely terrible, Pujols had a respectable .878 OPS in four games.
Dealing with knee injuries, Barry Bonds did not make his 2005 debut until September 12, leaving open the path for somebody outside of San Francisco to win an NL MVP award for the first time in the twenty-first century. And although Albert Pujols was arguably worse in 2005 than he was in either of his previous two seasons, a .330/.430/.609 batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage triple-slash was enough to land Pujols his first MVP award. And in the postseason, Pujols had his single greatest moment as a Cardinal, when in Game 5 of the NLCS, with the Houston Astros one out away from securing their first-ever trip to the World Series, Albert Pujols crushed a Brad Lidge pitch over the train track in left center field at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. The Cardinals, trailing by two runs with runners on first and second, were suddenly in the lead. And while the Cardinals would lose the series two days later, the sheer force of Albert Pujols’s blast became a defining highlight of his career.
In total, Albert Pujols won three MVP awards in St. Louis, but one could make the case he deserved to win six of them, from 2005 through 2010. In 2006, Pujols lost out on the award to Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, who had a very good season but won largely on the strength of home runs and runs batted in, while Pujols edged out Howard by on-base percentage and slugging percentage while holding a considerable defensive advantage. In 2007, Pujols didn’t come especially close to winning the award, which tended especially then to ignore players on sub-.500 teams, but this could hardly be blamed on Pujols. His .997 OPS ranked fourth in the league (though it’s not like Chipper Jones’s NL-leading 1.029 was that much higher) while turning in the best defensive season of his career–Wins Above Replacement measures differ on whether Pujols or David Wright was the NL’s best player, but Pujols ranks easily above first-place vote recipients Prince Fielder, future teammate Matt Holliday, and the award’s eventual winner, Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. And in 2010, Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto won MVP in a season in which he and Pujols had astonishingly similar numbers–Votto had the slight edges in OBP and slugging, while Pujols had 52 more plate appearances. A combination of Pujols fatigue and giving the tiebreaker to the guy on the first place team gave Votto the award; it was hardly an outrageous decision, but Pujols certainly had an argument.
Albert Pujols joined a Cardinals team coming off an NLCS appearance and he became one of the game’s greatest sluggers while in some loaded lineups, but his peak individual performance came in the late-aughts with some otherwise forgettable Cardinals teams. It is an accepted truth now that the Cardinals refuse to bottom out–that they may occasionally dip from being leading World Series contenders, but that they refuse outright mediocrity–but Pujols alone is a big part of why that perception has survived for as long as it has. Had Pujols been removed from the 2007 Cardinals and replaced by a typical AAA player, Wins Above Replacement theory would suggest the team to win 69 games. In 2008, they would be at 77. In 2009, a season in which the Cardinals won the division and made the postseason, the Cardinals sans Pujols would have sat at .500.
Prior to the 2004 season, Albert Pujols had signed a seven-year extension with the Cardinals which became one of the great coups in franchise history. The contract would extend throughout Pujols’s entire prime–it came with a team option for 2011, which the Cardinals happily exercised–and by the conclusion of the 2011 season, Albert Pujols had earned $104,040,436 as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. FanGraphs estimates that from 2002 through 2011 (they do not have pre-2002 measurements), Pujols’s total value would have been worth $391.1 million on the free agent market. It is reasonable to assume that on the whole of the contract, Pujols was worth four times as much as he was paid. It was because of his tremendous value that a mid-sized market such as St. Louis was able to compete with larger markets on an annual basis.
2011 was easily Albert Pujols’s worst season in St. Louis, but it was still much closer to his MVP-caliber campaigns than to him being average, much less bad. He still hit 37 home runs, but he had career lows in batting average (.299), on-base percentage (.366), and slugging percentage (.541), and while this was partially explained by declining offense across the sport, Pujols had still registered a career-low by environment-adjusted numbers such as wRC+ and OPS+. But still, he was arguably the team’s most valuable player and he finished fifth in NL MVP voting, marking his eleventh consecutive top-10 MVP finish. Pujols, a pending free agent, received a standing ovation in his final plate appearance at Busch Stadium in the regular season, with the team’s postseason fate still undetermined, but Pujols added to his Cardinals legend in October (receiving many more standing ovations along the way).
Pujols led the team’s everyday starters in OPS for the NLDS against the Phillies and would have contended for the series MVP award if such an award existed. While he was overshadowed in the NLCS by David Freese, the team’s deserving NLCS MVP, Pujols was nearly as good, with a 1.469 OPS in a six-game series in which he hit a pair of home runs and drove in nine runs. And while his World Series was moderately hit-or-miss, his presence loomed large over the series. In Game 3, Pujols tied the World Series record for home runs in a game with three gargantuan blasts against the Texas Rangers, and from this point forward, Rangers manager Ron Washington approached Pujols with extreme caution which had previously been reserved almost exclusively for Barry Bonds. Following his five-hit Game 3, Pujols would tally just one more hit for the remainder of the series–a Game 6 double in the bottom of the ninth inning to kick off a season-saving rally for the Cardinals. The next inning, Washington intentionally walked Pujols with two outs and the game-tying run on second base despite the upcoming hitter, Lance Berkman, coming off the superior offensive season. This was the sort of chaos Albert Pujols was capable of provoking. Berkman, of course, tied the game, which the Cardinals won an inning later. The next night, Pujols scored two runs, the Cardinals won their second World Series with Albert Pujols as their starting first baseman, and nobody in the stadium knew if Pujols would again appear in a Cardinals uniform.
It was accepted as truth two months later, when Pujols signed a ten-year, $254 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, that Pujols had permanently lost a part of his legacy with the St. Louis Cardinals. I would argue that the exact opposite happened. Had the Cardinals re-signed Albert Pujols–say, to the eight-year, $200 million contract that they had reportedly offered in Spring Training of 2011–the Cardinals likely would not have been able to keep at least one and possibly both of Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright beyond 2012 and 2013, respectively. They likely would not currently have Paul Goldschmidt, and they certainly would never have had the compensatory picks used to select Michael Wacha or Stephen Piscotty, neither of whom was even close to a Pujols-level franchise icon but both of whom were productive and had their moments of glory with the Cardinals. And most importantly, we never had to experience Albert Pujols aging. 2012 was Albert Pujols’s worst season of his career to that point, and it was far and away the most productive season Pujols has ever had with the Angels. While Pujols had five above-average offensive seasons (granted, his 2013 was a partial one dramatically impacted by injuries) at the beginning of his contract, he became a shell of his former self. The two-time Gold Glove winner once cherished for defensive versatility was barely playable even at first base. Although never “fast”, Pujols now crawls at a snail’s pace far below his peak abilities. When Pujols returned to St. Louis in 2019 and received a raucous ovation every time he came to the plate, it was an opportunity to see an old friend. Because to Cardinals fans, Albert Pujols is still the guy who terrorized rival pitching for eleven years. For Angels fans, despite Pujols still being a beloved teammate by Mike Trout and company, he is a contract. Cardinals fans never had to weigh those two sides of him.
In 2003, manager Tony LaRussa proclaimed that Albert Pujols, who at the time was twenty-three years old, was the greatest player he had ever managed. At the time, it seemed a bit premature, but after what Cardinals fans got to witness over the next eight seasons, it seems, if anything, not grandiose enough. While Pujols resisted those who annointed him the nickname “El Hombre”, Spanish for Stan Musial’s familiar nickname “The Man”, Musial himself revered Pujols and seemed to view Pujols, a man sixty years his junior, as his worthy heir apparent. And for eleven glorious seasons, St. Louisans who had grown up hearing about Stan Musial’s heroics got to experience something closer to that experience than they ever dared to dream.